Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Gardening with our brains

After more than a month in Cape Town I came home to a late summer garden where beans were bristling from bushes and fence. Also a lot of weeds. Long, hot days, lots of water from the stellar watering team of Julia and Kirstin, and the weed seeds of years resulted in something close to a jungle. And then there is the Wisteria that Wants to Rule the World. It should work for ISIS.

So two straight days were spent gardening. I was eaten alive by striped-leg mosquitoes.

I admired the basil hedges. The Thai basil (left) arrived in a late winter packet from Grow Journey. Late winter is now a funny memory. The fennel is a row I made from many of the scattered volunteers that popped up late in early summer, dropped by my plants last year - the ones that moved with us from Harlem.

And then I picked all the beans, to make way for cooler weather crops to come (I left the climbing scarlet runners in hopes of luring those hummingbirds).

Grow Journey's 'Painted Pony' beans are surprises in disguise. Their slim green pods hide the real treat, which is the beautifully mottled seed inside. While we ate plenty of these beans fresh in July, I now have a pile which I am in the process of shelling. This is the first time I kept beans long enough to dry and harvest just the meaty seeds. They will be cooked gently with whole cloves of garlic and garden thyme, with a nod to Terence Hill, who will always be the best bean I eater I don't know. You have to watch My Name is Nobody to see what I mean.

Grow Journey's packets of Chinese cabbage, kale, and August subscription of bok choy and lettuce mixes will be planted, soon, and then there will the surprise packet of September. What will be in it? I have left rows open in anticipation.

I was thrilled to see a monarch feeding for a long time on the wild ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum). I had cut quite a lot back in my gardening frenzy, but left plenty of flowers.

And now for a rant.

One of my (many) pet peeves is the thoughtless use, in smugly righteous but underinformed gardening circles, forums, blogs, and conversations, of terms like "chemical." It makes my hair stand up. "I don't use chemicals on my garden," or, "I won't eat food that is grown with chemicals."

Uh, yes, you do, and yes, you will.

For zot's sake. Everything is chemicals. "Organic" is chemicals. What you really mean to say is, I don't use synthetic fertilizers/insecticides." SYNTHETIC. The PR team for good science is about as efficient as Barack Obama's PR team. Which is to say, woeful. The failure in his presidency was his team and his party's utter failure at communicating its successes. Fire the lot.

The good stuff does NOT speak for itself. Good science and good leadership need as much PR as the total shite that is dispensed by people too lazy to read more than the headlines. In its absence crackpots flourish. In the garden, and in politics.

The Grow Journey blog, as always, provides excellent, thoughtful information about healthy growing practises. Problems are identified and sustainable solutions are provided. Aaron von Frank's essay on synthetic nitrogen and why you don't want it in your garden or in the edible landscape that grows the food you buy is essential reading.

As Aaron writes in the nitrogen piece, "some issues take longer than a tweet or a paragraph to explain." And if you are planting anything, or care about what you eat, it's on you to inform yourself. Read that article, and share it. It is fascinating, and important.

Finally, tip of the day, fairly new to me (someone on my Facebook page suggested it - thank you), from a Grow Journey post about preventing garden pests:

Got mildew? Break out the fungicides? "No! Not unless you want to also kill the beneficial fungi in your garden that help your plants," writes Master Gardener Eliza Lord. "Powdery mildew can be easily prevented using organic methods. The easiest, most proven method of treatment involves milk. (Yes, that white liquid from cow udders.) Make a mixture of milk and water (30% milk to 70% water is fine) and spray it evenly on the surface of the leaves of affected plants during the morning on a sunny day... In studies, this method has proven to be as effective as any synthetic fungicide in stopping powdery mildew."

Now: Got milk?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Garden visitors

The smallest member of the Cape dwarf chameleon family being visited by the Frenchman on a recent evening, in my parents' garden at No. 9 in Constantia. Note the martini. It is good to see the little reptiles, as their numbers are declining.

Life has been full, with a lot to do, not enough done, and a difficult road ahead for my parents. Who said aging is not for sissies?

We are bound for New York, soon. South African stories to follow.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Urban Harvest

There is a shopping centre/center (depending on the English you speak) called Constantia Village a few minutes' drive from my parents' house in Cape Town. It's a regular haunt for me when I am in town. After New York-style shopping (hopping between butcher, baker, candlestick maker) I find mall culture exotic. Everything under one roof. There is a tiny biltong shop selling the delectable air-dried meat that South Africans love. There are two big supermarkets purveying irresistible items like affordable (by New York standards) free range South African lamb, piles of passion fruit, and the best raisin bread, ever (except now I have my own recipe). Or custard and malva pudding, if you are the Frenchman (who is in Cape Town, at last). There are banks and clothes shops and a book shop and a jeweler and hairdressers and home stores and a pharmacy and a health shop and a bakery and a camping equipment shop.

And there is a huge parking lot, patrolled by car guards who watch over cars, and help with bags.

At one end of this vast parking lot there is a small vegetable garden planted on a raised island topped by two old stone pine trees. I climb the wooden steps to look at it almost every time I visit. Recently, in this late winter, early spring crossover time in Cape Town, my curiosity got the better of me and back at home after taking these pictures I visited the website advertised on the garden's pole fencing. This led me to Urban Harvest.

Above, perfect fava (broad) beans. Did you know that their flowers are scented?

I emailed Ben Getz, Urban Harvest's founder. Ben said that he immediately saw the potential for turning this previously unused space into an edible garden, when he first noticed it, and approached the center management with a proposal. "They were entirely enthusiastic about the idea of using the space to grow organic food, raise awareness about edible gardens and benefit the community, " he wrote, in an email. The neat fencing and all the wood was donated by The Poleyard, and then Ben and his team installed the garden over three weeks in 2013.

I love wine bottle beds, especially in winemaking country, which this is. These upcycled bottles came from Oasis, a recycling centre "which empowers physically and mentally different beneficiaries," says Ben (all my parents' recycling goes to them, too). And while Urban Harvest has used "tens of thousands of bottles" in various gardens, they do not use them often anymore because, he says, "they are particularly time consuming to layout properly." Still, pretty.

The straw that covers the beds comes from horse farms or is bought in bales and is an effective mulch - not as necessary for moisture-retention now in the rainy season, but useful in hot dry summers.

Mature cool-weather-loving chard tempted me...just a few stalks, who'd miss them? When I asked Ben how the vegetables here are used he said, "We often give vegetables to the car guards, and street people, especially if they show real interest in the garden." The produce has also been used for weekly on-site markets as well as for local delis and restaurants. "But most of the harvests are donated to the local Haven Night Shelter," says Ben. Cape Town has a significant and mostly uncharted homeless population and shelters are few and far between.

Despite its public nature (and perhaps because of the car guard presence, as well as pretty tight video surveillance of the car park itself) he says that neither theft nor vandalism has been a problem in this garden.


Quick-Pickled Beet Recipe: 

Peel 3 medium-sized raw beets and slice thinly. Stack the slices and cut into matchsticks. Combine 1/3 cup sherry vinegar, 1/2 cup water, 3 Tablespoons sugar (trust me), 2 teaspoons salt, and mix. Pour over the beetroot slivers in a small bowl (the beets should be covered by the brine). Ready after 15 minutes and will keep for a week in the fridge. Wonderful in salads or on banh mi, and exquisite with creamy burrata.

This organic garden is just one of 300 food gardens that Urban Harvest has established in Cape Town. Of these about 50% are community-based CSI-related gardens, 40% are private home gardens and 10% belong to hotels and restaurants.

With a degree in philosophy, social anthropology, environmental and geographical science, as well as personal interests in yoga, meditation, permaculture and archetypal psychology, Ben said he wanted to make a living doing something that would benefit society and marry his diverse passions. Urban Harvest was a perfect fit. "I find I'm at my happiest when my hands are busy and when I'm working with people less privileged than me," he says.

This particular garden is tended weekly by Urban Harvest Edumaintenance Teams, led by gardeners Tichaona Nyaruviro, Edmore Manomano and Famous Kuseli. Generally, however, Ben says, "We consider it a completion of our service and a success when clients graduate to self-sustainability. Eventually all our clients get there. This could take 3 months or more than 3 years, depending."

I am not sure how many of the thousands of shoppers who frequent Constantia Village ever look more closely at this little garden, but if, like me, they are drawn to its seasonal crops and well tended beds, they might think twice about the tomatoes they are buying in pre-spring, and the provenance of cold season red peppers, both denizens of late summer, and learn to watch a little, and wait, and listen to what the seasons tell them about eating.

To learn more about Urban Harvest and the gardens they create, visit the link to their website.

[Photos courtesy of my Samsung Galaxy S7. I am a fan.]

Thursday, August 11, 2016


Beautiful Table Mountain and Devil's Peak from the vineyards of Steenberg where I met the lovely Californian-born, Cape Town-living Ilana of Finding Umami Cape Town, yesterday evening.

We enjoyed a slightly-unexpected wine tasting; we'd intended to enjoy a glass of wine together while we chatted but no wine is served by the glass (bottle only) and the restaurant was closed on Wednesday evening, so the grumpily-offered option was wine tasting, or wine tasting. We asked for a sparkling wine tasting which I believe is off-book, and it was actually very good value as long as you were happy with being thrown out at 6pm on the dot.

(Who's grumpy now?)

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Nectar lunch

From Kirstenbosch, the national botanical garden at Africa's southern tip, Leucaspermum reflexum var. lutea (skyrocket pincushion) with female sunbird occupant.

There have been many beautiful clear days in Cape Town (which is typical of winter, in short, bright bursts), but it's time we had more serious rain, after a stormy start to last week when it poured. The local vegetation needs it, the dams and the farmers still need it.

Ghostly, glorious silver trees, Leucadendron argenteum, rare and endangered, and endemic to the Cape peninsula, this hook of land where a large city, flats, wetlands, and a mountain range share space, with more and more of the latter being developed.

"Rare means that it has a small population and a restricted distribution range, which puts it at risk from sudden or unexpected changes. Endangered means that it faces a very high risk of extinction in the wild." (PlantzAfrica)

I'll try to post more regularly, but time is short and there is much to do.

(Remember, if you don't see me here, you can find my daily pictures on Instagram @66squarefeet)

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Bracken fiddleheads

From the land of humid summer (New York) to the land of clear sun and winter rain (Cape Town), from hot-weather garden beans to cool-weather fiddleheads. Such is the switch from hemisphere to hemisphere.

I have been foraging.

Bracken fern fiddleheads are rising in abundance in the damp green places in Cape Town. In the States they might be known as brake (you'll notice that word a lot if you read Faulkner's Big Woods) and eagle fern, because of the appearance of their young fronds. I decided to try bracken (this one is Pteridium aquilinum) for the first time, primed by my ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) experiences, Stateside, and inspired by the annual sansai (mountain vegetable) pilgrimages of my Japanese foraging friends. Bracken is known as warabi in Japan, and is a spring delicacy.

Eating bracken (and other ferns) comes with so many caveats that one could write a treatise on the subject. One thing to bear in mind is that these ancient plants absorb heavy metals and are good phytoremediators (they can clean the soil). So consider their environment before collecting any.

Above, bracken to the left, massive tree fern fiddleheads to the right (they are invasive locally, and I am still thinking and reading about them).

The other consideration is that bracken ferns are known to contain carcinogens (perspective-reminder: alcohol is carcinogenic). Their spores are carcinogenic, and it is supposed that it's not a great idea to live surrounded by them. Suffice it to say: do not dine on (any) fern fiddleheads exclusively for any length of time. Make them an occasional treat and prepare them the right way. Soak, blanch, shock, cook. The toxins are water-soluble. Please read Hank Shaw's take on it.

As with many, many foods, medicines, and poisons, it's all about the dose.

I picked some young un's and soaked them in two changes of water for 24 hours. Then I blanched them in salted boiling water for about 3 minutes, till tender. Then I shocked them in an icebath for an hour.

When I tasted one raw (no swallowing) it was very, very bitter. That bitterness was gone by the time the marathon soaking was done.

THEN, and only then, I flash-sauteed them with some soy sauce, a sprinkle of sugar and a squeeze of the wonderful limes that grow in my mother's garden. They were delicious. Hard to describe.

You may ask, Why?

It's fun, and they taste good. And it's once in a blue moon.