Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Greenbelt in February

I go to the Greenbelt to get away – away from my house and yard and all the work that needs to be done, away from all the distractions embedded in my daily routine, and away from my day job, which is "easy" and hourly yet still manages to come home with me.  The physical act of walking releases the catch in my brain that holds all those spinning thoughts, allowing the smells and sights and sounds of the woods along the creek to grab my attention and pull me out of my head and onto the damp trail under my feet.  So maybe it would be more accurate to say that I go to the Greenbelt in order to return, or to reset, to close all those windows that are open in the computer screen of my mind and to restart with just one focus, the plants of the forest along the creek.

Which is a huge expectation to have on the creek, and the trail, and all the plants that grow along it.  In that state of mind, distracted and restless and not sure whether I was ready to embrace the late start of spring, the season of acceleration, I went to the Greenbelt expecting to be dazzled by bright, fat Buckeye flowers and vibrant spring ephemerals.  Instead I found quiet.  The creek was still running, though barely so and only along the upstream half of the Greenbelt, the trees were still leafless, and the browned, crispy, long-dead grasses and herbs of last summer and fall still lined the trail and the creek.  Even the once-purple berries of the Beautyberry shrubs had shriveled and turned black.  The obvious landscape of greys and browns certainly wasn't about to grab my attention.

But the creek, even when it's barely running, and the experience of being out in the woods, even when the branches are bare, still has the effect of slowing me down, and, despite my impatience, I began to appreciate the damp smell of the woods and the misty, almost-raining morning that was contributing to the quiet.  Then I noticed the plants that thrive in the cool humidity and quiet between winter and spring.  The mosses seemed especially happy with the misty, damp conditions.

The ferns growing from the rock walls along the creek showed signs of freeze damage, with browned leaves and partially dead fronds.  But the ferns or parts of ferns that had survived the freezes of early February were growing as happily as the mosses, enjoying the non-stressful, humid weather.

Cliff Brake Fern (Pellaea ovata)

Once I began noticing some green, I realized that, actually, at the ground level, green was overtaking the brown.  New blades of grass were emerging from the leaf layer and green rosettes of annual herbs were establishing themselves, gathering strength to become the wildflowers of spring.

In the understory, native winter berries – red Yaupon and blue-black Silktassel – added color to the branches of evergreen shrubs.  Berries also hung on the branches of non-native shrubs, escaped from cultivation, including the small, blue-black fruits on Japanese Privet trees (Ligustrum japonicum) and Chinese Privet shrubs (Ligustrum sinese).  Nandina shrubs held huge clusters of red-orange fruits.  Nandina (Nandina domestica), like Japanese and Chinese privet, is a native of Asia that was brought to the US for use in gardens and has escaped from cultivation.  Unfortuantely, Nandina, Japanese Privet, and Chinese Privet are invasive and are spreading into streamside habitats around Austin.

Nandina (Nandina domestica) berries

And, though small and subtle, not yet grabbing my attention in numbers but there to be noticed as individual dots of color in the underbrush along the trail, the earliest wildflowers of the season were just starting to bloom.  The first wildflower that I spotted this season was Golden Grounsel (Packera obovata), a sunflower-family herb with bright-yellow flowers.  Golden Grounsel grows as a rosette of almost-round to oval leaves that become deeply lobed when the plant makes a flowering stalk.  Golden Groundsel prefers to grow in moist, calcareous soils and blooms February through April, making it one of the first wildflowers of the spring in central Texas.  Its yellow flowers attract bees and butterflies.

Golden Groundsel (Packera obovata) leaves

Golden Groundsel (Packera obovata) flowers

Roemer's Spurge, an annual herb of moist, shaded woodlands, was also beginning to bloom.  Roemer's Spruge (Euphorbia roemeriana) has unique leaves and branching.  The lower leaves on a stalk are alternate and elogated, then a whorl of three leaves gives rise to three stems, each holding an inflorescence (cluster of flowers).  The bract at the base of the inflorescence is almost circular, made of two fused leaves.  The flowers are tiny and bright yellow, appearing on the plants late February through May.

Roemer's Spruge (Euphorbia roemeriana)

Missouri Violet, a perennial herb that is a common spring ephemeral in moist, streamside woodlands throughout the central United States, was also blooming.  Missouri Violet (Viola missouriensis) is a perennial herb that grows as a rosette of heart-shaped leaves and blooms early in the spring, in February through April in central Texas.  Flowers on the wild violets signal that spring, though delayed by the cold weather and slow to get started this year, is on the way.

Missouri Violet (Viola missouriensis)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Growing Mushrooms

Ah, the fungus – beautiful, magical, mysterious, dangerous, and, most of all, misunderstood.  To most people, a fungus is a mushroom, but really the kingdom of Fungi includes yeast, molds, and a variety of other lesser-known fungi as well as the famous mushrooms.  Even the mushrooms themselves are only the tip of the iceberg of what they really are.  A mushroom is to a fungus as a flower is to a plant – simply a reproductive structure.  Just as the flower on a plant is supported by the roots and stems and leaves that make up the body of the plant, the mushroom that we see growing above ground is supported by the "body" of the fungus underground, a vast network of mycelium, or branching, thread-like hyphae that absorb nutrients from the environment.

Cool fungus on a tree in western Oregon

Fungi are decomposers who get their nutrition from breaking down dead and decaying animals, plants, and organic matter.  In this, their need for nutrition from outside themselves, they are more like animals than plants, and DNA comparisons have revealed that, indeed, fungi are more closely related to animals (yes, that includes humans) than they are to plants.  Needless to say that, after centuries of not seeing most fungi and viewing mushrooms as non-green plants, we are only beginning to understand how they operate.  In particular, figuring out how and when and under what conditions fungi reproduce has proven to be challenging for many species.  Until recently, an entire phylum, the Fungi Imperfecti, was reserved for those fungi who never appeared to reproduce sexually.  We don't know if or how they reproduce so we call them imperfect – talk about projection.

Yet not all fungi have proven to be so mysterious or difficult, and one species in particular, Agaricus bisporus, by virtue of its easy-to-initiate mushroom formation and reliable productivity, has become the mushroom that Americans grow, and buy, and eat, the most.  Agaricus bisporus, a native mushroom that can be found growing wild in parts of California, often in association with Monterrey Cypress trees, now accounts for 90% of mushroom production in the US.  There are two common strains of Agaricus bisporus – a white strain known as the button mushroom and a brown strain called the crimini mushroom (or baby 'bella) when harvested small, with closed caps, or the portabella mushroom when it is allowed to mature and harvested once the cap begins to open.

A few years ago, recognizing that I was a mushroom lover with grow-it-yourself tendencies, my mom sent me a button-mushroom-growing kit for Christmas.  The coldest months of the year turned out to be the best months of the year to grow mushrooms in central Texas, and I successfully harvested many mushrooms.  I also discovered that, just as a store-bought tomato can't match the flavor of a homegrown heirloom tomato, the ubiquitous button mushroom of the grocery store lacks the flavor and texture of a homegrown, freshly-picked mushroom of the same, humble variety.  Eaten raw in salads, fresh button mushrooms are sweet and juicy, with a texture just this side of crunchy.  Cooked in olive oil or butter, homegrown button mushrooms have the texture and meatiness of portabellas and are just as good with pesto.  Since that first year, the mushroom kit became something of a yearly tradition.

Homegrown mushroom pizza

This year, I received my mushroom-growing kit (from Pulpit Rock Mushrooms in southeastern Pennsylvania, the epicenter of US mushroom production) in mid December.  Inside the box was a large bag of compost with Agaricus bisporus mycelium growing throughout.  Agaricus bisporus is a secondary decomposer, meaning that it lives on compost that has already been broken down by bacteria and other fungi.  The compost in my mushroom kit was made from horse manure, with small amounts of nitrogen, gypsum, and water added.  The manure was composted for three weeks then spent a week in a high-temperature (140˚ F) room for sterilization.  Following sterilization, the compost was inoculated with mycelium from a white strain of the Agaricus bisporus mushroom, which was allowed to grow throughout the compost.

Also included in the mushroom kit were instructions for growing mushrooms and a small bag of peat moss.  Per the instructions, I poured the peat moss into a large bowl, added four cups of filtered water, and mixed until the peat moss was uniformly moist.  I spread the moistened peat moss over the surface of the compost.  This step, of adding a surface layer of peat moss to the compost, is called "casing" and is what stimulates mushroom production.  Throughout mushroom production, the casing layer, which must be misted regularly, will also provide necessary moisture to mushroom mycelium.  After casing, I carefully re-closed the box and stored it in a cool closet for about 15 days.

In late December, I retrieved the mushroom box from the closet and opened it to check its progress.  White, strand-like, mold-like mycelium had grown throughout the casing layer, so it was time to set the box up for mushroom production.  I placed the box on an old Chronicle (it felt appropriate to use the "12th & Nowhere" edition) in an out-of-the-way spot that receives indirect, southern light.  I folded the plastic flaps of the compost bag over the box ends, which effectively held the flaps of the box upright.  I thoroughly misted the top layer of peat moss.

Ready for mushroom production (December 28)

At this point, mushroom production is stimulated by three things: temperature, sufficient moisture, and sufficient air exchange.  The ideal temperature range for button mushrooms is 55˚ to 65˚ F, but luckily button mushrooms are among the least-fussy of the fungus when it comes to making mushrooms.  In my experience, button mushrooms will produce in my warm, central Texas house in the winter months, when the household temperatures are in the 65˚ to 75˚ F range, but tend to give up once the sun-heated days of spring regularly warm the house over 80˚ F.

The other two requirements for mushroom production, moisture and fresh air, are in tension with each other.  The best way to maintain humidity above the compost and moisture in the casing layer is to cover the whole mushroom-kit box, which prevents water from escaping.  The problem is that covering the box also stops air flow, which causes the carbon dioxide levels in the air above the mushroom compost to increase, which then inhibits mushroom formation.  So the mushroom grower has to find the best compromise between moisture and air flow, and for every species that best balance is different.  Again, luckily, button mushrooms are forgiving relative to other mushrooms, but they will fail to produce mushrooms if the casing gets dry or air flow is too limited.

I have found that the best compromise for button mushrooms is to leave the box uncovered but to mist regularly, two or three times a day, to keep the surface of the casing moist.  Watering occasionally is not an option – the surface of the casing has to stay moist.  Over watering will damage the mushroom kit as well, but can be prevented by misting the casing layer rather than pouring water into the kit as if it were a plant.  I use a clean (absolutely no chemicals in it ever because the fungus are sensitive) spray bottle with a non-drippy fine mist setting, filled with filtered or spring water, to mist the kit a few times a day.  This method requires regular attention to the mushroom kit, but each misting takes only a few seconds and gives me a chance to check on the mushrooms.

That said, I tried doing things a bit differently this year because the instructions that came with my kit told me to cover the box with cardboard and to occasionally mist the surface with water.  Being a good direction follower, I covered the box, even though I had not done so with kits in the past.  At first, mushroom production seemed to get going as usual but only one, albeit large, mushroom grew in the corner of the box, where the cardboard cover didn't quite overlap with the box flaps, while the other mushrooms that had begun to form as "pins" turned brown and failed to mature.

First mushroom (January 17)

After the first, big mushroom, all was quiet in the casing layer.  No more pins, or bright-white knots of mycelium that develop into mushrooms, formed in the next few days.  I suspected that the cardboard cover over the mushroom kit was the problem, either because my few airings-out a day were not generating enough air flow, or because the cover was blocking the indirect, natural light of the nearby window.  (Though mushrooms will produce in darkness, indirect sunlight is helpful.)  So I uncovered the box and went back to the tried-and-true method of misting a few times a day.  After a few days without the cover, new, bright-white pins formed and began growing into large mushrooms.

Second harvest (January 30)

The first week of February brought four days of freezing temperatures, and, even with the heat on 24/7 that week, out-of-the-way corners of the house dropped into the mid sixties as the cold wind blew through the fifties-built, insulation-free framing of this house.  While the freezing temperatures outside were life-threatening for the garden, the cooler temperatures inside the house initiated a new flush in the mushroom kit.  The flush began in the "pinning" stage, as bright-white balls appeared in the casing layer.

The third flush "pinning" (February 3)

Each "flush," or group of mushrooms produced at one time, varies.  Some flushes include only one or two mushrooms, which are often quite large.  Other flushes produce several mid-sized mushrooms or many small-sized mushrooms.  The third flush produced by my kit this year included many, smaller mushrooms.

The third flush ready to harvest (February 10)

Thanks to a cooler-than-usual February in central Texas, my mushroom kit continued to be productive.  As soon as I harvested the third flush, pins for a fourth flush were already forming.  Today I harvested the fourth batch of mushrooms and, once again, more are on the way.  I'm looking forward to a fifth harvest and a couple more weeks of mushroom pizzas, salads, and quesadillas.

The fourth harvest (February 19)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

After the Freeze

I spent the weeks of December and January worrying about the upcoming spring weather.  We have to eat all these greens, I kept telling Lee, and we did eat a lot of greens, though even as I harvested bowlfuls of greens I was happy to leave just as many plants in the ground, for all those future salads.  I thought I was staying one step ahead of the impending greens-flowering season, harvesting the most bolt-prone lettuces and greens first, but I wasn't even considering the possibility that I could lose my future salads to weather extremes from the cold end of the spectrum.

Then February began with a long, deep freeze punctuated by a rare snowstorm.  Most of the plants in my gardens survived, though I did lose a few lettuces in the front yard and all of the lettuces in the backyard.  After the storm, I removed dead plants and the frost-killed leaves from surviving plants, and cleaned the gardens up for recovery.

Then we were hit with another arctic blast.  Last Wednesday morning, I ventured out into the frigid wind to cover the front-yard garden in Plankets only to discover that all of the plants were coated in a fine layer of ice, frozen solid.  I spent the rest of the morning wondering what I should have done differently – should I have covered the garden the night before, and if so, how would the Plankets have fared through the heavy rain that preceded the front, or should I have covered the garden at six in the morning, when I woke to the sound of all the screens on the house banging as the front dropped temperatures?  Luckily, the garden unfroze that day and we were able to cover it before the deep freeze of the next two nights.  Still, the damage of the freezing rain was done, and I knew that, once again, I would be removing dead plants and frost-killed leaves from the garden.

On the other side of those two weeks of extreme cold, my gardens are reduced.  In the backyard, only collards, spinach, and cabbages remain, though I still hope that the beets and chard will regrow from their mulched roots.  From the front-yard garden, I lost the fenugreek, most of the parsley, and most of the lettuce.  After the snow, I harvested all of the remaining tatsoi, which were making visible preparations toward flowering, and most of the remaining bok choy, leaving only a few plants to continue growing.  Both the tatsoi and bok choy were crowded, raggedy, and heavily insect-damaged, definitely past their prime.  Next year, I need to remember that the Asian greens grow the fastest and should be harvested first, as fall greens.  After the snow, and again after the next deep freeze, I also had to remove many of the largest leaves from the chard plants.  They will survive but this starting over increases their chances of flowering this spring.

The toughest loss for me to accept is that of the lettuces.  They have been perfect eating size for several weeks now and I have been harvesting them as needed, taking the tallest, most bolt-prone first, and leaving the rest for another week of salad eating.  In the backyard were a few small red oak-leaf lettuces that I wish harvested sooner, but they were growing slowly in the low-light conditions, so I thought I had time.  In the front yard was a large, beautiful head of Buttercrunch lettuce that I was saving for ... well, I'm not sure what I was saving it for, but just that I was saving it because I love saving the best for my future self.  That lovely lettuce survived but lost most of its outer leaves, and, even if it does regrow, it is too late to recapture that moment when it was exactly just ready for harvest.

I did have one row of plants in my backyard garden that were actually invigorated by the weeks of freezing, snow, and ice – the mâche.  Mâche (Valerianella locusta), which is also called corn salad or lamb's lettuce, is a lover of cold weather.  In fact, I've had trouble growing mâche because it won't germinate until the soil is cool, which isn't until mid-November in Austin, it is slow-growing, and it really flourishes in the coldest weeks of winter, which we often don't have.  Once the weather warms, the mâche bolts as fast as spinach, so its window for growth is quite short and, in some warm years, non-existent.  But I continue to try to grow mâche because it is delicious, with a sweet, nutty flavor, and difficult (though, in recent years, no longer impossible) to find at the grocery store.

Mâche (Valerianella locusta)

Yesterday, as I was clearing the remains of the lettuce from the backyard garden and noticed that my row of mâche was looking particularly vibrant, I decided that it was time to harvest.  A few weeks ago, I might have tried to wait, or to harvest part of the row and save the rest for some more-auspicious future date.  But if the freezes have reminded me of one thing, it is this: feast when it is ready because next week's weather, and therefore next week's harvest, is uncertain.  So I harvested the whole row and Lee and I enjoyed big bowls of mâche salad for dinner.  I slept particularly well last night, and, given that mâche is in the Valerian Family of plants, I can't help but wonder if the salad helped my sleep.  Or maybe it was just the satisfaction of finally harvesting part of my garden at the exact right moment – just after the freeze but before the hot days of early spring that are soon to follow.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Winter Berries

In between the rainstorms of January and the arctic fronts of February, Lee and I have been exploring the hiking trails in the Bull Creek Preserve.  Bull Creek Preserve, one of the City of Austin's sections of the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, is nesting habitat for the Golden-Cheeked Warbler, an endangered songbird that nests exclusively in Edwards Plateau region of Texas.  To minimize disturbance of the birds during their mating season, the preserve is closed (except to entry-permi holders) from March 1 through July 31.  The preserve, which is located within the Bull Creek watershed between St. Edwards Park and the Bull Creek Greenbelt, includes 150 acres of juniper and oak woodland.  Because several intermittent creeks, tributaries of Bull Creek, originate in and cross through the preserve, the terrain is hilly, with the limestone slopes and steep, narrow canyons characteristic of the Hill Country.

Bull Creek Preserve in winter

The preserve has six miles of trails, including a longer loop and a few shorter loops.  From the Bull Creek Greenbelt, the lower trail (go to the left at the entrance map), is the most scenic, with a short, steep climb up to an viewpoint overlooking the falls on Bull Creek below.  That trail drops back down to the creek and follows the greenbelt trail back to the entrance point.  The rest of the trails (go to the right of the entrance map) wind up and down on a limestone-gravel path that is mostly shaded but periodically offers good views of the juniper-forested hills of the preserve.  The only disappointing section of the trail is the northern-most part of the main loop, where the trail follows an access road used by the Austin Water utility trucks.

The dominant tree in the preserve is Ashe Juniper (Juniperus ashei), which is usually called "cedar" by Austinites.  The densely-branched juniper trees provide nesting sites for the Golden-Cheeked Warblers.  I also saw many Plateau Live Oak (Quercus fusiformis) trees and a mix of deciduous trees without their leaves, mostly Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and, especially on slopes and hilltops, Spanish Oak (Quercus buckleyi) trees.

Three evergreen, fruit-bearing shrubs were the noticeable part of the understory.  In sunny clearings, Evergreen Sumac (Rhus virens) branches held many fuzzy, red-orange fruits.  The Evergreen Sumac is dioecious, which means that male and female flowers are produced on separate plants, and the fruit of the shrub provides food for birds and small mammals.  The fruit are high in vitamin C and, if soaked in water, can be used to make a tart-tasting tea.

Evergreen sumac (Rhus virens)

The evergreen shrub common along the shady to part-sun sections of the trail was Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), a native holly that produces bright red, shiny berries if it receives enough sunlight.  The densely-branched shrub provides nesting and hiding spots for birds, and its berries are food for birds and small mammals.  Like the Evergreen Sumac, Yaupon shrubs are also dioecious, with separate male and female plants.

Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria)

A third, evergreen shrub holding many blue-black fruits grew in sunny woodland openings.  I had seen this shrub along the Greenbelt trail earlier in the fall, so I knew that it was common in our area, but despite its evergreen leaves and distinct blue-black fruits, I had not been able to identify the plant.  This time around I noticed that the branching pattern on this mystery shrub was familiar to me and looked just like the branching pattern of Viburnums or dogwood trees, with strictly opposite branches and V-shaped nodes.  But the dogwoods, which are usually restricted to streamsides in our area and have distinct, parallel-veined leaves that I know by sight, and the Viburnum common to central Texas, Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum), have deciduous leaves.  Eventually, by searching through shrubs related to dogwoods and Virburnums, I found my plant, Lindheimer Silktassel.

Lindheimer Silktassel (Garrya ovata spp. lindheimeri) used to be classified in the Dogwood Family but was reclassified into its own family, the Garryaceae, or Silktassel Family.  Lindheimer Silktassel is a subspecies of Silktassel that is endemic to the Edwards Plateau, where it is common on rocky slopes and limestone ledges, or as an understory shrub at the edge of wooded areas.  The blooms of Lindheimer Silktassel appear in the spring, followed by round fruits that are blue with a whitish coating.  By winter, when much of the whitish coating is gone, the fruit appear blue-black in color.  Lindheimer Silktassel grows to be a large shrub or small tree and provides shelter and food for birds.

Lindheimer Silktassel (Garrya ovata spp. lindheimeri)

Like the Evergreen Sumac and Yaupon, the Lindheimer Silktassel is dioecious, with separate male and female plants.  Overall, being dioecious is unusual in plants – most are monoecious, with male and female flowers on the same plant, or, more commonly, male and female parts in the same flower – yet all three of these evergreen shrubs are dioecious.  Maybe it's just good strategy in a juniper forest, where the dominant tree itself, Ashe Juniper, is also dioecious.

I would like to think that all these winter berries will be food for the Golden-Cheeked Warblers in March, when they return from their wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America and begin establishing territories and nesting in the hills of the preserve.  But warblers eat insects and spiders found in the leaves and bark of the trees, not berries.  Still, healthy shrubs provide shelter for the birds and food for other birds and mammals in the preserve, which promotes biodiversity in the preserve and in the larger Bull Creek watershed, which ensures that the Golden-Cheeked Warblers will continue to have a place to nest in central Texas.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Garden in Snow

I made the mistake of thinking that winter was already over.  We were past the end of our most-likely freeze window and February, the month in which the elm trees bloom and the red buckeyes at the Greenbelt flower, was beginning.  But I was getting ahead of myself again, forgetting that winter in Austin, though short and mild overall, is highly variable day to day, wildly unpredictable year to year, and tends to recur long after spring is underway.

The snow on Friday morning was the highlight of the storm.  In thirteen years of living in central Austin, I've never seen actual snow – not ice or hail – accumulation on the ground.  So when I woke to a white world on Friday morning, instantly the storm of the past few days became the snowstorm of 2011 and my memory of the freezing days that preceded the snow day faded.  This day was the day of the snowstorm.

In reality, Friday, the day of the snow, was also the day of the thaw, the day of sunshine and temperatures above freezing for the first time since Tuesday.  For the plants in my gardens, the snowfall was merely the last trial at the end of three long days of freezing temperatures and frigid winds.  And, despite what I say about the seriousness of our bouts of winter and the unpredictability of our cool season, nearly 70 consecutive hours of freezing temperatures is not something that I expect for my garden to have to endure in this climate.  Before the snow fell, before the novelty of my first Austin snow day rewrote my memory of the week, I was worried about my plants and upset about the injustice of our climate, in which hard freezes are infrequent enough to warrant severe-weather status yet reliable enough that growing tropical plants is out of the question.

I grumble about the freezes but I've learned to expect them, even as I am planting my fall garden in the heat of October.  I only plant greens that can withstand the common, light freezes of the cool season, and I devote more garden space that I might like to the real cold-hardy plants, like kale and collards, that can handle ice storms, near-0˚ F wind chills, and other "freak" winter events that could otherwise wipe out my entire garden.  This year I've also been covering most of my front-yard garden in Plankets, 10 x 20 foot plant blankets made out of thick, green row-cover material, whenever the night temperatures are predicted to fall into the mid-20's or lower.

Front-yard garden under Plankets and snow

The Plankets seem to help, or at least they give me something to do in the face of an impending freeze, but using them tends to mash down the tallest of the plants and, even though I strive to put them in place near sunset and take them off as soon as temperatures warm in the morning, deprives the plants of a few hours of sunlight.  Last week, though, with temperatures remaining below freezing for nearly three days in a row, my front-yard garden was covered in Plankets for about 70 hours, from Tuesday afternoon until midday on Friday, when Lee helped me to toss away the snow (heavy!) and give the plants a few hours of fresh air and sunshine.

Out from under the Plankets, the garden looked rough – smashed by the weight of the snow, frost-bitten, and winter-weary.  Though I felt cruel covering the plants up again, we covered the garden again on Friday night because we still had one more hard freeze to endure before our "normal" balmy winter conditions returned on Saturday, allowing us to finally put away the Plankets until the next round of severe weather.  As the gardens, front- and backyard, began their recovery, the question on my mind was:  Do the Plankets help more then they harm?

The backyard garden wasn't covered during the storm.  In fact, I haven't covered that garden at all this year.  It's in a more protected location, with less direst north wind exposure, it contains a higher proportion of cold-hardy plants like cabbages and collards, and it's been something of an experiment this fall, seeing if that space gets enough light, can withstand lower temperatures, etc.  So, while the microclimates of the two gardens differ somewhat, the backyard garden, which was not covered during the extended freeze or the snowstorm, offers a point of comparison to the Planketed front-yard garden.

Backyard garden under snow

In both the front-yard and backyard gardens, I am growing lettuces, Swiss chard, spinach, and beets.  While the tall chard plants in the front yard were being smashed under the Planket, the chard plants in the backyard were covered in snow.

After the snow melted and the warm temperatures returned, the chard in the backyard looked mostly dead.  The leaves were translucent and mushy, lying on the ground wilted.  Only a few of the inner-most leaves of those chard plants appeared to have survived.  I am hopeful that, even though the current leaves on those plants were lost to the storm, the plants themselves are likely to regrow from their roots, which were protected from freezing by a deep layer of mulch.

The chard in the front-yard garden, which was covered with the Plankets, fared better.  After days of being covered, the plants were bent, with some broken stems and frost-bitten leaves, and smashed and generally looked abused.  But overall the leaves on those chard plants were still upright and alive looking, ready to rebound from the storm.

Judging from the (very unscientific) comparison of the covered vs. uncovered chard, using the Plankets saved valuable garden produce.  Other comparisons support those results.  The lettuces in the backyard garden were killed by the cold temperatures and/or snow, and, like the backyard chard, their leaves turned to mush.  Some of the lettuces in the front-yard garden were killed, but the majority of the plants in the row survived, with frost-damaged outside leaves.  Cilantro and parsley, relatives in rows next to each other, had different fates as well.  While the cilantro was covered during the storm, the parsley was not, simply because the 20' Planket didn't quite reach that far, so while the cilantro survived the storm, the parsley was wilted and white when the snow cleared.  So the Plankets do help more than they harm, but, even knowing that, I hope that I don't have to use them many more times this year.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chard and Sorrel Soup

Sorrel was a newcomer to my garden this year, so I watched it grow with curiosity.  Its seeds sprouted after the spinach and chard, but before the carrots and parsley.  Its cotyledons were tiny, oval and bright yellow-green, much like lettuce cotyledons.  Its seedlings grew more slowly than the other greens in the garden, and, by December, the sorrel plants were significantly smaller than the chard, kale, or lettuces.  But, though small, or perhaps because they have stayed small and contained for longer than the other greens, suspended at that ever so still-young state, sorrel is a very attractive green, with erect, arrow-shaped leaves that remain bright and spring-green throughout the growing season.

Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) in the garden

What I didn't realize about sorrel when I planted it is that sorrel is a perennial herb.  In other words, unlike the annual Brassicas and lettuces that are already getting ready to bolt, flower, and be done with their lives in one season, and unlike the biennial chard and beets that will experience spring as their second year and soon after bolt, flower, and go to seed much like the annuals, the sorrel plants are programmed to grow for many seasons, regrowing and flowering each year.  I'm not sure whether to be excited about this discovery, to run out to the garden and thin my crowded plants to an appropriate eighteen inches apart, or to be distressed by the fact that, unknowingly, I have made a long-term commitment to a row of plants that will need to be watered over the summer.  In either case, the fact that sorrel is a perennial explains why the plants have been growing more slowly than the other greens in the garden.  Sorrel is in no hurry to complete its life cycle before the summer begins.

The problem is that common sorrel (Rumex acetosa), which is native to northern Europe, Russia, Canada, and the northern United States, all of which have mild, short summers, may not be able to deal with the heat and drought that characterize our very long summer.  So my sorrel, despite its genetic programming, is probably going to lead the short life of an annual.  I still hope, though, that it will be able to flower and set seeds because now I am want to see sorrel in bloom, to see its tall, buckwheat-like flowering spikes covered in reddish-green to purple flowers and to see the shiny, brown seeds that follow.  Further inspiring my curiosity is the fact that sorrel is dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants, which is unusual among garden herbs.

No matter how long my sorrel plants manage to survive, their leaves are best eaten while the plants are still young.  Young sorrel leaves, which taste tangy with an after-bite of lemon, can be added to salads in small quantities, or cooked along with other greens.  The tang in the leaves comes from oxalic acid, a phytochemical found in the leaves of spinach-family plants (spinach, chard, beets), buckwheat-family plants (sorrel and rhubarb), and various other foods, including bananas, ginger, and bell peppers.  Sorrel also contains high levels of vitamins A, C, and B9, and provides some iron, potassium, calcium, and magnesium.  Used as an herbal supplement, sorrel is cooling, detoxifying, and a natural laxative.  Modern nutritionists warn against eating sorrel in large quantities, however, because of the high levels of oxalic acid, which can aggravate conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and kidney stones.  Cooking sorrel helps to break down the oxalic acid before it is eaten.

Sorrel is most famous for its use in winter soups, where its lemony flavor brightens up the heavier flavors of root vegetables, onions, and winter greens.  But only a few cups of leaves are needed to add flavor to a pot of soup, which, in these, the greens-eating days at the end of winter, is simply not enough greens.  So I decided to make a chard and sorrel soup, which would contain a whole basket-load of chard along with the sorrel leaves in a potato-leek soup base.  As promised, the sorrel added a lemony tang to a satisfying winter soup.  Better yet, the flavors in the soup were even more complex and interesting the next day, when I ate the soup as leftovers. 

Chard and Sorrel Soup
adapted from Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Bunches of chard vary greatly in number of leaves, size of leaves, and total amount of cook-able greens.  To make this soup, I harvested approximately two large bunches of leaves.  After removing the stems and midribs and chopping the leaves into large pieces, I was able to pack a 4-quart bowl full with chopped leaves.

Fresh sorrel is difficult to find because it does not keep long once it is picked.  Sorrel is most likely to be available in the spring at the grocery store, though it may be wilted and sad-looking, or during the cool season at the farmer's market.  If sorrel is unavailable, lemon juice can be used in its place.  To substitute lemon, add the juice of one large lemon after the soup is pureed.

2 bunches chard leaves, about 4 quarts leaves (see note above)
1 bunch sorrel leaves, about 3 cups leaves (see note above)
3 medium leeks
3 tablespoons butter
5 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds red potatoes, chopped
5 cups vegetable broth
1/2 cup sour cream
fresh cracked black pepper

Thoroughly wash the chard leaves and remove the stems and thick midribs.  Chop the leaves into large pieces.  Wash the sorrel leaves and remove the stems.

Trim the stem end from each leek and remove the outermost layer.  Slice the white and light green parts of the leek and discard the tough, dark green parts.  Soak the leek slices in water to remove soil, which tends to hide between the layers, then rinse and drain.

Melt the butter in a large pot over medium-high heat.  Add the sliced leeks and chopped potatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for a minute or two longer.  Add 1/2 cup of water and scrape the bottom of the pot.  Add the greens, a batch at a time if necessary, and wilt.  Once all the greens are wilted, add the vegetable broth.  Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Puree the soup in a food processor or blender – be sure to do this in small batches so that the boiling-hot soup has room to expand.  Return the soup to the pot and season with black pepper.  Stir the sour cream into the soup.  Serve hot.