My car was stolen in October, and the post I'd written for that month never appeared. Here is a shortened version--too late in some places, and perhaps still useful in others:
It is not clear why so many people are reporting problems with the grains that sustained life for generations. Is the problem in the new, dwarfed, wheats that appeared in the 20th century? In the chemicals and fertilizers used on them? In new harvest methods that no longer allow enzymes to cure the grain? One thing is clear: If you grow heirloom grains at home and harvest them in the traditional way, you won't have to worry about any of those problems.
Wheat is easy to grow. It grows well in climates as diverse as the Middle East and New England. It naturally likes to sprout with the fall rains and grow over the winter. If you want to give it a try, look for one of the taller, hardier heritage varieties like Banatka or Turkey Red. Fork over or till a bed, rake the ground, make furrows an inch deep and 10” apart. Sow every 6-8 inches. Make sure it doesn't dry out before the little plants are up.
If you don't want to bother with grain to harvest, but you want a weed-suppressing winter cover, consider rye. It is planted more shallowly than wheat, so you can just rough up the ground. If you are in a real hurry, you can even scatter rye on the surface and scatter straw over it. Not the best, but better than nothing. When it comes to protecting bare soil from damage, something is always better than nothing.
Hot sauce can be as simple as whirring up a few peppers in the blender, but the best Louisiana hot sauce involves live fermentation, just like pickles. If you've never done fermentation before, hot sauce is a good first project. As always with hot peppers, use gloves, don't touch your eyes or any sensitive skin, and scrub well afterward.
What peppers to use? Hotter than you can comfortably eat. I like Serrano, Criolla Sella or Korean peppers. They are spicy but not lethal, and don't increase in heat after the initial burn. Jalapenos vary wildly in heat, so taste before choosing. Joe's Long Cayenne, is luscious, both hot and sweet. A mixture is fine.
Prepare the peppers:
Rinse and drain your peppers. Using gloves and kitchen shears, chop them into a bowl, discarding the stems. If you like a fruitier hot sauce, you can split and deseed the peppers before cutting them in pieces. (I discard the seeds I can get easily, and leave the rest.) The Korean peppers in the photo are in rings 1/2" to 3/4" thick.
Now pack the pepper pieces into you clean crock or jars, along with the garlic. You want them to be tightly packed. Leave room for the weight, but not a lot of extra room. Finish off each jar with peppers that are not chopped but instead opened out flat and deseeded. These will help hold down the smaller pieces to keep them from scooting up past the weight. You could also use half an onion for this final layer, as in the photo. Smash down the peppers, try to spread your top layer so little pieces can't get past it, and put the weights on. Believe me, you don't want to try to put the weight on after the contents are floating in brine! Add the whey or pickle juice if using.
For the brine:
To make a quart (4 cups) of brine, whisk 3 tablespoons of salt into a quart of water. This is enough to do 2 quart jars of peppers.
Depending on how warm the room is, fermentation should start in 1-3 days. You will start to see bubbles. Check every other day for white scum and skim it off if any appears. It is a normal part of the process and no cause for alarm. (Save any extra brine to top up.) I would recommend fermenting for 2-3 weeks. When the brine is cloudy, the peppers have softened, and the jar has a nice slightly sour smell, you can stop fermentation and bottle. (Professionals go 4-6 weeks until the mixture is so sour that fermention stops. I don't.)
Blending and Bottling
If you have multiple jars of peppers, you don't have to bottle them all at once. I still have some jars of fermented peppers in brine in the fridge, useful for adding to salsas and salads. They keep very well in their jars, in the fridge, like pickles.
To make the sauce, drain most of the brine off of the peppers into a bowl or cup. Don't throw it away! Put the peppers into the blender or food processor, and add just enough brine so that you can blend it up. (A hand food mill or a tomato-sauce machine would make a nice seedless product if available.) When the sauce is as smooth as you like it, it is ready to use. Thin with the brine to your favorite consistency. Refrigerated, it will keep for a year.
To Make a Table Sauce:
To make a hot sauce to keep on the table, (unrefrigerated) you need to add more salt and some vinegar. I generally do this with the clear liquid that separates out after the blended hot sauce sits for awhile. For every cup of the thin sauce, add a 1/4 teasp of salt and 2 Tblsp vinegar.
That's it. One more blow for self-sufficiency.
Cover crops are a confusing topic for most gardeners, and no wonder. Most books expect you to plow them under. To gardeners, that doesn't sound doable. But new research shows that soil-building comes easier than that: from roots.
Of course, the top growth is important; preventing weeds alone is a huge benefit. And preventing soil loss. But out of sight, the roots do much more. Like opening passages for oxygen, feeding earthworms--and dying.
When the tops are cut, the roots die and turn to compost right there in the soil. Compost that you don't have to haul, turn, or shovel. And we aren't talking small amounts here. Winter Rye makes 380 miles of roots per plant. The most fertile soils in the world are grasslands, where the roots grow and die in the soil year after year.
What to Plant? Let Nature be your guide.
Meadows and prairies have a mixture of grasses, legumes, flowers, and taprooted plants. The famously fertile topsoils of the Midwest were built by such plant communities. Use that soil-building synergy in your garden. Your mix should include:
Timing is important
The size of the root system depends on when you plant. It's best to sow cover crops 2-4 weeks before your first fall frost. * Don't be surprised if the plants don't get tall--they will be busy underground. In tests, crimson clover that was was only 2 inches tall by November nevertheless had roots 12 inches deep, with many nitrogen nodules already fertilizing the soil. Rye only 6 inches tall had roots 20 inches deep. All winter, the roots will be holding your soil, providing channels for water absorption, and adding tons of organic matter to your garden.
But how can you plant cover crops when the beds are still full of summer plants? Here are some options:
Don't forget pots and containers.
A low-growing, cover crop prevents your expensive soil mix from getting washed away or taken over by weeds. Calendula, poppies, salad greens, clover, and peas are great for this. If you aren't using the pot, cover it with its saucer to keep weeds out.
*You can find first and last frost dates online. Here is one place:
Tomatoes are coming in at my place and while I probably don't have to tell you how to enjoy tomatoes, I thought this was a good time to remind you of some simple ways I love.
Everyone has recipes for cooked or canned tomato sauce; I won't add to that stack. These are my favorite preparations for enjoying that fresh, fresh summer flavor and keeping it for winter.
Raw: hot-weather lunch
My favorite lunch, dinner, or snack this time of year. Grate, smash, or chop some garlic, add it to olive oil. 1-2 Tbsp oil per person is about right. Add a pinch of salt--this draws the flavor out of the garlic, (and incidentally protects you from botulism if you leave it at room temperature.) Slice a bunch of tomatoes, tear up some basil and some fresh mozzarella. Chop some Italian torpedo onions if you like them. Mix it all up and mop up with crusty bread. Ciabatta is good. Some people add balsamic vinegar.
Lightly Cooked: quick pasta dinner
Put 1/3 to 1/2 lb pasta on to boil. While the water is heating, chop up sweet red pepper--one big bell, or 5 of the small Italian type. A hot pepper if you like. Saute in a skillet with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. When they are half-cooked (color has intensified but not soft yet) add 1/2 onion, chopped; a sprig of rosemary; a couple of sage leaves; and a few stems of thyme. If you have fennel, chop and add 1/2 cup of the bulb or a pinch of the leaves. Sprinkle on a pinch of salt as they cook. When the hard veggies are soft, chop or tear up 3-6 tomatoes, depending on size. (Last night I used 3 huge paste tomatoes torn in pieces.) When the juices are bubbling all across the pan, add a handfull of fresh mozzarella, torn up, or 1/4 cup grated parmesan. Put on the lid and take off the heat. (If you use very juicy tomatoes, cook it in an open pan until it thickens a bit. THEN add the cheese and turn off the heat.)
When your pasta is well-drained, put it in a bowl, dump on the sauce, and stir. Serves 2.
Roasted: add flavor, subtract skins
Roasting is a great way to give tomatoes an intense, smoky-fresh flavor to go with main dishes or over pasta. But is also a perfect way to get the skins off for canning or salsa. And honestly, which would you rather do--sit with a cold drink watching a barbeque fire or stand over a hot stove in August?
Getting the skins off by roasting is no more difficult than blanching them in water, and is actually faster, because I can fit so many more on the grill than in the pot. Best of all, this adds flavor instead of diluting it, and subtracts water instead of adding more to an already too-juicy product.
For easy, fast roasting, and wonderful flavor, roast the tomatoes or peppers on the barbeque grill. (I usually cook meat on the grill and then fill the grill with tomatoes, tomatillos, or peppers and put on the cover, because I like a very smoky flavor. For a less smoky flavor, leave it open. Either way, you need coals, not a roaring fire. Turn the peppers or tomatoes till the skin is blistered and loose on all sides. This is much more fun to do outdoors than standing over a stove, and faster, because the grill holds a lot.
You can use the broiler in their oven instead of a grill, or the traditional dry griddle on top of the stove. Same procedure—turn until all sides are blistered, loose, and browned. Use medium heat for chiles and low heat for tomatoes. It is OK if the tomatoes crack open. Remove them to a plate. As soon as they can be handled, take off the skins with a paper towel, under running water, or just peel off what comes easily with your fingers.
This is my preferred start when canning tomatoes for salsa or sauce. It gives the sauce a delicious smoky overtone that doesn’t need meat to seem extra rich and savory.
It is the easiest way to prepare them for freezing too. Roasting replaces the blanching step in freezing. Just cool and put into airtight containers. If you like, add a tablespoon of olive oil and a basil leaf. You can pull them out of the freezer all winter.
To us, the days are getting shorter, but to plants, the nights are getting longer. The cool and dark allow them to regenerate and to build new cells. Perennials start maturing their roots and sap for winter. Some are programed genetically to bloom or stop blooming in response to the longer dark. Even heat-lovers like tomatoes actually shut down at 90 degrees, so with more time to cool off, many plants have a sort of second spring. Some spring bloomers bloom again.
This is our cue to plant seeds for fall. The possibilities include all of the spring favorites like lettuce, peas, and broccoli. But fall is not just a lesser version of spring. There are good reasons to plan the fall garden as a season all its own, with delicacies and opportunities that spring doesn't have.
First, there are plants that are very hard to grow in spring but easy in the fall. Spinach, bulbing fennel, and Nappa cabbage are day-length-sensitive plants that bolt and get bitter in spring. In the shortening days of fall, they stay in vegetative growth, producing juicy, succulent vegetables for the table. Nappa cabbage is especially easy and quick. Its crunchy, juicy leaves are as mild as lettuce but hardier--good in salads, coleslaw, stir-fries, sandwiches, and preserved as kim-chee. Fennel is like a sweeter, more aromatic celery—and much easier to grow. Homegrown spinach is sweeter, and juicier than what's in the store. And instead of one quick spring harvest, you can cut leaves all winter.
Kale, cabbage, and broccoli sprout and grow best in fall. As young plants, they prefer warm weather, when their seeds would naturally fall to the ground and sprout. (They develop their great cold-hardiness as adult plants.) Transplanting is not a problem for this group—it actually stimulates root growth. Starting them in a shaded nursery bed is nice because it doesn't demand the care that pots do—and they'll wait for their garden space without getting pot-bound. If you need to use pots or flats, plan on giving them afternoon shade, and transplant to the garden or a larger pot within a month. Or sow them in large pots to start with.
Plant peas deeper than in spring, so they stay moist—about 1” deep. Soaking the seed for a couple of hours helps too. If you want to cut the tips for salad greens, it's best to plant a separate patch and harvest the top 4" of new growth. You can cut repeatedly once the plants are at least 16" tall.
Lettuce is probably the crop that will save you the most trips to the store if you grow it at home. So I like to plant it where I can reach it easily in the dark after work, or in the rain. Sow some every 2 weeks til frost. Its hardier, richer-tasting relatives--radicchio, chicory, and endive--are staples of the Italian winter kitchen. I love their slightly bittersweet flavor (like walnuts) in salad, pasta sauce or braised. They are a welcome change from the mustardy flavors that dominate winter greens. Winter lettuces and endives are bred to resist rain, mildew, and mold, as well as to be cold-hardy.
Lettuce is the opposite of kale. It wants to sprout in spring. So fool it. Put your packet of lettuce seeds in the fridge for a week. That artificial winter gets it ready to sprout. Sow in the evening, water well, and give it afternoon shade--an artificial spring that will gently introduce your lettuce to the realities of fall.
Working in the garden in summer heat can be brutal, so it's easy for things get out of hand. I have found that people get the most satisfaction from their gardens―and the most vegetables too―when they figure out how to make the garden work with their own schedule, goals, and limitations. And when they find a weed-control routine that works.
Most well-publicized gardening "methods" are based around maximizing one or another element. Intensive systems seek the highest yield per square foot, and use lots of labor and nutrients to achieve that goal. No-til systems avoid turning the soil by using a thick layer of compost to make a seedbed. The challenge there is making or finding enough compost. Each system can work. But each has a cost in time, exertion, space, water, material, and money. A method is only as good as the real world, and your real life, permit it to be.
For many people, the limiting factor is time, fitting gardening between other commitments. To save time, we have to trade other things—money, materials, garden size. Drip irrigation is an example, saving both hand-watering time and some weeding at the cost of money, materials, and some flexibility in layout. For many, a limiting factor is physical strength and range of motion; a solution could be tall beds that put the soil at waist level. The trick is to find a system, and a schedule, that uses what you do have and minimizes what you don't. (Few inputs can be reduced to zero.)
Here's an example: Last year I converted from beds planted in space-saving hexagons to regular rows for some crops, notably bush beans, which yield poorly if they aren't kept well-weeded. I found that the limiting factor for me was not space, but time and joint pain. The result was that I got a better yield of bush beans from the rows: I was able to hoe standing up, and to lay down mulch easily between straight rows. The cost of straw for mulching, and the extra space the rows took, were more affordable for me than time on my knees hand-weeding.
Three changes made for better,easier yields in my garden last year.
For weed control and much else, mulch makes a big difference this time of year. It conserves moisture, prevents compaction from watering, and prevents weeds. It also adds nutrients. How? Partly the increased moisture at the surface means more biological activity, which means more nitrogen. You get both the nutrients contained in the mulch, and the earthworm castings from the worms that multiply there. Myriad creatures aerate the soil. Mulch also prevents mud (and soil-borne diseases) from getting on the plants. I mulch between plants and on paths with straw. In the past, I've also used paper, cotton cloth, seaweed, and fallen leaves.
A mulch of stones (fist-size and larger) is an effective technique for areas with hot days and cool nights. The rock prevents the surface from drying out, so earthworms and roots can use the top layer of soil. At night, moist air condenses on the stones, and drips down to the soil. I use this strategy in areas with perennial plantings, where I don't have to move the stones each spring. For some drought-tolerant plants like lavender and cistus, the rock mulch enables me to irrigate them only 1-3 times per summer. This in a climate where my vegetables have to be watered every day.
Cover crops can be a living mulch―a big enough topic that it needs it's own post.
If something isn't producing and the area has gotten so weedy that it's hopeless, bring on the cardboard! Just water well, cover completely with cardboard, and weight it down. In a month, it will be composted, worm-tilled, and ready to plant with fall carrots and kale.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.