Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Simply stated, compost is black gold.

Am I talking about oil?—“Black Gold?”

No, I’m not talking about oil; oil is absolutely nothing compared to compost. If the world went ‘Bang!’ tomorrow, and we were back to a stone and a spear, oil wouldn’t mean a thing. It would just be that same old black gooey stuff my dear immigrant Grandfather used to dig up in his back yard every time he went to move
his outhouse. He called it (God forgive me!) “that-a goddy-d*mmy oil-y!” His swear, not mine—I don’t talk like that, and neither does he, any more, God bless him. He’s been dead about seventy-four years.

According to family legend, his nephew saved him the “oil aggravation” by buying the land nearby, drilling under my Grandfather’s land, and suctioning away every last drop of the oil, thereby relieving my Grandfather of the problem.

Oh, well; it was just oil.

But compost, now, compost is what your veggie plants eat to grow. It’s what earthworms give their lives making, singing all alone there in the dark. Yes, singing. When you see a Robin cock his head to listen, when hunting on a lawn, does he hear the earthworm’s music, eat it along with the ‘singer’, and then sing it back again to us? I wonder.

Strictly speaking, though, a scientific study done recently absolutely confirmed that earthworms actually sing, using their little setae, which are kind of like bristles all along their bodies. Of course, we don’t do it that way, but hey, to each his own, right?

Well, why not? Crickets rub their ankles together to make music, and we don’t do that either. I had a first (and last) date with a guy in high school once, who tried that in our living room, but before he could even get one note going, he was flying though the air out onto our front lawn, and my sainted father was gently reminding him to “Give our regards to your parents, son!—and don’t you ever let me see your ugly face around here again!”

So much for home-made cricket music.

Back to the compost:

Compost is pretty much made up of two sorts of components: green stuff and brown stuff. Let’s clear the air quickly: “brown stuff” doesn’t mean manure; “manure” means manure.

“Brown stuff” means dead leaves, dry grass, torn bits of black-and-white newspaper and such. “Green stuff” is green grass clippings, kitchen waste (except meats, dairy, grease and unfortunately, onions, which repel earthworms, who are your best friends in the world after your parents, your priest/minister/rabbi, and your spouse.) Earthworms eat bits of green stuff, brown stuff and manure, pass this through their skinny little selves, and expel for our benefit the richest manure in the world, known as “earthworm castings.” Earthworm castings are what your veggies write at the top of their Santa Claus list.

And it’s all made up of brown stuff, green stuff and manure. The smaller you can cut these elements, the quicker they will become rich, dark brown, velvety new earth. Now, you may have some questions about adding manure to the mix. You can use horse, cow, chicken, lion, elephant (I kid you not; some people beg it from zoos, and it’s not a bad idea!) camel, just about anything except human and pet manure (dog, cat-, rat-, mouse-, snake-, or gerbil--manure, too.) Goldfish water from the bowl or aquarium is fine.

Even compost has its limits.

You can add well-rotted, listen to that again, WELL-ROTTED manure to your compost bin, but not fresh manure. Fresh manure has too much ammonia in it and unless it’s had months to rot down and mellow, will burn your plants the way acid will burn flesh. Not a pretty analogy, but I want you to understand the magnitude of the problem. Why grow all these lovely veggies and flowers, and then scorch them to death because you didn’t rot the manure down? Be wise and used well-rotted manure to begin with. You can use all of that you can collect.

You can, however, add fresh manure to your compost bin, only if you are willing to let it “cook down” before you try using it. It helps the pile rot faster, but it, in itself, takes a good long while before it becomes usable.

People in big cities, where they have Police Stables, are in luck; they can get horse manure, happily mixed with bedding straw, usually for nothing. If they send their kids with big double-bagged trash bags, the kids get to know the police, the police get to know the kids, and they will often help out when they can, especially with community gardens (and especially if you share a bit of produce with them—they’re only human, you know, and they like veggies as much as we do) and all is well.

Most of us have to make do with dead leaves, kitchen waste (see list*), and torn-up black-and-white newspapers. Nix on the colors; they’re poison Mix this in a ¾ brown waste--¼ green waste ratio, either in a 4’X4’ bin made of chicken wire connected to old 2X4s at the corners, a compost tumbler, or any 4’ X 4’ X 4’ container that lets air and water in, and will allow you to turn the manure every few days to a week.

Every time the container gets full, move it off to one side and shovel the contents back into it.

Sounds stupid.


This aerates the contents and helps them heat up. The best compost is that which has heated to 160*F inside, has stayed that way for a bit and has ‘cooked’ well. This gives rise to all kinds of beneficial bacteria that make your soil an absolute feast for your plants. When it is finished, it will smell like God’s Breath on a good day. Like fresh-turned earth in the Spring. It’s wonderful!

In cities, many people choose to buy a compost tumbler, and for what it does, it’s worth the price—if you have one. You can get compost from some of them in as little as two weeks. Check out my recommendations on this blog re: compost tumblers and other useful garden and kitchen gadgets. You’ll be glad you did.

When your compost has cooled and smells the way I’ve described it, fill your planting containers with it and put in your seed. Save the rest to invigorate your planting beds. Your little plants should just jump into action. And nothing makes a bitter, snowy day so fresh and hopeful as a container full of new green plants “Spring--ing” into life!

*Usable waste:

Outer lettuce/cabbage leaves Bell and other pepper membranes and stems
Eggplant, squash, broccoli and other veggie peelings, and carrot tops and scrapings/peelings Coffee grounds/tea leaves/opened tea bags
Shrimp/lobster shells (well-crushed)
Any potato peelings you don’t bake (Yum!—Potato skins!)
The coarse outer beet tops (use the tender small ones for cooked greens)
that soggy green stuff in the fridge that used to be something good,
but you can’t remember what
paper napkins, like black-and-white newspaper, will also decompose well

Unusable waste:

Onion/onion skins
meat (any)/meat drippings
cheese, regular or cottage/ricotta/feta, etc.
eggs, raw or cooked
clam/mussel shells
citrus/citrus peels (depends on the state you live in)
grits, cooked
office paper--takes much longer to decompose
colored papers or slick-surface papers

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Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A is for Asparagus

This year, we had an uncommon surprise—our asparagus actually came up! Now if that sounds kind of like, ‘So what?’ let me explain that I’ve been waiting to plant and grow asparagus for the past forty years, but (while my husband and I grew children and grandchildren and friends and businesses in all the many places we have lived) we never lived in one place long enough to grow asparagus.

Oh, we planted them. Worked the soil and enriched it, make sure it had the correct pH—slightly alkaline, about an 8--(as you’ve heard me say repeatedly, gardening is, after all, not at all about the plants—it’s about the soil) and put down the asparagus roots; but then, we moved again, and the asparagus, like all our many fruit trees and bramble bushes, as well as the rose bushes and perennials we planted, passed to someone else.

Welcome as the gift was, to give as well as to receive, I wanted one day to eat of our own bounty, to put up pears and applesauce, to make apple butter for sandwiches and apple ketchup for pork roasts, to gather our own black- blue- and raspberries, to dry our own meaty tomatoes, and at last, to cut our asparagus and prepare them fresh from the earth.

Well, this year, we began. I put in 24 healthy young plants, and less than a week later, up came the tiny, delicate fronds, no bigger than a pencil lead, but unmistakably asparagus. What a joy!

Asparagus is a member of the fern family, and the asparagus that grace our Easter or Passover tables are simply the buds of these same fern fronds. In fact, some say that the Latin word for ‘sprinkle’, as in the phrase “Asperges me, Domine,” used in Catholic worship, comes from the plant name; or that the word comes from the use of that plant for sprinkling. Who knows? All I know is, whenever the priest goes by sprinling us with Holy Water, chanting, “Asperges me, Domine,” I get as hungry for asparagus as for a blessing.

Anyway, asparagus starts small. Our first sprouts were the size of a wooden pencil lead. In fact, for the first two or three years, the gardener can’t collect any asparagus at all, but must allow the plant to gain strength and breadth; first so that the plants will be suitable for the table, but also to protect the plants themselves.

They are living creatures, even though they are not animals or humans; so as much as is possible, we should be good to them; and in return, we can count on their contributing delicious variety to our dinners, and healthy phytochemicals and minerals to our diets.

I meet a lot of people who tell me, “I don’t know how to grow things. Is it hard?” No, it’s not, not if you start off right. As I keep saying-- and will keep saying, so expect it-- gardening is all about the soil, rather than the plants. You can buy the most expensive plants you like, and tuck them into the ground and water them like mad, but unless you’ve properly prepared your soil, your plants are doomed.

For example, here in North Texas where I live, both our soil and our rain are alkaline. So unless you’re willing to plant xeriscape plants—that is, plants that have been living here since Plato expounded on the rocky hills of Greece, you’d better be ready to add a whole heck of a lot of peat moss and at least one bag of expanded shale to every one of your 4’ X 8’ garden beds.

In places where the soil is sour and acid, you will need to lime your soil. When we lived in a place like that, I used to crush my eggshells and add them to the soil wherever I wanted to grow bulbs (tulips, daffodils, crocus, etc.) I found that it helped immeasurably. Lime (oyster and clamshells, limes itself, and eggshells) sweetens acid soil, while expanded shale, peat moss, pine needles and coffee grounds tone down the sweetness of alkaline soil, making it more acidic. Tea or opened tea bags are good, too, but you can get free coffee grounds from Starbucks simply for the asking, so it’s smart to go that route, too.

What’s important to understand is that plants can only take up nutrients from the soil if that soil is at the proper pH. If it’s too acidic, some plants will wither and die; if too alkaline, others will shrivel and yellow and die. But if the soil is at the proper pH, and you plant all the plants who like the same pH, your whole bed will love you, and thrive like the dickens.

So what do we want here?

What you want, what every avid gardener wants, is a beautiful neutral 7 on the acid-alkaline scale. Of course, gardenias, lilacs, blueberries, azaleas, and many other plants prefer a slightly more acid soil, while others, like lilies, asparagus, and numerous other beauties prefer a slightly alkaline soil. What to do, what to do?

The first thing to do is to test your soil. One way is to take 1 Tbsp. samples from several places in your garden and put them in a canning jar or clean jelly jar. Add fresh water to the top and stir thoroughly. Then, using your soil test kit, follow the directions for determining just what your soil needs for optimum performance.

Keep your soil deeply dug, evenly moist and well-augmented with vermiculite, compost (your best friend!), greensand, and whatever other local amendments your soil needs to reach that ideal .7. You’ll be glad you did! And once you’ve grown your asparagus, here’s a quick and easy way to serve them up!

Braised Asparagus

1 # fresh asparagus
½ stick of butter or the equivalent in margarine, ghi,
or other substitute
¾ tsp dried or 1-½ tsp fresh minced tarragon OR
¾ tsp dried or 1-½ tsp fresh minced marjoram

Wash the asparagus briefly under cold water, pat dry. Snap the stalks where they break naturally when you bend the asparagus in half. Reserve the lower stalks, cutting off the dry end with a sharp knife, and slicing into 1” pieces. Place in a pot covered with water and set on medium heat somewhere on the back of the stove. This is for later.

If you like, you can peel the bottoms of the asparagus stalks with a veggie peeler, laying them flat on a cutting board and simply sliding the peeler along from halfway the top to the bottom. I never do, unless I’m dealing with old store—bought veggies that have been sitting around for a while. Do whatever works for you about this.

Slice the asparagus tops on a slant, making pieces about 2” long, and reserve. In a wok or large frying pan, heat the butter/margarine/ghi until it’s melted and smells wonderful. Add the tarragon or marjoram and warm it until the essential oils are released, and you can smell that lovely fragrance as well. (Remember, we eat with all our senses, so the nose counts, too.) Add the sliced asparagus tops and stir-fry until they are crisp-tender. This is wonderful served with baked chicken, creamed onions and a nice light rice pilaf. Something luscious goes well as a dessert. I’d use ‘Mudgie’s Lemon Pie”* if I were you.

Oh, about the asparagus bottoms you’ve been boiling: put them through your hand-cranked food mill and save the soft pale-green material that squeezes through. The fibers go in your compost bucket. Waste nothing.

Boil down your asparagus water to 1 quart and add the soft pale green stuff from the food mill. Be careful not to let it stick to the bottom. If it tries, turn down your fire. That’ll teach the little dickens. Mix well and freeze or reserve in the fridge. You should have a thickened, cloudy, pale green liquid. Good.

Using a simple white sauce recipe, the asparagus-water mixture, a little whole milk, about ½ c white wine* (added carefully) and whatever leftover asparagus you may have, you have all the ingredients for a scrumptious asparagus soup to start off your next meal, or for a lovely lunch with a shrimp salad and whipped gelatin dessert. 1” croutons quickly fried in a little herb-flavored butter go prettily on top of the soup for crunch. So does a dollop of sour cream. Make sure your herbs all go well together, such as tarragon/parsley/ chives. Sage, oregano, basil and paprika are out. So is dill. Again, make sure you don’t boil the soup once the wine is added, or it may curdle.

*See ‘The Big Family Cookbook’ coming soon to Watch for it!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Squash of all kinds have been around for a long time.

The Native Americans used to call corn (maize), squash and beans “The Three Sisters,” because of the way they helped each other. The corn provided a ‘trellis’ for the beans, the squash shaded the corn and bean roots with its broad leaves, and because the beans are ‘nitrogen-fixers,’ they actually take nitrogen (a natural fertilizer chemical) right out of the air, and pull it into the soil, where other plants—in this case, the squash and the corn—can use it.
They help each others asthree loving sisters do.

This time, we’re talking about Winter Squash. You start the seedlings the same way as usual, unless the weather is past ‘frost time,’ after which you could plant the seeds directly into the garden. I like to start the seeds indoors because birds absolutely love digging up sprouted seedlings. I understand that it’s one of the few ways they can get Vitamin C, so it’s understandable. It’s not as if they can go buy vitamin products.

When we start them indoors, even in clement weather, we have less need for scarecrows and more control over the final spacing of plants. It always bothers me to read instructions that say, “grow five plants and when they’re ‘up’, pinch off the three weakest.”

What kind of nonsense is that? They’re all living things, and each deserves to grow, just as much as the other ones do. Just start them where the birds can’t get at them and space them as you like when they’re ‘Big Kids.’

As far as Winter Squash, there are so many good ways to fix it that it would take a whole chapter in a book to tell you about them. But here are a few ideas for you:

You could use acorn squash the way you used the sweet potatoes in the pork (or beef) roast. Just scrub it, slice it, remove any bruised or discolored parts, and put it around the roast as it cooks. You don’t even need to peel it. God has already marked it into sections where you should cut it.

I generally use it with the sweet potatoes, a lot of thick sections of large carrot, a head or two of roasted garlic (peeled, of course) and big chunks of pre-browned onions. Add a cup or so of red wine and about a half-pound of fresh or canned, rinsed, mushrooms to this mix, and you have a meal. Green peas, about two cups full, don’t hurt, either. This method cries out for hot garlic bread, or hot bread spread with one of those green onion party spreads. It’s a nice way to use up those leftover one-third-of-a-container of party dip. Mmmm….

Spaghetti squash can be boiled whole (Be careful not to overcook it!) and then cut in half, the ‘spaghetti’ (strings of squash) scraped out. Cover it with a good marinara sauce with canned mushroom pieces and black olives in it, and liberally covered with Parmesan or Pecorino-Romano cheese for a satisfying supper.

Spaghetti squash is good, too, with chopped canned clams, some roasted garlic and either a good olive oil sauce, a butter sauce or even an Alfredo sauce. It’s a Godsend for people with gluten problems, because cooked only al dente (which means ‘to the tooth’, or ‘still a bit firm’), spaghetti squash is a fine stand-in for the real thing.

And while you might mistake it for real pasta, spaghetti squash…well, okay, you can tell it’s not real pasta, but still, it tastes terrific, and some people only eat pasta to have something to carry the sugo and Parmesan on it anyway!

As far as the other squashes, like Hubbard and the others, bake them, mash them with butter, a bit of salt and some cinnamon (and maybe just a whisper of nutmeg), and serve hot with ham steaks, roast beef, duck or chicken. You can hardly go wrong.


Cut the squash lengthwise and using a tablespoon, scrape out the seeds and the stringy ‘umbilical cords” onto a plate or paper towel. Don’t try this with summer squash, because they’re usually sold in the supermarket at a small size, and haven’t had time yet to develop viable seeds (seeds that will grow.) But winter squash acorn squash, butternut squash, spaghetti squash—actually, spaghetti squash might be a summer squash, but you can save the seeds anyway--and many others will work just fine like this.

When you’ve scraped the ‘innards’ out of the squash, go ahead and bake it while you tend to the seeds. Here’s how to bake it:

Take the two squash halves, lay them face down on a buttered cookie sheet or jellyroll pan (cookie sheets are perfectly flat with a rim only on one side, so you can pick it up easily; jellyroll pans have a 1” lip all round. Use either one, it doesn’t matter) and bake at 350*F—400*F degrees until you can pierce the skin easily with a fork or the tip of a knife.

If you’re going to cook pork with this sort of squash, you can sprinkle a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar and a few shakes of cinnamon on it before you serve it, either in the shell or once it’s scooped out into a bowl. A couple of pats of butter and a dash of salt won’t hurt, either.

Meanwhile, back to the seeds. Separate them from the ‘strings’ and wash them in a colander or large sieve under cold running water. Not ice cold, just from the cold water tap. Remember, we’re not making “squashcicles.” It’s going to feel squishy and ‘different’, so if you like, have your elementary-school kids do this part—mine loved it!

When the seeds are clean, pour them onto a paper towel and spread them out to dry. Don’t use the microwave or the conventional oven (or any other kind of oven) to speed the process along. Let them air-dry naturally. Shade is great. Sunlight is umm...okay, I guess, but not the best. Microwaves are death.

If you’re planning to plant them, even as part of a container garden--and they’re great in containers!—keep out as many seeds as you want plants, and put them into the same old container-with-the-drain-holes-covered-by-a-coffee-filter-and-filled-with-garden soil and keep it in the sun or under a strong artificial light. Remember that the plants get really big, so factor that into your indoor garden planning. Outside, who cares?

I often make two holes with a church key in the bottom of an 8-ounce Styrofoam coffee cup, line it with a bit of filter large enough to cover the holes, and fill it with good dirt to start large plants like squash, fennel, okra, tomatoes, and the like. Do whatever you want.

You really have to try hard to make a mistake in gardening—or cooking, either, for that matter. Both are just a matter of doing what seems right to you. Be bold! Try it! You can always compost the garden evidence, and eat the kitchen evidence.