Monday, May 21, 2012

This Morning's Harvest

Two heads of broccoli and a bowl of English peas.  Yum!
 I will shell, blanch, and freeze the peas this afternoon that my daughters don't eat straight from the pod.  Fresh English peas are as sweet as fruit.  We'll eat the broccoli fresh too, probably, or I might blanch and freeze one head.
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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Local Food: It's What's for Dinner

I am not a food stylist, or a professional photographer, but I thought you'd like to see our dinner of local foods last night.  Clockwise from the top are our first meal of English peas from the garden, served with lots of Happy Cow Creamery butter, pork chops from  Wil-Moore Farms broccoli raab from Crooked Cedar Farm in Blythewood sauteed with my garlic stored from last summer, and my freshly harvested potatoes, served with more Happy Cow Creamery butter and my parsley.  Yum!! 
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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chickens on the Prowl

I was in the process of moving hay to the garden to spread for mulch, and I had been chasing crickets down the hill and into the chicken pen when they hopped out of the hay for the chickens to eat, so the chickens were ready to catch whatever emerged next. I rolled over the large bale to remove a layer of hay, and, almost faster than I recognized it, a tiny mouse ran out from under the bale of hay and dashed, unfortunately for it, into the chicken pen.
The chickens rushed toward the mouse, and nine beaks pecked at it, each one hoping to secure it for her own meal. The victor, a large yellow Buff Orpington, carried it by the tail around the pen, occasionally dropping it, while the other chickens ran after her, trying to steal her prize. Most of the time, another chicken will steal the prize from the original owner. This time the original winner kept her prize. For the curious, the chicken was not able to eat the mouse, although she tried; I guess her beak wasn’t strong enough to penetrate its fur. 
All spring I have been pleasantly surprised when I dig in the garden because I have not found many Japanese beetle grubs. I usually find dozens of them, but over the past few years, I have diligently destroyed any I find by drowning them or feeding them to the chickens, and so I hope the absence of grubs means I will have fewer problems this year. I began digging in my new raised bed, to which I added manure someone gave me, and found the soil covered with grubs. Hundreds of them. 
A Barred Plymouth Rock chicken pecks at grubs

Initially, I gathered some into a container and took them to the chickens, but decided that the job would keep me there all day. I brought a couple of chickens there to eat the grubs directly from the ground, and later, after discovering numerous crickets under mulch in the garden, brought a chicken into the garden to catch and eat every cricket of the dozen or so I exposed.  The chickens ate grubs until their crops, the area in their neck area that stores food, was the size of golf balls.  I put the full chickens back into their pen for a well-deserved nap, and put two hungry chickens in the bed to work for their dinner.

Happy chickens doing what they like best: scratching in the mulch for yummy food!

It’s nice to have animals around the house that actually do something useful. My girls and I have been reading “Farmer Boy,” by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and in the book, she talks about the barn cats, only kept around to keep mice out of the grain bins. They needed their claws to catch mice, and farmers didn’t feed them or take much care of them except at milking time when they let them have a pan of milk, unlike declawed, litter box trained, pampered modern cats.
I have a 14 ½ year old dachshund, Sterling, who has had two back surgeries, walks with the assistance of a wheelchair and wears a diaper, and is happy and spoiled. He has  Intervertebral Disk Disease, a congenital disease afflicting long-bodied dogs.  The surgeries helped him regain mobility twice, but because of his age, a wheelchair is best for him.  I am not against having animals around that are only useful for giving and receiving affection. As I write this, he’s sleeping beside me, on his dog bed, gently snoring.  If I leave him alone in the another room, he often barks for attention.

Sterling in his wheelchair from K9 Carts and resting his head on some blankets I provided for him

But having a flock of chickens reminds me that all food production requires a delicate balance of keeping the creatures that damage our desirable plants or animals under control while allowing beneficial insects to flourish.  Feeding chickens grubs, instead of killing the grubs or resulting beetles with chemicals, is perhaps a bit gorier than using chemicals, but it benefits everyone instead of damaging the environment. 

Filling my chickens with tasty grubs reduces the amount of commercially prepared food I have to buy, makes the chickens happy, and keeps me from having to battle as many Japanese beetles.  My girls also digging grubs and feeding them to the chickens, and quote me by saying, "Those chickens are going to turn the grubs into eggs." 

We dug up a beetle that had just completed metamorphosis, and indeed still had the grub's skin attached to its rear.  My oldest daughter said, "Oh it's too late!" because I told her we needed to rid the garden of the grubs before they turned into beetles.  Fortunately, a chicken was lurking by the place we were digging, and I said, "No it's not," and handed the beetle to the hen, which she promptly ate.

I understand that guineas are even better at controlling insects than chickens are and that they do not scratch up or peck at desirable plants while they go about their work—I had to supervise the chickens closely while they worked to keep them from digging up my tomato plants.  Maybe I will add some guineas to my poultry flock.  Do any of you have any opinions about or experiences with guineas?  I'd love to hear from you if you do.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Grow Your Own Artichokes

I have finally figured out how to cook fresh artichokes. I began growing them in my garden a few years ago, but the ones I cooked were too tough to eat. I had never cooked fresh artichokes before growing the plants, so I didn’t really understand how much work is involved in preparing them for eating; the ones I had enjoyed all came in cans. 

Artichokes originated in the Mediterranean, and they are used to a dry climate without severe winters. In the US, commercial farms grow artichokes in California, along with other Mediterranean native plants that don’t tolerate SC’s climate, like olives. So I wasn’t sure if they’d live here or not, although I read enough about them to determine it might be possible.  I bought some seeds from Heavenly Seed, a company that sells seeds that do well in South Carolina.
Happy, healthy, artichoke plants

The first year, thinking that hot, humid summers would threaten the plants more than our winters, I started the seeds in the summer and set them out in the fall. They were still small when winter began, and the winter weather killed them. In the spring, I started more seeds, and set out the plants as soon as I could. They grew all summer, and were fairly large when winter began. I mulched them, and they survived the winter. The plants thrive in my garden, and now I have three large plants. 

If you live in the South and start seeds now, you should have enough time to get the quickly-growing plants large enough to survive next winter, especially if you place a thick layer of mulch around the roots. If you have artichoke-growing friends, it's also possible to get a sprout from the side of their plant, including the roots, and plant it in your own garden, just as you would any other perennial. 
Artichoke that's ready to pick at the top, with smaller bud below
The three plants provide me with plenty of artichokes. The edible portion of the artichoke is actually a flower bud. If the gardener does not pick the artichoke, it flowers into a purple thistle-like bloom; the plant would make a beautiful addition to a perennial flower bed.
Like most plants, artichokes like rich, well-drained soil. Natives of the Mediterranean’s dry climate, they are pickier about drainage than many plants, so don’t plant them where there roots will be in soggy soil. Mulch them to prevent weeds, and water them when the soil dries until the plants are established. After they are established, they are as easy to maintain as any other perennial. Cut the artichokes when they are the size you desire, just as you might pick flower buds before the flower opens. When you tire of artichokes, let the buds open and flower.

Trimmed whole artichokes steaming in preparation for cooking
Many cookbooks have recipes for preparing fresh artichokes, or directions are available here. I won’t try to tell you how to prepare them here, but I’ll share the obstacles that caused me to serve some guests tough artichokes: you must cook whole artichokes for about 45 minutes before they are tender enough to eat, and you must cook the hearts about 20 minutes before they are tender enough. Even if you plan to cook them in some other way by grilling them or stuffing them, you still must steam them for 30-45 minutes first. I did not want to steam lovely fresh vegetables so long, but you must or they are inedible. You will also feel like you are wasting a lot of the artichoke, but you aren’t, you’re just discarding the inedible portion. Someone must have been very hungry when he or she decided to eat an artichoke for the first time.
Battered and fried artichoke hearts.  I'm from the South, and I can't help it: this is my favorite way to eat them so far.  I steamed them for about 20 minutes before frying them.
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