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Archive for April, 2012

Today’s subject is maple seeds. You know–those little things that look like insect wings and twirl like helicopters.

The freaky hot and cold snaps and wet and (mostly dry) spells have us wondering whether we’ll get a decent vegetable crop this year. But this we know for sure: It’s been a super year for sugar maple tree–possibly the best year ever.

I can’t think of a time I’ve seen more of those wispy things. They fill all our rain gutters, every sidewalk crack. They’ve turned parts of our formerly green lawn light brown. In the garden, away from the trees, there are so many seeds that it’s difficult to see the rows where tiny green shoots are coming up.

So I’m giving over today to contemplation of the little seeds because, let’s face it, not a whole lot is going on in the vegetable part of our yard.

Mainly, I’m talking about finding some uses for the little buggers.  Anything that comes free in such quantity ought to have a use, right? Here’s what I found on the Internet:

* Some wilderness survival sites say they are edible. I’m not sure how hungry I’d have to be before joining the squirrels, who eat them enthusiastically. But this is one site that claims the young pods taste like peas or hominy after you boil them for a bit. Supposedly, it’s better to do this while the pods are still green, meaning you’d have to jump up or get a ladder at our house. The brown ones we’re sweeping off the sidewalk would be bitter. As with anything totally new, you don’t want to eat more than a couple the first time, in case of food allergies. And of course if you’re allergic to tree nuts, don’t try it at all.

*Jewelry and crafts. Who knew? But at  Etsy, there are numerous pieces of art, computer wallpaper and jewelry inspired by or even made out of real maple seeds. Like these earrings

*Let them inspire you…When people aren’t mowing, sweeping, scooping and raking up maple seeds, it seems they are being inspired by them.  For instance, you can make your own origami maple seed that flutters just like nature’s own (as if you needed another one!) Here’s how:

Biomimicry…In a story that is equal parts creepy and cool,  Treehugger reports that engineers have worked out a way for the physics behind maple seed flight to be made into a boomerang-sized drone. The drone could be used by soldiers to check out an area before they go in.  If you click on the link, be sure to watch the video of some test flights of the eerily whining little machine.

So as you see, the endless elegance of natural design is always amazing. But does any of this make you love picking those seeds out of your gutter any better?

Thought not.

Posted by: Roxie

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The local food movement continues to gain momentum. People who’ve never grown their own fruits and vegetables  want to get their hands in the dirt. And who can blame them with this weather we’ve been having.

Trouble is, many of them don’t how to go about it.

That was the idea behind “Mike and Roxie’s Vegetable Paradise,” the book project that was the genesis for this blog. But while our handy how-to was aimed at the individual home gardeners, we didn’t address the ins and outs of starting a community garden. Nor did it occur to us to write a handbook on how to set up a full-scale urban farm — maybe because we don’t have that kind of experience to pass on.

However, this week I stumbled upon a fairly new organization in metro Kansas City that specializes in helping folks start community gardens and urban farms called Get Growing KC.

Not exactly stumbled upon. They sent a press release to my work email at The Star announcing the 15 projects that would be receiving the second-round of grants from Get Growing KC. Among them, $3,000 so an urban farm operating in the Marlborough neighborhood can buy a used tractor and $450 to a community garden that wants to install a drip irrigation system.

The grants are funded by the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, which is doing a lot of great things around town. The next deadline for applications is in August and…well, that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Before one could even begin to apply for a grant to improve the availability of fresh produce in urban food deserts (one of the group’s main aims)  it might be helpful to know a little bit about growing food.

That’s the part I wanted to pass along, since Roxie and I run into a number of people thinking about setting up a community garden.

I followed up on the press release and learned that Get Growing KC is a two-year campaign that grew out of a partnership between Kansas City Community Gardens, Lincoln University Extension and Cultivate Kansas City, formerly the Center for Urban Agriculture.

Team members from the various groups put on workshops aimed at helping gardeners/farmers start and manage their spreads. A 3-hour workshop on setting up and managing a community garden covers everything from site selection and construction to day-to-day management.

The one on urban farming is broken into two sessions (not sure how long)  and covers the gamut: planning, planting, harvesting, as well marketing and business management.

More important to those of us who are already off and running, as it were, is they’re another resource that we can call or email when we need advice or questions answered on garden-related matters.

For questions about sick tomato plants and what to spray for this bug or that, the Master Gardener’s hotline is still your best bet. But these folks advertise themselves as being more about the bigger picture.

So whether you’re part of a church or community group that wants to set up a combination garden/farmer’s market, or just want to set up a garden in your back yard, you can call them at 816-226-7979, or email at info@getgrowingkc.org.

Posted by: Mike

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Doomsday planning is everywhere, it seems. On cable TV there are at least two different series about people who are stocking their bunkers for one type of apocalypse or another. At the movies and in kid-lit, the latest hit it The Hunger Games–a big part of which is about teenagers hunting and foraging and living off the land. When they’re not trying to kill each other. And then there’s this whole global warming thing.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise, really, that the cover story in the latest issue of Mother Earth News is about growing just the type of plants in your yard that survivalists and Hunger Games fans are talking about.

They are perennial vegetables of the type your would forage for in the woods should the end times come. And you can grow them in your back yard, front yard, around the foundation. Just about anywhere in fact.

Perennial vegetables are the next big trend in gardening. Unlike the broccoli and tomatoes we plant every year, perennial vegetables are supposed to come up year after year without replanting. They’re the food your grandmother or great grandmother might have searched out during the Great Depression.

We’ve been fascinated by the idea of eating “weeds” since we talked about it with Chris Conatser for our book. There’s a whole world of food out there that’s been unknown to us mainly because of the attitudes of past generations. Europeans, for instance, turned their noses up at foods commonly eaten by native Americans.

So the Mother Earth News article has us all excited about planting some edibles in various under-used spots around the yard. Who knows, maybe if we can eat them, we’ll take better care of them than we do the flowers.

But what to plant? Mother Earth lists ten suggestions. But which ones will grow best in the quirky Kansas City area climate dead center in the USA?

I did some extra researching, and here’s the lowdown:

First, let’s dispense with some of the perennials in the list that are common to this area. Asparagus, rhubarb, lovage and sorrel. We already know these will grow here. In fact we already grow them or have in the past. So let’s look at something more adventurous.

Ramps1.Ramps–Otherwise known as wild onions. If you’re a regular reader of cooking blogs or the New York Times food section, you’ve heard of ramps. People in east coast restaurants are apparently wild for them–so much so that they are in danger of being over-gathered.They are a protected species in Quebec.

But can you grow them here? Well, it sounds like it’s a possibility. But it won’t be as easy as it would in the East and Southeast, where you hear more about them. For one thing, ramps love being in the woods and shade, especially if there is decomposed leaf matter in the soil. They also need a constantly moist soil, and this can be an issue here, where as I’m writing we’ve had a decidedly dry winter and spring. But even so, we might try them at the low end of our yard, under the trees that surround our tiny pond.

(Fun fact: The city of Chicago got its name from this plant, according to Wikipedia. A thick growth of ramps in the area was mistakenly identified as the Chicagou, the native name for another type of wild onion, the story goes.)

Apios americana2. Groundnut. No, Mother Earth is not talking about the peanut. This is apios americana, aka Indian potato. This plant is said to grow well in climates of the north, such as Wisconsin. It’s a long vining plant that grows tubers underground of various sizes. There’s not much to be found on cultivation, however.

It’s a plant that loves to grow along river sides, using nearby trees to support the long vines and that gives me pause, when thinking about it as a backyard plant. We do have trees, but again, the moisture can be a problem when the hot winds blow. As they are doing today, April 1.

Good King Henry3. Good King Henry. This is a relative of spinach which used to be common in English gardens. You can eat not only the leaf but also the stalk and flower buds, which resemble broccoli. You want to cook the leaves, though. This plant likes medium moisture and full sun, but in hot dry climates like ours grows best in light shade. Hmmm. This might be one to consider.

4.Sea Kale. As the name would suggest, this vegetable likes a somewhat sandy soil and grows best in coastal areas. Sounds like a “no.”

5.Jerusalem artichoke. Or sunchoke. These are offered in garden catalogs and for some reason I’ve never tried growing them. But they have pretty flowers that look a lot like our native prairie plants. They’re native to the central part of the country, grow where corn grows, need 125 frost free days and don’t need a lot of pampering. Sign me up! The only drawback I could find was that they don’t like heavy clay, but our soil has been pretty well amended by compost.

Chinese artichoke6. Chinese artichokes. I can’t resist these because of the quirky way they look. They’re related to mint and like full sun or part shade and a moist area. Okay, so maybe I’ll water.

I hope it isn’t too late to plant some of these this year, but it may be. Then again, there’s always next year.

Posted by: Roxie

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