The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

Archive for July, 2008

Black currant vinegar

Monday, July 28th, 2008

currant Black Consort

Our black currants are ripening, so I have been making sure to get them before the wandering gangs of marauding wild turkeys do. This variety is Consort. Eating them fresh and raw is an acquired taste, and I haven’t quite acquired it yet, especially when there are blueberries and raspberries ripening at the same time. These currants would be probably be great for jam or jelly, but better yet, I figured out the “killer app,” at least for us: black currant vinegar. This is really easy. I pick the currants, fill a canning jar about halfway with currants and then top the jar off with homemade cider vinegar. Screw on the lid and leave it in the sun until the vinegar has taken on a deep ruby color. We have a flat black rock in front of the house for this purpose, but a sunny window would be fine. That’s it.

Making black currant vinegar

When we’re ready to use it, I open a jar, run it through the blender and use it seeds, pulp and all. It’s my favorite salad dressing – all you have to add is a bit of tamari or something salty – it doesn’t need oil (my opinion). It’s also great on steamed winter squash. I made four quarts of it last year, which got us through the winter and into May.

View of one of the gardens

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Solstice

View of one of the gardens from our bedroom window. Above, soon after solstice; below, 3 weeks later.

mid July

Dangerous parsnips

Monday, July 21st, 2008

Parsnip flowersParsnip leaves

I finally unravelled a mystery that had me baffled for 20 years.

Our winters are very long, and in general, we don’t get a lot of sun. This makes me crave the feeling of the sun shining on my bare skin. When it wasn’t winter or “bug season” (which comes fairly soon after “mud season”) I’d often work outside in shorts. I had to abandon this habit, though, when one season I started getting mysterious small burns on my legs that would leave scars for at least a year. I knew it was not poison ivy nor stinging nettles, but could not figure out what it could be. The best guess I could come up with was that it was from handling hot grass clippings when making compost. Since I was not really sure exactly what the cause was, I resigned myself to always wearing long jeans and socks for any kind of yardwork.

Parsnip plants in situ

Yesterday a local newsite had a blurb about “nasty plants,” and of course, how could I not click on that? And there it was – beware wild parsnips, with an exact description of my mysterious burns. The thing is, contrary to this article and all the further info I found on the web, I know that “wild” parsnips and “garden” parsnips are the same creatures, pastinaca sativa. I had been growing parsnips and parsnip seed, and there were escapees from the gardens proper, which was fine with me, as long as they didn’t get too rowdy.

The plants are not a threat unless you cut into the green parts and get the juice on your skin. Beyond our lawn and garden area, we have little meadows that I scythe once or twice a year, and use the cuttings for making compost. The parsnips have a healthy colony in one of them, though I have generally made it a point to mow them down when they’re in flower… and this is how I was getting burned.

Parsnip burn

The reason it was so hard to figure this out is that there is no immediate effect when you get the juice on your skin. But, if the skin is exposed to the sun, the burning starts to happen about a day later, and the skin will actually blister. If you got a lot of the stuff on your skin, you could have some pretty serious and painful burns. The scars can last 2 years.

We have occasionally also eaten very small quantities of parsnip greens in spring, but we’re rethinking that in light of this new information. Parsnip’s appeal as a green is not all that great, anyway. The root is nice for the winter larder, but I will be handling these volunteers far more carefully in their green state.

Here’s a good article about “wild” parsnips.

Beetberries

Friday, July 4th, 2008

Spinach is such a prima donna in my garden. We tend to go from winter to summer weather abruptly, and even when fall planted, spinach is likely to bolt before we get much out of it. Some years we have a great planting or two, but more often I find myself wondering why I bothered to plant it.

There are plenty of greens that can be substituted for spinach, both raw and cooked, but over the years, nothing we’ve tried has particularly knocked me out in terms of culinary quality combined with ease of culture. That is, until getting to know chenopodium capitatum, aka beetberry, or strawberry blite.

Let’s call it “beetberry.” “Strawberry blite” certainly does not do it justice. It volunteers very freely, meaning it grows like a weed. I like that, and haven’t sown it since we first got it quite a few years ago. It pops up everywhere, and any time of the season, so when weeding, I just leave some plants here and there, and also eat the “weedings”. It has both annual and biennial tendencies.

Last fall I left a few that had managed to colonize the more finished cooled-down compost piles, and when the snow retreated in April, there they were, growing like crazy. I am pretty fastidious about keeping a clear zone around the compost area (the flame weeder’s great for that), but I’m a sucker for uber healthy volunteers. Fortunately we had enough compost so that I could work around them.

Chenopodium capitatum in leafy stage

Here they are. That’s just 3 plants, and they’d had a lot of leaves picked from them daily for about 3 weeks when the photo was taken. They certainly responded to the 100% compost! Some of the leaves are the size of my hand, and even though the plants are bolting, they are still making large tender leaves.

The beetberry fruit

And here is the fruit, the beetberry. The color alone is wonderful in the garden, but the fruits are also quite delicious when well grown. Structurally, they are a bit like a raspberry’s cluster of drupelets. The fleshy part is juicy and tender, so delicate that if you touch the ripe beet berry you will get beet red juice on your fingers. The flavor has more than a hint of beet (they’re cousins, after all), and when fully sun ripened they are quite sweet, and a really nice salad component. This is one of those vegetables that you really have to grow yourself. The berries are probably too delicate for a farmer’s market.

Later this season I’ll sow a variety of beetberry called “Sweeter”, to see how the seedlings overwinter. It was bred by Peters Seed and Research to be sweeter and more biennial. Of course, I’ll also take some seed from the compost giants, and see if I can get a repeat performance in a generously fed garden bed.