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By Garrett Okrasinski

My collard greens have always been awkward. Ever since they sprouted they were either leggy, crooked or had small leaves. I have tried everything to straighten and fatten them up, but I eventually grew to love their “character”. They fed me throughout late summer and fall, tasting better as the frost came. My collards even lasted me through the winter and were a crown dish on Christmas Day. And when in a pinch, they were a great last minute harvest to bring to friend’s dinners that awed guests despite their petite leaves.

All that being said, they now need to go. I have been going back and forth on this for probably two to three months now debating, do I pull them or do I keep them?

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My collards in the winter sun

In doing some research and talking to garden specialist at a local nursery, I was still on the fence. Things that came up included;

  • Collards taste worse as they get older and become bitter (not mine)
  • The need to create space in your garden
  • Tending to them as they are constantly trying to seed
  • Consideration of soil diseases and pests
  • Loss of nutrients from the soil

Despite all these considerations, I found my own reasons for deciding to pull my beloved collard greens. I was concerned was about soil nutrients and soil diseases that may occur from not rotating crops and keeping my collards.   Additionally, even though my collard leaves never reached their expected large leaf size, over the winter my collards continue to get smaller and smaller. Each leaf started to look “funny” being either leathery or miss colored.

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Final view after a heavy harvest

Finally, the straw the broke the camel’s back were holes from prolific cabbage moths and the small white eggs I found under the leaves. In my excitement and diligence in protecting my cabbages from the moths, I failed to protect my collards. The collards had always been so sturdy and low maintenance I accidentally neglected them. In a few weeks time, my neglect would turn into ravenous caterpillars. In order to protect my leafy greens, cabbage and soil while creating valuable space, out with the old and in with the new! Sad to see my collards go but maybe this year the new collards won’t be so awkward.

Each year I look at the riot of colorful flowers in my garden and want to save them for the dark winter months.  One of the best ways I have found to do this is by making dried flower bouquets.  After a lot of trial and error the plants that seem to work the best for this are chives, yarrow, money plant, lavender, hydrangea, oregano, pearly everlasting and grasses with showy seed sprays.  Other flowers will dry but a lot of them fall apart or quickly fade.

To dry the flowers cut them with long stems and strip off the bottom leaves.  Next tie them at the top with string or wire and hang them in a dark place until dry.  I string a piece of rope across the rafters in my basement and hang the bunches from there.  Once dry you can arrange them in whatever way you like.

Try out different flowers from your yard and let me know what you like to dry!

Bluebells dry well to a deep lavender color.

Bluebells dry well to a deep lavender color.

When drying chives pick and hang them in a dark place before they open completely.

When drying chives pick and hang them in a dark place before they open completely.

Hydrangeas are always good for drying.

Hydrangeas are always good for drying.

Daisies are not thought of in dried bouquets but they dry quite nicely.

Daisies are not thought of in dried bouquets but they dry quite nicely.

Sea Holly dries well and has an interesting shape to it.

Sea Holly dries well and has an interesting shape to it.

Now that you have dried herbs making your own blends is easy! These make great gifts as well as stepping up the flavor of your own dishes.

Lavender

Lavender

Here are some of my favorite blends:

Herbes de Provence

Herbes de Provence usually contains basil, bay leaf, marjoram, rosemary, summer savory and lots of thyme. Lavender can be included too but don’t add too much as it’s pretty strong.  Here is a base recipe to start with but feel free to play around to get the flavor you like.  If you don’t have all of these herbs it’s fine to leave some out.

  • 2 Tablespoons dried basil
  • 1 Tablespoon dried marjoram
  • 1 Tablespoon dried summer savory
  • 2 Tablespoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon lavender flowers
  • 1 bay leaf
  • ½ Tablespoon dried rosemary
Rosemary

Rosemary

Rub for Grilling

  • 3 Tablespoons dried basil
  • 2 Tablespoons dried rosemary
  • 1 Tablespoon dried savory
  • 2 Tablespoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons dried fennel
  • 1 bay leaf
Oregano

Oregano

Italian Seasoning

This tastes great in spaghetti sauce, on pizza or in salad dressings.

  • 4 Tablespoons dried basil
  • 2 Tablespoons dried oregano
  • 1 Tablespoons dried thyme
  • 1 teaspoon dried garlic, (you can leave this out and use fresh instead when it’s time to cook)
  • 1 bay leaf

You can put these blends into small jam jars or metal containers.  Keeping air and light out will help the flavors stay bright.

 

It’s Thyme!

thymejpg-e78ecb03df5c20a7Right now is a great time to harvest thyme.  To harvest this useful herb just take your kitchen shears and snip off bunches.  I usually trim off the top three inches and make sure to leave a lot of the plant intact; if you clip off too much you can kill the plant.

You can use the fresh thyme right away, strip the leaves and freeze them or dry them on a rack or in a colander.  Once the leaves are crisp and dry rub them between your hands and the leaves will fall off.  Store in an airtight container in a dark place;  I usually put them in a small mason jar.

Be careful and add only a little at a time.  It has a tangy, strong flavor that can overwhelm instead of accent if too much is used.

Drying thyme

Drying thyme

Here are some of my favorite ways to use thyme:

  • Mix fresh or dried thyme with butter to make a lovely spread for tea sandwiches or toasted bread.
  • Mix thyme with cream cheese for a deliciously flavored spread.
  • Stuff a chicken with thyme and roast it.
  • Mix dried thyme with sea salt and let sit for 5 minutes.  Use this as a roasting or grilling rub on your favorite fish or meat.
  • Use a pinch of fresh or dried in an herbed vinaigrette dressing.

If you haven’t planted any of this great herb yet then now is a good time to do so.  Most plant stores carry this herb and I would suggest getting plants rather than seeds.  (You can grow it from seed but it takes a lot longer.)  Plant in full sun and especially during the first year, water regularly.

 

Focus on Collards

Collards grow well in the Seattle area so it’s one of those fail safe crops that I plant every year.  To get a good yield enrich your soil with some compost and manure then sow your seeds once the soil has warmed.  I often start these indoors then plant them out to get a jump on the season.  The plants grow quickly and aside from the rare caterpillar or aphid, seem to have few problems.

Over the years I’ve come up with lots of ways to prepare this versatile and nutrient packed plant.  Here are some of my favorites:

Stir Fried Collards

Fresh collards

Pick and wash the collard leaves.

 

Stack, roll and cut leaves into thin ribbons.

 

Mince garlic.

 

Heat oil in pan, lightly saute garlic then add collards. Cook until tender. May need to add a bit of water and cover if they are tough.

 

Delicious with collards.

Here is a corn bread recipe that usually turns out well.  The combination of cornbread and zesty greens is great!

I also like to:

  • Harvest the greens then cut them into thin strips and freeze them.  These frozen greens can then be tossed into almost anything to boost nutrition and flavor.
  • Make green smoothies with collards, bananas, orange juice and apples.  Sometimes we add nuts or protein powder too.
  • Collard chips – To make these heat your oven to 400 degrees, tear the collards into bite sized pieces and arrange them on a cookie sheet.  Lightly drizzle with oil then bake until crisp and sprinkle with a small amount of salt.  We sometimes sprinkle on some brewer’s yeast as well.
  • Make a massaged collards salad.  To do this cut the greens into thin strips then massage until they turn from light green into dark green.  Add cider vinegar, olive oil and salt to taste.  Garnish with toasted pecans, red onion, apples and dried cranberries.

What are your favorite ways to prepare collards?  We’d love to hear from you!

Focus on Arugula

This week I think my arugula plants have grown about three inches.  This spicy plant can be eaten in salads with an oil and vinegar dressing or used as a zesty garnish.  We really like to top a just baked pizza with this richly flavored plant.

Yum

Yum

Arugula likes cool weather and a nitrogen rich soil.  You can plant it when soil temperatures are between 45 and 60 degrees.  Scatter the seed then cover with 1/4 inch of soil.  It likes to be moist but not soggy.  Because this plant grows so quickly I like to plant some about every two weeks to keep a good supply on hand.

A zesty arugula plant.

A zesty arugula plant.

Here’s a tasty recipe for a quick summer dish:

Arugula with Pasta and Cherry Tomatoes

Serves 4

One package of pasta, (I like to use whole wheat)
About 8-10 cups arugula
Olive oil
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
8 ounces cherry tomatoes, halved, (you can also use dried tomatoes that have been soaked for 20 minutes in boiling water to soften them up)
2-3 ounces goat or feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and pepper

Cook the pasta and drain it.  Chop the arugula if the leaves are big. Heat a sauté pan over medium high heat and add a little olive oil. When it is hot, cook the arugula, letting the first few handfuls wilt completely, and leaving the last few just barely cooked.

Add the basil, tomatoes, cheese, and pasta with the last handful of arugula. Turn the heat to high and cook for another minute or two – until everything is hot. Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve immediately.

Elder Flower Syrup

Sambucus Cerulea or Blue Elderberry

Sambucus Cerulea or Blue Elderberry

Elderberries are in bloom now in the lower elevations of Puget Sound.  The Blue or the Black Elderberry is the one to use instead of the Red Elderberry.

 

Freshly picked Elder Flowers

Freshly picked Elder Flowers

These fragrant white to pink flowers can be gathered, steeped, then the liquid sugared to make a delicious syrup.  If you have the patience to wait, the dark blue berries can be gathered in the late summer to make into a dye, syrup or wine.

Here is a recipe for making a quart of syrup:

Ingredients:

  • 30 elderflower heads
  • 1 quart water
  • 4 cups  sugar
  • Juice of 2 lemons or limes
  • zest of 2 lemons or limes
  • 2 tablespoons citric acid
  1. Zest the lemons or limes and put in a large bowl, then the citric acid and lemon or lime juice.
  2. Remove the flowers from the stalk and add to the bowl
Flowers, citric acid, zest and lime juice

Flowers, citric acid, zest and lime juice

  1. Bring the sugar and water to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve.
  2. Pour the syrup into the bowl and stir to combine.
Flowers, acids and sugar syrup

Flowers, acids and sugar syrup

  1. Cover the bowl with a tea towel and let it sit for 2-4 days.
  2. Strain the mixture through a sieve lined with cheesecloth into a clean jar. Store in the fridge for up to six weeks.
Here is what it looks like after steeping for a couple of days.

Here is what it looks like after steeping for a couple of days.

Here is the strained syrup.

Here is the strained syrup.

This syrup has a very delicate flavor and scent.  It tastes good mixed with seltzer water or even better with some champagne or vodka.

A tiny Elder Flower

A tiny Elder Flower

My daughter Helen has been attending College of Wooster in Wayne County, Ohio.  The academic year is almost up so I took a quick trip to help her pack up and visit Amish country in the spring.  This past winter was one of the hardest and longest in memory so everyone was glad to see the snow go and the flowers come!

The cows are out of the barn and on to fresh new grass.

The cows are out of the barn and on to fresh new grass.

Fields are being tilled.  There's research into a no-till approach but it's not widely used.

Fields are being tilled. There’s research into a no-till approach but it’s not widely used.

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Winter wheat is coming up.

Corn stalks from last year cover the fields.

Corn stalks from last year cover the fields.

The spring wildflowers are everywhere.

Spring wildflowers are everywhere.

Flowers are just about a month behind us here in Seattle.

Flowers are just about a month behind us here in Seattle.

Trees are just leafing out.

Trees are just leafing out.

A buggy heading home.

A buggy heading home.

The sun sets.

The sun sets.

The full moon rises.

The full moon rises.

Help the Food System

Homegrown

Homegrown

By Garrett Okrasinski

If you needed an extra kick to start a garden or maintain your existing garden, I recently stumbled upon a few facts that may provide you with the needed motivation. They sure did for me!

In doing some research for a project on food access, I came across a report “Recommendations for Food Systems Policy in Seattle” from the Community Food Security Coalition. This report contains a survey of the current food systems in Seattle and recommendations for the future policies. However chapter one stopped me in my tracks and forced me to share with you – Introduction to Food Systems: Environment.

Most of us can agree our current mainstream food system is well… less than ideal.

Below are a few facts that I discovered through the Community Food Security Coalitions report.

  • Our current food system is so energy inefficient, it takes about 8 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food.
  • To grow, process and deliver food for a family of four it requires more than 930 gallons of gasoline.
  • The current food system produces roughly one third of the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.
  • Approximately 25% Seattle’s waste is food related

As many of you work hard to cultivate food in your backyard or community garden to feed yourself, your family and your friends, it is important to remember how important your work is to our larger food system and our environment. We appreciate what you do! Keep up the good work!

 

We just took a quick road trip from Seattle up to the North Cascades highway.  The scenery was breathtaking and the weather was great.

The North Cascades Institute is near Diablo, WA and is on Ross Lake.  We wandered around the beautiful campus and dreamed of attending some classes.

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15-3

Native plants and snowy peaks at the Institute

Trees were just beginning to leaf out as we climbed higher in elevation.

Trees were just beginning to leaf out as we climbed higher in elevation.

Ross Lake is one of the power generating lakes of Seattle City Light.

Ross Lake is one of the power generating lakes of Seattle City Light.

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15-41

There’s a small museum and waterfall garden built by City Light that’s open to the public.

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15-8

Near the top of Washington Pass we met a group of people planning to hike to the top of this peak then paraglide down.

The road leads ever on.

The road leads ever on.

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15

Waterfalls are everywhere.

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15-12

There’s a great museum in Winthrop.

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15-17

With bones and…

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15-22

old farm machinery

North Cascade Highway trip 4-20-15-24

The town of Winthrop is a trip back in time with great food.

Dropping down into the valley Bitter Root blooms everywhere.

Dropping down into the valley Bitter Root blooms everywhere.

The apple, pear and cherry orchards near Omak are in full bloom.

The apple, pear and cherry orchards near Omak are in full bloom.

Returning home we saw one more magnificent peak near Darrington.

Returning home we saw one more magnificent peak near Darrington.