The Seeds You Need

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Here in the high-desert Southwest, our cold-weather vegetables need to be planted by mid-March, and so late February is my last good chance to review my seed box and order what I need. This resulted in my sending off a frantic order for sugar snap peas. My attachment to them is strong, largely because I love English (shelling) peas but never find time to shell them. My favorite snap pea is the original Sugar Snap. This variety has some disadvantages: it climbs 5-6 feet and has to be provided with support, the pods have strings and need to be de-stringed before cooking, and it doesn’t have much in the way of disease resistance (although I have had no problems with disease.) It has a single incomparable advantage: flavor that none of the newer, neater varietals can live up to. For best flavor, the peas inside the pod have to be allowed to develop. Don’t pick them in the flat snow-pea stage. Then rinse and string the pods, which is a very quick job, and steam them to eat with butter, stir-fry with some scallion and ginger, or cook them in your own favorite way. Yum.

In my opinion they develop a soapy taste when frozen, so I don’t recommend “putting them by.” Eat mountains of the fresh article and give any extra to people you really like.
The important thing is, order those seeds now.

And don’t forget to plant extra so that you can cut pea shoots. Cut when they are 6-8 inches high, pea shoots are delicious in salads and stir-fries.

Joyous Imbolc! Notes on spring planting

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When I had a sheep farm, the old Celtic holiday Imbolc was very literal for me. Starting in early February, ewes’ milk flowed and life was everywhere. Today I have a different life in a new place, but this is still the time of year when life begins to flow. Out in the garden, there are warm days when the soil can be dug and manured. The garlic that you planted in the fall pops up at this time of year, and seems to sail through the cold weather to come. The earliest spinach, lettuce, and arugula can be planted as soon as spaces are ready for them. I put frost blankets over some of the patches and don’t cover others, so that they germinate at two different times and provide succession crops.

This is also the time to make sure that all your seed and nursery orders are in. In my last post, I talked a little bit about some vegetables that do very well here. Today I want to talk about nursery stock, and encourage you to try some things that you haven’t tried before. Since I eat a low carbohydrate diet, standard fruits are of very little interest to me, and my interest is in obtaining maximum antioxidants for minimum carbohydrates. Therefore, I concentrate on berries.

I have a few thornless blackberries plants, and last year I planted a lot of goumis. They may fruit this year, but more likely the following year, and I will report back. Three years ago I put in a lot of Crandall black currents, and they fruited heavily last year. They are an American blackcurrant variety native to the west, and do extremely well in central New Mexico. They require some water, but not a lot.The fruits have a nice flavor but are not very sweet, and benefit from a bit of sweetener added. I enjoy a handful of them as a tart treat when I am weeding. I do encourage you to try them. So far I have failed miserably with the English black currents that I love, and I think that in our area they would need a fair amount of shade to do well.

Another success has been the goji berry, or wolfberry. These are fairly drought tolerant, although they require a fair amount of water to get established. The berries taste like a tiny rather sweet tomato, and have large amounts of lycopene. The plants sucker a bit but don’t get out of hand, and do provide you with some offshoots for planting elsewhere.

The western elderberry that I planted a few years ago has flourished mightily, and I will be planting some black elderberries this year. Elders do well in our area if mulched heavily to shade and cool their roots, and they do need watering.

Raintree Nursery has a lot of uncommon fruits, as well as more conventional ones, and the stock that I’ve gotten from them has been very strong. Their catalog is fascinating, full of heirloom varieties, and great for fireside daydreaming.

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What seeds to order?

There is no doubt in my mind that seed catalogs are the most wonderful pornography in the world. Even people who generally enjoy the regular kind of pornography know that they don’t really want the depicted persons in their lives. But the pictures in seed catalogs? Ah, that’s a different story. Those tempting, enticing, dewy vegetables are impossible not to want. Even beets, which I don’t particularly like, look improbably appealing in the catalog photos. They look so good, in fact, that I begin convincing myself that I will find some way to cook them that I really, really like. As Ambrose Bierce said about second marriages, it’s the triumph of optimism over experience.

But what I want to talk about today is not how seed catalogs can lead you down the primrose path (they can, and they will,) but what things grow really well and should be ordered.
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Let’s start with arugula. It is this simple: you need arugula. It grows beautifully, resists drought and pests, is highly nutritious, and utterly delicious. Yes, you will have to supply it with some water. In our area of the Southwest, you have to supply anything with some water. But arugula takes less than most of the choice greens. Furthermore, you can plant it as soon as you get the seeds and get that chore out of the way. Have an area of bed well prepared, broadcast the seeds and rake them in or cover them, and keep the area watered a bit until they germinate later in the spring. Then, step up the water somewhat. They will grow pretty cleanly because they are planted close together and help hold each other up. Harvest by a sort of clear-cutting technique. Wash (repeatedly) and eat. They are deliciously flavorful unless you let them get too old in the spring (they get hot then,) and they make a very good bedding for roasted meats etc. on the plate. You will probably want to plant a few successive small beds of them, because they are a great resource to have in the salad crisper in your fridge.I like the Astro variety, which has flat tender leaves that are a little milder than average, but not much.
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You are going to want broccoli if you have the space to grow it, and it is a wonderfully productive vegetable, giving you a large central head in early summer and side shoots until fall if tended well. Variety is key. For our hot dry area I recommend Packman or Green Magic. Plan to start your own plants if you want these varieties. Both withstand our summers as long as you keep the water coming. If you are growing to grow it at all, plan to give it the room that it needs, a minimum of 18 inches each way between plants, and 24 inches is better. I give it 24 inches, and top up the soil between plants with fresh compost as it grows. It is one of the most nutritious things in your garden, so plan to feed it will so that it can feed you well.

If you can make room for pole beans to climb, they are very space-efficient, and the variety called Rattlesnake does especially well in the Southwest. Tastes delicious, too.

Lettuce is a must for your own lovely light crisp spring salads, and I suggest carefully perusing the varieties at Wild Garden Seeds. They grow in a hot dry area, and have many lettuces that are especially suited to the kind of conditions that we can offer them. Again, you’re going to have to fertilize their area well and water as they grow, but you will get incomparably fresh lettuce in return. Pay attention to their notes about flavor, which are reliable.

Other seed companies that I can recommend wholeheartedly are Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Territorial Seeds, and Bountiful Gardens. I have ordered repeatedly from them as well as from Wild Garden Seeds, and have never had a bad experience. I strongly advise against Ceedareck seeds, and when choosing a company to order from, try to find one that sells in commercial grower quantities as well as home garden quantities. Commercial growers know what works, and they do not tolerate bad seeds.

Naturally, when you are curled up by the woodstove on a cold windy evening, you will order a lot more varieties than you really need. This is not just about survival, it is about pleasure and joy and abundance. Go for it.

Welcome back, and notes on the Ketogenic diet

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I’ve been MIA for a long time, and I appreciate the kindness of those readers who tactfully enquired about my whereabouts. The main reason was a series of deaths among my nearest and dearest that made 2013-14 seem like The Years That Everybody Died. Change and death are inevitable, and so are grief and railing against fate. Many thanks to those of you who are still with me.

Another change had a happier outcome. I developed clear signs and lab results indicating that the inexorable progression to type 2 diabetes had begun, and this started me wondering whether it really was inexorable. The answer, almost three years later, is an enthusiastic “No way!” After fooling around with various unsuccessful interventions, I finally took the plunge and went on an ultra low carbohydrate (ketogenic) diet, and after the first awful month of withdrawing from all my beloved toxins, it’s been great. Good energy, bubbling good health, and freedom from food cravings don’t come from medications, they come from consciously made lifestyle choices. Even more than I thought before, we choose our health. My menu of food choices includes meat, poultry, fish, seafood, green vegetables and some others, mushrooms, cheese, cream, strained yogurt, coconut milk, and nuts. Plenty to choose from, and plenty to season it with.

So some of my recipes will be a little different now, but the role of home food production is even more important than before. Green vegetables are an even bigger part of my diet now, and I want the best deep-organic stuff that I can get. Good meats are vital, and I produce my own where I reasonably can. I probably couldn’t afford to buy foods of this quality in the amounts that I eat them. This is the perfect time of year to plan your season of growing and foraging, so in the next post we’ll start thinking about what to grow and what to read.
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Oh, and don’t forget:

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Kitchen Staples: homemade Worcestershire sauce


Many years ago, chef Emeril Lagasse published his recipe for homemade Worcestershire sauce, and although some pretty perverse versions of it have made their way around the web, the original was awfully good. Over time, though, I’ve come up with a version of it that I like even better. It’s great as a sauce for burgers or roast chicken, used to season vegetables, or used to cook vegetables. It also has a lot of healthy stuff in it and is a rich amalgam of all things umami. In many ways it’s like the old “mushroom catsup” of an earlier America, a potently flavored brew that has nothing in common with the bright red ketchup we know today. Winter is fading away, so make it now, when simmering something all evening still seems like a good idea.
The bad news is that, if you don’t grow horseradish, you will have to locate some fresh horseradish root. Many upscale groceries and food co-ops have it or can order it. There is no substitute, and without it the sauce is banal and bland and you’d be better advised to spend your evening doing something else. When you do locate some, buy twice as much by weight as you need, hack the root you bought in half, and plant half. Water it well. Simple as that. Horseradish can get big and invasive, but if you keep using the roots, that won’t happen. Also, the anchovies aren’t optional, so this sauce is not for vegetarians and vegans. This is a time when I have to give up all pretense of flexibility and ask that you please, just once, make it exactly the way it’s written. After that, fool with the recipe all you like. This makes a lot, and you can cut it in half for the first try, but if you want to have some to give away, the larger amount is no extra trouble to make.
You will need:
8 ounces of anchovy fillets in olive oil (for reasons of economy, I buy the Roland anchovy fillets from Spain in 1 pound cans to make this sauce.They can be found at restaurant supply warehouses and are both inexpensive and good.)
1 gallon of decent red wine (5 standard wine bottles.) The Mondavi Woodbridge reds work well. You are going to concentrate it, so you don’t want anything that you’d be unwilling to drink a glass of.
1/2 pound of fresh horseradish, peeled and finely grated.
3 cups of dark or amber agave nectar
10 dried shitake mushrooms (from an Asian grocery)
2 lemons
1/4 cup coarsely minced garlic
3 large onions, sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
6 whole cloves
5 sprigs fresh thyme
2 whole chipotle chiles in adobo
1 tablespoon sea salt, plus more to taste
1 tablespoon fine black pepper, freshly ground

Pour the red wine into a large pot, bring to a boil, and boil fast until reduced by half, to 2 quarts. I stick a wooden spoon in the wine while it’s heating, mark the level with a pencil, and then can measure roughly when it’s reduced by half. While it reduces, heat the oil in a large skillet and saute the onions. When they turn translucent, add the agrlic and saute until the garlic is somewhat cooked but don’t let it color. Grate the zest off the lemon, squeeze the juice out, and discard the pith. Pat the anchovies (as a mass, not one by one) with a paper towel to get any excessive oil off them. Use a large mortar and pestle to break up the dried shitake mushrooms into chunks about half an inch across.
When the wine is reduced by half, add the sauteed onion mixture, the anchovies, the broken shitake mushrooms, the chile, the lemon zest and juice, the horseradish, the agave nectar, the salt, and the thyme and cloves. Simmer over low heat for about 2 and a half hours, stirring and tasting periodically.When it’s slightly thickened and tastes right (by which I mean “tastes really good,” strain out the solids, pressing as hard as you can on the mass in the strainer to get out all the liquid. Add the fresh black pepper to the strained fluid, starting with about half the tablespoon and tasting as you add until you find the amount that you like. I don’t like it too sweet, but if you want yours sweeter, add a little more agave nectar. Pour the sauce into clean old wine bottles, cork tightly, and store in the refrigerator. It won’t keep at room temp unless you heat=process it in canning jars, which I think is too much trouble. I have sometimes made a hasty meal of cooked rice or grains from the refrigerator, heated quickly and dressed with a little butter and a few dashes of this sauce. Yum.
If you find that you want it a little more sharp, you can boil the wine down to 1.5 quarts and add two cups of best quality red wine vinegar, then continue as above.

Pause for a Cause


I don’t do any winter gardening because I like to have some time free to write, paint, and think before it all starts over again in early spring. Every year I post something about small, special local charities, and since lately I find myself painting wolf totems, this is a good time to put in a plug for Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. The wonderful people at Wild Spirit provide a refuge for wolves and wolf-dogs who are abused or abandoned (a common occurrence when people are fool enough to buy or breed wild animals as pets.)They do a lot of education at schools and public events about these magnificent animals, usually bringing a wolf with them. Now here’s the hard part of their mission; it’s very expensive to provide for wolves. They are always seeking sponsors for their wolves, and at $120 per sponsorship they need about a dozen annual sponsors per wolf to stay afloat. So please consider sponsoring a wolf, and please also send them a word of encouragement with your donation. Their black wolf mascot Raven (who died of old age a few years ago after many years of educating the public) made a lot of friends for their organization, and my own memories of Raven inspired the black wolf totem below. Please let them know that Heather from My Urban Homestead sent you! In hard economic times animal-related charities are the first to suffer, and I’d like them to know that their friends are trying to assure that the wolves aren’t forgotten.

The Urban Goat




Goats are a practical dairy animal to have in a small setting, and they are delightful company, but there are a few things to keep in mind before you run out and get some. If you have a job as well as an urban-farming impulse, pay close attention to the timesaving techniques listed here.
1. Goats require excellent fencing, because they prefer brush, shrubs, and trees to grass and will destroy your plantings if they get a chance. The fencing also has to be sturdy enough to protect them from other people’s dogs, as well as coyotes and other wildlings.
2. Contrary to popular belief, they don’t “eat anything,” and in fact are picky eaters who can be expensive to feed.
3. They are very productive. This doesn’t sound like a problem until your refrigerator is crammed with mason jars of milk and you have no time to do anything useful with it.
4. To have milk, they have to have babies, and you have to have a plan for what to do with the babies.
With that in mind, here’s how I manage my “yard goats.”
They have a long thin pen, about 8 feet by 50 feet, very well fenced. There is an inside fence and gate allowing the paddock to be subdivided 1/3 to 2/3rds.
Housing is a large old wooden doghouse. They go inside in wet weather, but most of the time they lounge and sleep on the roof.
The bulk of their diet is good alfalfa. During the green season I cut armloads of Siberian elm branches and various weeds for them. I take care to know all the toxic weeds in my area so that I can avoid them, and there are some perfectly wholesome plants that they won’t touch. In late pregnancy and when in milk, they get a daily grain ration. I would like to produce milk completely on green feed, but they get too thin, so I haven’t pushed it. All grain ration needs to be formulated specifically for goats, since they have exacting mineral requirements.
They get routine clostridium and tetanus vaccinations yearly, twice for kids.

I don’t invest in milking stands or other expensive equipment. I just chain the doe to her feeding post, kneel down on a pat of straw, and milk directly into a stainless steel milk strainer with filter in place; this is set in the mouth of a sanitized mason jar, and I have a second jar ready. The jar, filter in place, is set in a clean food-grade plastic bucket to prevent kicking and to avoid any contact with the ground. Each jar is capped as soon as it’s full, and I put them in the refrigerator as soon as I’m done. This only works with quart jars, because they are small enough to cool rapidly in the refrigerator. If you use bigger containers, you would need to chill the containers quickly in an ice bath. This adds up to more hassle and expense. I prefer to keep it simple. I use standard udder wipes to clean the udder before milking, but I don’t dip the teats afterwards because the babies are going to be nursing.

Now here’s the part that is a little unusual compared to standard practices. I only milk once a day. This is because my career doesn’t allow me the luxury of milking twice daily and bottle-raising the kids. So I let the kids grow as nature intended. After the does freshen (give birth,) I leave the kids with mama full-time and milk out any excess milk once a day. For the first two weeks, I feed the milk to the chickens because it contains colostrum. There isn’t a lot of milk these first two weeks anyway. After that the milk supply will gradually increase, reaching full production after two months. I continue to milk once a day, and about a month after the birth, when the kids are growing fast and drinking nearly all the milk, I start to shut the kids in the small end of the pen for about 12 hours a day. I do this in the morning before going to work, and in the evening I milk and then let mom and kids back together overnight. Both doe and kids have access to all the alfalfa they can eat, and the doe gets a grain ration while being milked.

By the time the kids are two months old, I can take a day off milking here and there if I want to, just by not separating them in the morning. If I have to go out of town, doe and kids stay together and, as long as a reliable person feeds them, they do fine until I get back. Managed in this way, my Saanan doe Magnolia gives two quarts of milk a day plus what her offspring drink, and the kids are raised with no trouble to me, which seems like a good deal. After about 8 months the doe will start kicking the kids away when they try to nurse, but at this point I’m ready to quit for the year anyway, so I let her dry up. Along the way she’s been bred, and we can all wait quietly through the winter for the next batch of kids. It wouldn’t work commercially, when a steady supply is crucial, but it suits me fine to be free of milking chores during the short days of winter.

If you are thinking of getting goats, keep those kids in mind, because you have to do something with them. You may be able to place the females as “yard goats” for others, but about half your kids will be male and the only real market for them is for meat. If you don’t eat them yourself, someone else is likely to. Goat is one of the most widely eaten meats on the planet, and the meat of young goats is delicious, so do consider having your excess kids butchered for your own use. It’s a good healthy meat source

To get milk you need babies, and to get babies you need access to a buck. In my opinion, it is unwise even to think of keeping a buck in an urban or suburban setting. They smell terrible in breeding season, and your family and neighbors will not appreciate it. This is the sort of thing that gives urban homesteading a bad name. Find a breeder with a buck, or pair up with a rural pal who is willing to keep a buck.

Set a firm limit on how many goats you are going to keep, and stick to it. For me, that limit is two adult does, with kids in season, but no additional goats kept over the winter. And get the wonderful cookbook Goat, to help you stick to your limit.

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