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That realization hit me this year as I sampled the first of what is going to be a bumper crop of strawberries from the new bed we started a couple of years ago. Slowly, insidiously, the grocery store strawberry has been lowering my expectations about what a good berry should taste like.

We’ve been buying strawberries the past few years after crown rot took the strawberry bed we’d been enjoying every year (it’s pretty much finished the asparagus as well). Since you can’t continue to plant in the same area once that happens, and since you really shouldn’t grow strawberries over and over in the same place, we started a new bed of some June-bearing Honeoye plants at the front end of our garden. But new beds take a year or two to get going. This is the first year we’ve had any real strawberry harvest.

My family eats strawberries way too fast for us to keep up with buying them at the farmer’s markets. So we’ve been getting them at the store.

And I have to say, the direction store berries have taken hasn’t been a good one.

Of course they’re gorgeously red and aromatic. Good camouflage, is what I’d call that. Once you cut or bite in, it’s another story.

Store strawberries have become hard, dry and bland. They fight you when you try to cut or bite into them. I found myself having to cut out a woody core of one batch of berries before they could be used for anything, even cooking.

Also, they’ve become freakishly large. I took this picture last year after buying another disappointing batch. That’s a plum on the left. I just can’t think of any reason a strawberry should be as big as a plum.

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I can only guess the reasons for this. I would assume that commercial growers are concerned about shelf life and the bouncy truck ride hundreds of miles to the store. Or maybe it’s because they stand up well to being dipped in chocolate. I hope that’s not true. The idea that people will only eat a strawberry if it’s encased in an inch of chocolate is extremely depressing.

But the point is that, because we’ve regularly been eating store strawberries, we’d come to sort of accept that this is what real strawberries are like.

And friends, they are not.

First, the juice. When I bit into that first sublime garden berry of the season, juice ran out onto my fingertips. Try getting that from a plastic box of Driscolls! I’d forgotten strawberries had juice.

Then there’s the almost melt-int-the-mouth tenderness. No resistance when you bite down, only tangy, juicy goodness. And certainly no woody core.

My garden strawberries don’t smell as strongly as the store’s. But there’s no comparing the distinctive strawberry tang. When we made the celebratory strawberry shortcake, we only needed a fraction of the sugar.

Of course, a berry bed is hard to keep going. This will be a great year, but some of the bed will need to be thinned out for next year. And maybe the year after that, we’ll tear them all out and start over.

But it’s worth it, so worth it.

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Posted by: Roxie

 

 

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All the sports news about March Madness got me thinking about the Mad Hatter, which got me thinking about tea time and the March Hare, which got me thinking again about the saying, “Mad as a March Hare.”

I’ve been hearing this all my life, but only recently found out it’s meaning. So today, the first official day of spring, seemed like a good time to share it.

It seems the hares of the British Isles put on quite a show each spring, chasing and boxing each other in the giddy delight of the warm spring sun and the onset of mating season. They stand on hind legs and box, as the females repel males who have become, apparently, a bit obnoxious. This is behavior we don’t see in our town rabbits. Here’s a YouTube video I’ll try to embed.

Anyway, as today is the first day of spring and my schedule is a little lighter because of spring break, I got out in the garden for the first time this afternoon.

It was a couple of days past my usual goal of planting peas and potatoes on St. Paddy’s, but oh well. Not by much. I put out three kinds of seed potatoes, onions, shallots and of course, peas. Despite the dry winter, it was reassuring that the ground was at least damp as I turned it over with the hoe.

I won’t lie. I do sometimes get tired of gardening. We’ve been doing it for more than a quarter century, after all. But yet there’s just always something so nice about getting down in that fresh-tilled, slightly warm earth and putting one set then another into the ground. It’s a ritual of hope.

I’m hooked, I guess.

So here’s to spring.

Now, time for tea.

Posted by: Roxie

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Chicken sweaters!

 

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No I’m not kidding! It’s a thing!

One of my friends retweeted this picture of how modern day chickens survive winters like these. Apparently you can find them on Etsy. And there’s a group in the UK devoted to rescuing chickens that has made a project of knitting the sweaters (where they’re called “jumpers”).

I’d love it if our city would allow backyard chickens. If they did, I feel sure I’d be compelled to knit a few sweaters. Who could resist?

Suppose they have patterns for egg sweaters as well?

…roxie

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It’s a beautiful weekend. Full fall color on the trees, not too cold.

While many of us are beginning to relax and enjoy shutting down our gardens for the season, there’s still a way to put all those stooping and picking skills to work before winter sets in.

It’s called gleaning, and it’s a movement that’s beginning to catch hold in our area.gleaners painting

A group called the Society of St. Andrew (no, they don’t preach to you–they’ll work with anyone regardless of faith or lack of it) is out there this week, Nov. 3-6, trying to pick up a million pounds of squash that might otherwise be left on the ground at Carolyn’s Country Cousins u-pick farm in Liberty. The idea is to get as much edible squash as they can on the tables and shelves of food pantries to feed the needy in time for Thanksgiving.

And they need volunteers.

Gleaning is an old–ancient really–idea. Farmers allowed the poor to gather leftovers in the fields that couldn’t be sold. It’s been largely forgotten in the US until recently. Apparently the recent hard times and concerns over factory food have brought the idea back, hand in hand with a renewed interest in gardening.

I did a story on this for the Kansas City Star recently. (Read it here) It seems like a great way to get out into the countryside and do some good. And it’s a good reminder that we’re all in it together.

So here’s my plug: You can find out more about how to help SoSA from this website: http://www.endhunger.org/sosawest.htm

Posted by: Roxie

 

 

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A late summer recap

After days and days of drought, the rain is finally coming down this morning, Sept. 17. Sigh. The lost opportunities.

This has been one of the toughest gardening years I can remember. And that’s saying something, considering our first big garden year was an epic drought in 1988. That was the year people first began to take seriously a thing called global warming.

This year, though. So many problems. Prolonged drought and heat wave right at the time that most things matured. Influx of sap-sucking bugs. And then we had a cold, wet spring that got everything off to a very late start. Even the seedlings we put in the basement somehow didn’t want to grow this year. Suppose they knew something?

All summer long, everything has been about a month behind schedule. Usually I would have picked two or three bushels of tomatoes and had them canned by late August. This year we are only a week or so into peak picking. I can’t remember a summer when the tomatoes have been this late.

But we’re thankful they’re here at all, given the drought(s), the pressure from drought-loving insects and the weak start they got at the beginning of the year.

And we did, in fact, have some successes. The cucumbers finally did come around. I was just this close to pulling them all out in defeat, but then the laziness kicked in. Never pull something out unless you’re sure it has a virus. Or unless it’s all the way dead. In the case of the cukes, we put them out later than ever because of the cold, damp soil. When it then turned hot, they didn’t look like they were going to make it. But bounce back they did. And as a plus, we didn’t see any of the disease that causes them to wilt. That’s transmitted by cucumber beetle. So I’m thinking the late planting caused them to beat the bugs’ life cycle.

Same with the tomatoes. They’ve been plagued with mites all summer long. They still look like hell, and I’m sure we’re not getting as many as we would in a normal year. But by golly we’re getting something, so it wasn’t a total loss.butterfly

There are a few things that have been an unqualified success. Basil, which I didn’t even bother to plant until the second week of June, is now about chest high and looking good. Kale, which I almost forgot about and then direct-seeded into an empty spot at the last minute, has been beautiful all summer long. Same with parsnips. And malabar spinach. Don’t get me started. It’s like an alien life form trying to take over the southwest quadrant.

Of course, we protect ourselves by mulching and using the soaker hose to water, and trying to plant heat- and drought-resistant plants. In the end, though, you do what you can and be grateful for the outcome.

And hope for next year.

Posted by: Roxie

 

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After a long enough try period, it seems sometimes things just go to sleep. Gardeners included.

That’s how it’s been for us this exceptionally weird summer. First, really cold, wet weather delayed spring planting about as late as I can ever remember for this area. Then the spigot just turned off and things quit.

But we got an inch and a quarter of rain the past two days, so it’s time to wake up and celebrate.

Today we’re feeling thankful for some changes we’ve made that have enabled us to do something we’ve never done before–eat garden fresh greens all through the hot season.

No, it doesn’t involve any special indoor growing equipment or hoop houses to shade out tender lettuce and spinach. We’re generally too lazy and poor for those things.┬áBut read on.

The past few years have been very frustrating for what we usually grow as greens. Lettuce, arugula, spinach. We’ve either had a very late, cold spring jumping directly to 90-degree heat, or an early spring jumping directly to 90-degree heat in April or May. Those tender greens do not do well in the dry, windy heat that has come to characterize our springs lately.

So this year we changed things up. We still planted the usual, and they did okay. Not great.

But this year we added something called malabar spinach and it has been a huge success.

Malabar spinach is nothing new. It’s been advertised in seed catalogs for years as the hot-weather solution for spinach lovers. But I’ve always resisted it because I figured something that grows as a semi-succulent vine would probably have a powerful flavor that would make it unsuitable for salads.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Malabar spinach, or Basella alba, is native to tropical Asia. Sounds about right for this area, yes? But it looks nothing like spinach. Direct seed it in little hills, like you would cucumbers or any other vines. Then when it comes up, put a tall stake nearby. It’s dark red vine stems wrap round and round the stake with no training or tie-ups necessary.In fact it’s quite pretty, maybe the perfect plant for a “stealth” vegetable garden if your homeowner’s association is picky.

Malabar spinach

Malabar spinach

What you get are heart-shaped leaves that can be eaten raw or cooked, and there’s a long list of Asian dishes that use this plant. The leaves don’t taste like spinach. But they are very mild with hardly any defining taste we could identify. We’ve put them on sandwiches in place of lettuce and today, I’ve made up a salad mixing them with some chard leaves, fried halloumi cheese bites (leftover from another dish last night), peaches and puffed rice from the Indian grocery for garnish. I’ve got some good blueberry salad dressing to go with.

You can also cook them, but I’ve not tried that yet. One thing that gave me pause: A clear, somewhat sticky liquid oozes out when you snap the stems. This can allegedly be used to thicken some dishes, I imagine, a little like okra. So that will be something to watch out for if you, like me, are not a fan of the okra slime.

We have a few other leafy vegetables out there as well. I mentioned the chard, which is not doing nearly as well as other years but still okay. And then there’s the kale. I’ve always been led to believe that kale is no good in the warm months. I planted ours in an area that doesn’t get quite as much sun. But wow. It’s still going strong. No sign of buds or bolting and still tastes great.

So it’s off to the MLS Allstar game tonight with my malabar spinach salad. Go USA!

Posted by: Roxie

 

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To anyone who missed last weekend’s Urban Grown Farms and Gardens tour, condolences. This once-every-other-year event was the biggest yet and offered tons of ideas on how to make your food-bearing garden more productive and more beautiful. Mike and I came home eager to try some of the things we’d seen at some very interesting gardens around the Kansas City area.

The tour celebrates the efforts of gardeners raising food in the urban and suburban areas. But since there were 60 farmers on the tour, it would have been impossible to get to all of them. Mike and I took along a camera to share about some we visited. And anyone out there reading this is invited to share as well. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a sampling of the whole things.

We’re a little later than we wanted to be with this, thanks to come connectivity issues at our house (Thanks, Time Warner). Anyway, here are our highlights. I’ll try and get a slide show up on Facebook as well.

The Westside Local

This eatery on the monumental Summit street incline in Kansas City has a challenging growing environment. First, space out back and beside the restaurant is severely limited. Second, it’s on that hill. But the owners are still growing things pretty well, thanks to the replacement of some soil and a season-extending hoop structure out back. They also have a lovely grape vine off the side, with tables for guests underneath. The gardeners there say they grew 600 pounds of food on raised beds last year.

 

The greenhouse protects kale from the harsh sun and heat and keeps the rosemary warm in winter.

The greenhouse protects kale from the harsh sun and heat and keeps the rosemary warm in winter.

They were even able to grow some greens on this contraption, which holds soil against the side of the restaurant.

They were even able to grow some greens on this contraption, which holds soil against the side of the restaurant.

 

Switzer Neighborhood Farm Westside Community Gardens

 

This site sits in a little dell downhill from a huge empty school. Just two years ago, it was a vacant lot “that invited dumping, littering and housing for those with alcohol or drug addictions,” according to the Urban Grown tour flyer. Now it has a little of everything. Raised bed plots at the top of the hill and bees, ducks and chickens down below.

Rain barrels (middle left) store water for the raised beds.

Rain barrels (middle left) store water for the raised beds.

 

Urban Farming Guys

This place had it all: A bamboo screen, hugelkulture mounds, duckweed to feed the chickens and an unbearably hot aquaponics shed all in the heart of Kansas City’s urban core. Just a half block away, a community garden now beautifies a corner that had been an unsightly open lot.

Mike was fascinated by the hugelkulture, me less so. This is a gardening system (more popular in Europe) that uses dead tree limbs as the foundation for dirt mounds, about chest high. You grow vegetables on the mounds and the rotting wood inside holds and releases rainwater so–no watering.

You be the judge

You be the judge

 

They grow it themselves for their chickens.

They grow it themselves for their chickens.

 

Who needs a privacy fence when you have bamboo?

Who needs a privacy fence when you have bamboo?

 

This used to be vacant.

This used to be vacant.

 

Catholic Worker

 

Just down the street a couple of blocks is a dedicated group offering breakfast, showers, clothes and company to people in the neighborhood without a roof over their heads. And they’re about as sustainable as you can get. They are one of the first partners of a new group in town–Giving Grove–that promotes the planting of fruit and nut trees. So there are fruit trees and grape vines around the property, as well as bee hives and chicken coops. And they collect rainwater from their roof as well.

Which came first?

Which came first?

 

They built an ingenious trellis--wooden "t's" with wire (or mayabe it was string) to hold up the vines. You can pick grapes in the shade.

They built an ingenious trellis–wooden “t’s” with wire (or maybe it was string) to hold up the vines. You can pick grapes in the shade.

 

Hoop Dog Studio

This was without a doubt the most artistic and restful of all the places we saw. This place is adjacent to an art studio at 33rd and Troost and is composed of little outdoor rooms decorated with reclaimed glass and other items. There’s plenty of shade to enjoy. Interspersed are ponds, chickens, and vegetables enough to feed 10 people in all seasons.

hoop dog room

chickens

chicken enclosure

Huns Garden

This was the one I voted most controversial of the tour. Anyone who went there will remember this as the guy who doesn’t weed. So when you look out over the rows, you really have a hard time seeing which are crops and which are weeds. This was generating a lot of questions from the people who stopped at his Kansas City, KS farm. Apparently he plants the seeds deeper for the crops so the weeds don’t starve them out. Or something. I didn’t totally understand it. But it must work, because Pov Hun has a successful stall selling flowers and vegetables at the City Market.

See the crops?

See the crops?

 

Look closely

Look closely

 

Well OK. You can see the full-grown kale pretty well here. That's his planting furrower in front.

Well OK. You can see the full-grown kale pretty well here. That’s his planting furrower in front.

 

Mitzvah Gardens

This was one of five in the good old suburbs of Johnson County. That’s the most ever for this tour. Mitzvah Gardens in Overland Park has a huge hilltop adjacent to Temple B’nai Jehudah where they grow for people who are “food insecure.” When I went there to talk to them for a Star story, nothing much was up, but now there’s plenty of mid-season cucumbers, onions, sweet potatoes and, yes, tomatoes going. We went back to see the rainwater catchment building they were putting up. But it wasn’t finished yet. So here’s a picture of their deer protection, which they say works very well. The wires are strung above the regular fence and decorated with something shiny. Mylar, maybe. That makes the fence a good 7 feet high. Then if you look close you can see little pieces of soap on strings every so often. They tell me Irish Spring is the soap to get for this.

Irish Spring is the deer-repellant soap

Irish Spring is the deer-repellant soap

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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