Sunday, December 03, 2006

Winter Harvest

Here it is December in Montana, 20 below and all that. Not today, however, in the banana belt. In previous posts I confessed to my passion for prowling humble back alleys of town for the wild edibles that might lurk there.

Yes, I was out today with a fair snow cover of about four to six inches. Would you believe that on this very Sunday, attempting to take the edge off a caffeine buzz, I wandered back to my erstwhile garden. Yes, the very same collard patch about which I previously rhapsodized in the Sectet Life of Collards (below). Would you believe I reached under the snow and pried up several frozen, green leaf stalks. I am going to cook them up for lunch and report back.

If, by now, you wonder about the mental stability of someone who openly admits to being a collard fiend, I can't blame you. Until a few years ago, I would have agreed, as I am a recent convert.

I marvel at the pure good fortune of finding three of my favorite foods within arms reach of my home in town! Exactly a month ago, after two snows and several freezing nights, I picked a couple bushels of plums just a stones throw from my back door, off the ground. Several cooperative plum trees had dumped their bounty. The ones that passed the touch test became freezer plums and plum-apple sauce. Yum!

My dog Sam (see photo) fully appreciated the outing today. On the nine block journey up the hill, I saw four ravens harassing a seagull over the pines, deer tracks down a major thoroughfare, and the snow covered rubble of a burnt down apartment building that once housed neighbors. There is much to see on foot on a quiet Sunday morning, not to mention a wealth of unexpected nutrition.

By the way, I am munching on those long-in-the-tooth collard greens I just picked and they taste delicious. I confess, they needed to cook for at least seven minutes, not the usual three. Even the stalks are good.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Secret Life of Collards

These collards are up to something here in Polson, Montana and I intend to find out what. Even for a slightly renegade, outlaw sort of plant, these collard plants were doing something unexpected. This is what happened: I had to move from my perfectly good house, garden, and neighbors to a house down the hill in March, 2006.

But, like a house cat, I kept coming back. At first, on the pretense of making sure the house was okay without me. Then, over the fence, I spied some edibles now and then. In June and July, August, and September, I grabbed the odd bunch of collards just because they were there. But last Sunday, I came with the full intention of pirating what was left of the summer bounty.

My former neighor spied me and yelled, "Call the police!" with a big smile. I told him the collards were calling me. Apparently, that siren call has no temptation for him, a meat and potatoes guy.

Let me say here that I love collard greens. I am collard crazy. Not the store bought kind. No one could become a collard fan on greens that are bitter and stiff. Like with tomatoes, there is no comparison.

Here in my former garden was a collard patch the size of a queen size bed that held plants as thick as pencils in a jar. Now what is amazing about this...I didn't plant collards there. No, I didn't even plant any the year before. The mommas of these prodigies were planted in 2004, overwintered until 2005, then dropped seed. When I left this house, there was a shadow of green under the matriarchs.

With no gardener, no water from the hose, no cultivating, no thinning, no fertilizing, and scorching summer heat these collards, packed like asparagus in a can, THRIVED. That is quite an achievement. That's almost scarey. They are 2-3 feet tall and loaded with leaves. Now, I'm not going to lie to you, the leaves were uglier than sin, some with more holes than leaf from the cabbage worms. They would not win a prize at the county fair.

But here is the kicker. Even the ugliest, most cracked, curled and deformed doily of a leaf when cooked up was blissfully tender and sweet. Even the half inch woody stems defy description as fine cuisine. HOW CAN THAT BE?

After I picked a bushel from the prodigies last week, blanched and froze them, I had a basket of stems and gross leaves pulled off the freezer stock as recommended by the blanching website. I cooked that ugly throw away stuff and guess what? They were so delicious, I raced up the hill for more. I was hoping my former house didn't sell before I peeled all the collards out of there.

All the leaves I had left behind the day before as too moth eaten, raggedy, or crusty to be palatable, I greedily loaded into my bags. Once they were blanched, they were impossible to tell from the 'melt in your mouth' ones. That is some kind of magic. Try that with old spinach, kale or chard and you want to spit them out!

Did I mention that collards are in the highest recommended category for all blood types?

In conclusion, for sheer durability, drought resistance, reseeding genius, tastiness , palatability, and nutrition, these collards are unparalleled. Garden grown surpasses store bought by leaps and bounds. Or is it our Montana 'banana belt' soil here along Flathead Lake that adds something special? These leaves from my former garden are tender and sweet, every one, more so than I remember from past years.

Another scenario in this 'what are they up to' business is that maybe plants I have cared for, neglected, observed, watered, failed to water, and appreciated, develop differently than factory farmed plants. We gardeners have always suspected so. Perhaps when the next generation gets seeded directly from the parental pod, genetic vigor increases. These plants are profoundly resilient and persistent by anyone's yardstick. Monday they had a quarter inch of frost on them and today they looked totally unharmed.

Other gardeners have obvserved the connection between plants and gardener. Collards in my garden have done things I had never seen plants do before. They planted and raised themselves. They beat back the weeds. They partied through long stretches of 90-100 degree weather without a soaker hose or sprinkler. They manufactured seed true to type over 2-3 generations. They withstood parasites with minimal damage, and under all this duress, transformed their leaves into something infinitely more edible than the norm.

Did it have anything to do with me cheering them on from the sidelines? As Dr. Masaru Emoto revealed in The Hidden Messages in Water, molecules are literally re-engineered by the emotional intention of the viewer. Gardeners, even absentee, are the ultimate observers and witnesses of this amazing process of sun, water, seed and intention.

What happens when we charge our food with these positive intentions and are in turn charged by eating plants so entrained? A powerful spiral of wellness with unlimited potential seems possible. It gives the term food chain a whole new meaning. It turns gardening into some kind of sacrament. Like me, you have probably already noticed there is something strange and wonderful going on out there in the garden, the forest, and the weed patch. Let's share some stories about plants and foraging. I look forward to your comments

Happy grazing and fun foraging!

photo credits: collards on basket
collards and nasturtiums

Foraging for the Weird and Wonderful

My very first experience with plant weirdness occurred when I was 7 1/2 years old. I was with my Mom in the backyard. She was working the flower bed. I noticed a dandelion, really noticed it or did it notice me? The yellow flower was SO YELLOW. The more I looked the bigger and yellower it got. Seemed like we were almost talking. Wow.

I ran for the shovel, dug up the roots and flopped this great muddy lump right side up into a bucket . That flower was coming with me, in my room, forever. As I headed for the basement door, glowing with anticipation, trailing dirt and grass for sure, my mother gave the universal stop sign. Imagine my surprise. I learned right then that dandelions were considered outlaws, and even a talking dandelion was not going in the house.

I never got over that glorious dandelion, even if she couldn't live with me. They seemed to blossom for me alone. First flower popping out of the snow, spawning multiple generations within one season. Now that is relentless, foolhardy overproduction. Not only that, after decades of poison sprays, beheadings, and uprootings they thrive, fairly flaunting their immortality to wannabe perfect lawn owners. Walk on them, drive over them, even mow them and they pop up eventually. When I spent summers mowing and tending flower gardens as Handy Ma'am, I cursed them bending under my mower blade. Later that same day, up they would pop on 3 inch uncut stalks. Now that was a neat trick.

With astronomical nutritional content in their leaves, roots and flowers. dandelions weigh in as a first rate survival ration. That might be why we can't kill them even with the most sophisticated weaponry developed by modern chemical manufacturing. Same goes for the other muscle bound botanical wonders like burdocks, collards, chicory, thistles, dock, coltsfoot, and countless others

98% of the time, if you find a rugged, fast growing, tough-to-kill, prolific plant specimen it will be packed with mega- nutritional and/or medicinal properties. Often these non-indigenous plants emigrated from Europe, Asia or South America. Hitch hikers looking for new territory to exploit.

My belief that big and burly equals helpful got a thorough testing in rural Canada. Invasive garden pests-chickweed, mallow, dandelion, chicory, burdock, pigweed were all delicious if you knew how to fix them. Large nutrition, too. So far the only examples of ferocious foliage that haven't lived up to this promise are Montana's dreaded knapweed and Californias curse, genesta. One day they may reveal redeeming properties as plant allies.

Alley picking my first season in town yielded lambs quarters, burdock stems, and chickweed with an occasional viola thrown in for color. I still missed the hardy delicacy we wild harvested every year in New Brunswick, in the hardwood forests near my home.

On Mother's Day, months before anything else, the quest for fiddlehead ferns sent families running for the woods. Folks guarded their fiddlehead spots like prize fishing holes. The locations were passed down within families to the succeeding generations, never to be revealed. If you tasted those curled discs with vinegar and butter, you would know why the secrecy. They were better than anything imaginable.

Future posts will explore ways of expanding the growing season, some ideas for projects with kids and a look at my low tech 'growinghut' for winter produce. It is more modest than a greenhouse and easily assembled and heated. Hopefully you will share your thoughts and links, help correct my errors and expand my horizons so that we can all be alley grazers together, getting happier and healthier in the process! And spending less for more, which is why I started foraging in the first place.

Alley Grazer

After moving to town twelve years ago, I missed the wild abundance of country greens. For many years, I had slaved to plant, tend, harvest and process a garden. Simultaneously, Ma Nature was lavishing the countryside with super nutritious stuff that grew wild everywhere. The irony was not lost on me. 'Weeds' like lambs quarters and nettles put spinach and chard to shame with their show-off vitamin content.

In the alleys of my town, I rejoiced to see the countryside bonanza of delicious plant life. Wonderous edibles like chickweed, burdocks, lambs quarters and pigweed explode out of sidewalks, balloon around trash cans, surround car parts, and climb over tilting fences. Parks, playgrounds, roadsides and alleys are rife with edible wonders. This is a fact of towns and cities to which most of my friends and associates seem strangely indifferent.

My first foraging in Polson 12 years ago initiated me into bushels of Lamb's quarters. Veritable forests of tree like stalks sporting a profusion of arrow head leaves circled telephone poles close enough to my back door that I could start the pot boiling while I rounded them up.

Polson, Montana, a rural town halfway between Kalispell and Missoula, looks out over the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississipi. Winters are mild by mountain standards. In addition to the annual crop of Flathead Cherries, this area produces literally tons of fresh plums, apples, walnuts, chokecherries, hawberries, elderberries and edible greens. Cherries and apples are the only commercially harvested crop here.

The house I bought last April sits on the same, original alley where I began my career as an alley grazer. Just feet from my garage door, I can spot my harvesting grounds of 12 years ago. How ironic. Twelve moves in 12 years and I end up where I began. In addition to lambs quarters, I have discovered a veritable lawn of Stellaria (chickweed) next to my garage. The earliest and tastiest salad and pot herb you could wish for. If I juice them I could harvest a lifetime of chlorophyll. Wheat grass, step aside.

One of the reasons I wanted to blog is to alert my neighbors to the cornucopia that could be filling up their freezers too. When you adore foods that are unpopular, there is always an abundance. So I am taking a risk here letting the cat out of the bag. Maybe one day my precious alleys will be striped bare of vegetation. I think I'll take my chances since the company would be absolutely great. See you in the weed patch!