September 17, 2012


We've made it through another summer at our micro-farm by the sea. Here's a recap. The intensity of light provided encouraging fuel for living a colorful life and the intensity of heat made swimming and submerging essential. The days passed in a typical pattern with faintly hazed mornings, towering cumulus clouds mid-day, and blue blazing afternoons scattered with casual rain when we were lucky. Here the seasons mingle into each other subtly, without distinctive markers. Actually, South Florida feels more like tropical places with only two season, wet and dry. With a leaky roof and all, this old cottage has made it to the final stretch of the wet season. Thankfully we can procrastinate another year teaching ourselves about DIY roof repair, it seems so intimidating. Now in mid-September a welcome break from the brightness is coming slowly, and the heat gives way to a gentle warmth.

In our two plus years we've found a good rhythm managing an animal crew, growing food mostly sustainably, lovingly fixing up an old house, and improving our craft.  It's difficult to separate any one of these projects from the other as they each compliment and inspire the other. Sometimes it's frustrating working crappy jobs and dealing with an impossible budget. Other times it can be overwhelming, living intertwined among all these projects and having very limited experience, but mostly it just feels exciting being at the beginning of something big. There is so much to learn and do ahead of us.

The growing this season was different from the previous summers. There was the usual warm weather garden efforts of cover cropping and trailer loads of seaweed and mulch for sheet composting. Also I've fully embraced chicken gardens, the ladies now roam freely among new plantings. Even the excitement of growing 50 pineapples was overshadowed by the growing of something else. This summer was spent growing a baby!

Wanting to be parents is a recent development for us, mostly me. I always thought I needed to have more together, but I realized I'm already doing most of the things I hope to do. So why not?  I've never been that into babies, though I can tell that's all changing. I'm mostly excited to know Charley as a rad dad and the whole new dynamic around this place. I'm excited to make this person quilts, and grow her first foods, and build her a library at her height, and introduce her to homemade Indian food, and teach her how to swim. I feel lucky to get to have this experience.

Lately I've been grateful and amazed (this is South Florida and all, where the c-section rates soar) that we found ourselves at a perfect intersection between alternative and traditional medicine. Through a friend, we met a wonderful midwife and will be having a home-birth sometime in December. Aside from the first four months of complete nausea, things have been good. Happily, I've stumbled into a productive time in the studio and garden, making up for the early exhaustion. I've begun obsessively educating myself on many new to me concepts like breastfeeding, baby wearing, natural labor, unschooling, and prenatal nutrition. And again thinking of how much learning and doing there is ahead of us.

*(photo by Alexa Dye)


March 20, 2012

New beginnings on the Spring Equinox

Hooray, we got our first silkie egg! I love coincidences of this nature. Our first ever little, white egg came on the day marking the beginning of Spring. Winter has been a time of too much work, not enough play, and it's felt like things would NEVER change. Not to worry, a reminder came today.

March 02, 2012

Preserved Foraged Lemons

Over the last few years I've been getting to know the foraging landscape around my county. It's taken a bit of time, but I have acquired an ever expanding database of free food. Wild food makes me appreciate plants and where I am. At times I feel overwhelmed with improving soil, fending off pests, providing water, keeping an eye on fungal and bacterial problems, and mostly orchestrating this whole ecosystem. So enjoying the fruits of labors not my own feels great!

Foraged lemons make me especially excited because I've found them growing across the street in an overgrown lot. How they thrive concealed by a wall of leggy, invasive, Brazilian pepper is beyond me.  For most of the winter a quick trek across the street has provided me with enough lemons to share. Right now is a special intersection between the seasons for lemons. Blossoms and ripe fruit live concurrently on the trees for a short while. Citrus fruits love winter and with it winding down I foraged one last haul of lemons to put up for the hot seasons ahead.  To make good use of life's abundances, I decided to try salted lemons, here goes. 

Preserved lemons can be substituted for fresh in most recipes. They are mellowed by a long soak in a salty brine, removing the bitterness and rendering a softened, tasty peel. After the fermentation process there's not much pulp leaving the rind to carry the bright flavors. Once preserved and softened rinse them off,  sometimes a whitish accretion occurs. Add them to dressings and marinades, diced over fish, minced in a hollandaise type sauce, stir-fried with veggies, tossed in a salad, added into a fruit salsas, simmered in Indian curries, added to dried bean and rice dishes, shaken as a salted lemon vodka collins. Anyone for a cocktail party in three weeks time?

Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey

Salted Lemons, Moroccan Style

1 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup salt, plus some for sprinkling
2 pounds lemons (about 3-5 depending on size)
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
a few whole cloves
a couple coriander seeds
a bay leaf

Make a brine by dissolving the water and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat.

Clean and dry the lemons. If you grow or find lemons in the woods a quick rinse is fine, but if the lemons are store- bought they may be waxed and need a good scrub.

Next cut the top and bottom off. Then slice lengthwise into quarters but leave them attached at the bottom.

Liberally salt the lemons, inside and out.

Add the spices to your jar.

Pack you lemons into the jar and fill with the cooled brine. It helps to keep the lemons submerged with a toothpick, if you've got them handy.

Wipe the rim and screw the lid on your jar. Store for 3-4 weeks on a sunny windowsill, a warm spot in your home, or outdoors in the summer (remember to bring the jar in at night).  With the foods I've fermented, I haven't noticed much difference with placement.

After the skin has softened,  your lemons are ready to be stored indefinitely. I refrigerate at this point because my house is hot and humid for half the year. I imagine they don't need to be refrigerated if you live somewhere cool or have a climate control situation.

(The third jar is a pickling method common in India using only salt and spice, but that's for another day.)

August 16, 2011

10 months of gardening starts NOW

Here we've been getting ready for 10 months of great gardening! Our resting months are officially over, and now we are preparing for the new season. June and July are the months Floridians pour through seed catalogues with interesting photos and poetic descriptions while hibernating in air conditioning. This is very different from gardeners of northerly climes with their growing season starting in spring. The first crops are warm-season types planted at the end of summer (August-ish), followed by cool-season crops planted in the fall once the heat dies off (October-ish), and then another round of warm-season crops for spring (March-ish).

In May I planted cover crops across all the rows from last season and let them take over for the summer. This was a good month to stop warm-season vegetable plantings. Too much of everything- rain, heat, work, humidity, disease, and insects. The rewards fall short of the effort. 

I wanted to enrich the soil, giving back what I reaped last year. I experimented with cover crops in the legume family- peas, beans, and kin. I chose cow peas and velvet beans since they are adapted for hot and somewhat moist climates, but can also tolerate drought. Perfect since typically this is the wet season, and we've been experiencing drought and unpredictable weather for years. 

Legumes are emphasized because they are known as underground fertilizer factories. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria live as nodules on the roots and convert nitrogen from the air into a form stored in the soil. The nitrogen- fixing bacteria need the legume roots to convert nitrogen from the air and the legumes need the nitrogen for fertility. Just another example of symbiotic relationships at work!  Crops later planted where legumes grow get to tap this nitrogen too. 

I was also curious about covering and protecting the soil from weeds and sun beating down all summer. The beans and peas were densely sown, grew in quickly, and created a living mulch. This created a micro- climate that shaded the soil and held in the moisture.  It became a summer hangout for frogs, cats, and chickens just looking for a little relief.

August has been a busy month of uprooting the cover crops, preparing the beds, mulching walkways, and sewing seeds for transplanting. I'll be experiamenting this season with no- till methods, leaving the summer cover crops as a mulch/green manure on top of the soil rather than tilling it under. Top soil hardly exhists in coastal Florida, so tilling wrecks what little soil structure we have. The top few inches see all the action so I'm working on preserving it. That and tilling is tiring.

I hope everyone is staying hydrated, getting excited about their new beds, and of course enjoying the sea!

July 18, 2011

the sweetness of mangoes

I live in a sweet place, literally and abstractly. Largely it is a watery labyrinth situated at a diverse intersection between temperate and tropical, hence the perfect climate for swimming and growing mangoes. At home it is remodeling a yellow cottage and building a self-sufficient homestead and edible ecosystem, less than an acre, and all I need. I knew from the start that these projects would take more than just a few seasons to rehibilitate the land and find a pattern of living closer to nature. What I didn't know was that these projects would sprawl in so many directions.

Sweetness of place in the abstract is owning my time. Half of the year I work for myself, not the man, not for money. It has it's own set of self driven challenges, uncertainties, satisfaction, and complexity.  A quote from The One-Straw Revolution summarizes it best, "People sometimes work more than they need to for the things that they desire, and some things that they desire they do not need."  It took me years to figure this out. I am perpetually surprised by the amount of work it takes to simplify. So far this small time adventure in living is an evolving process with unexpected fun along the way.

Who knew the mango is good to eat in all stages of growth: unripe, semi-ripe, and fully ripe?  Since learning this I have become consumed, overly occupied, obsessed. Unripe mangoes are the stars of Indian chutneys, pickles, and preserves. They are fully green with firm and sour flesh, picked prematurely months before they would ever ripen. For most of May, I experimented pickling mangoes outside, letting the sun work its magic. Like most fermented foods and drinks the initial taste is strange and exquisite.

In the following weeks, I ate semi-ripe mangoes mostly in salads and sometimes sprinkled with salt and cayenne. At this stage the flesh started to turn yellow, and was somewhere between sweet and tart like a granny smith apple. I brought a salad of baby greens, candied nuts, goat cheese, and semi-ripe mangoes to dinner parties in June, even to the opposite corner of the country. (FYI Toting a bag of tropical fruit through airport security, while is a pain in the ass and apparently cause to search your suitcase, is legal in the end.) People like green mangoes, it was a hit from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

July is the end of mango season for the trees in my yard. For months it seemed there would be mangoes forever. The mega abundance finally started to dwindle, and I wanted to celebrate the season. It is best to pick mangoes as they start to blush, they are meant to ripen off the tree. It turns out  my community was thrilled and ready to play mango at the slightest suggestion. So it happened there were breakfasts, brunches, lunches, and potlucks centered around mango smoothies, lassies, butters, salsas, pickles, and chutneys. Also parties into the late night with mango margaritas and countless deserts from flan to shortcake to coffeecake to breakfast bread. And maybe best of all, just chilled and eaten out of hand.

All the creative, delights made with mangoes brought on all kinds of amazing adventures- a sailing surfari, a mass bike ride, and body surfing at dusk. It is in this fully ripe stage that the mango signifies summer and inspires fun in south Florida, when I say that I live in a sweet place, what I really mean is sweet!

May 25, 2011

plans for a subtropical edible landscape

Last week I collaged these plans for a 1/3 acre subtropical edible landscape. Every plant is useful in this ever-evolving homestead.  Fruit, nut, and spice trees dot the property, and the understory and front lawn beds change with the seasons. Some of the plantings and infrastructures are still experiments, while others are permanent and mature. I still need to do much more specific plant research, but finally there's a plan! My overall intent is that the lot will function as its own ecosystem, everything circular.

  1. Food not lawns! Wide biodynamic vegetable beds
  2. Papaya trees and pineapples anchor the driveway, handsome reminders of the tropics
  3. Herbs, flowers, perennials, small trees, and low shrubs are intermingled in low maintenance borders around the house
  4. Rainwater harvesting from the roof.  The barrels are connected to downspouts from the gutters and are elevated for pressure to run a drip irrigation system. (The water will be recycled and the system provides its own power. I'm not yet sure of the logistics or principals of this type of irrigation,  but I've been reading up on the possibilities. )
  5. Brick pavers or pallet wood in a herringbone pattern transition from courtyards to paths to porches. A- open air dining room. B- courtyard with partial shade for starting seeds and potted kitchen herbs/ outdoor shower hooks up with indoor plumbing. C- sitting area and sleeping porch
  6. Wood shop and ceramic studio
  7. Hen house and run
  8. Composting operation for making soil improvers- leaf mold, shredding small branches, mulch pile, seaweed and comfrey liquid fertilizer situation
  9. Bee hive
  10. Citrus grove with self- seeding wildflower and nitrogen fixation cover crop meadow beneath to attract pollinators and add soil fertility. (lemon, lime, grapefruit, and early, mid, late season oranges with clover, cowpeas, and beach daisies)
  11. Planting of smaller native trees and shrubs to support wildlife and provide privacy. (cocoplum, sea grape, maple oak, dahoon holly, buttonwood) Mostly low growing so not to block eastern sea breezes. Also a few select deciduous shade trees near the house allowing winter sun in and keeping the summer sun out to save energy on heating and cooling. (gumbo limbo and mulberry)
  12. Blueberry and blackberry brambles serving as hedging
  13. Cedar/ cypress window boxes and terracotta pots filled with edible flowers and herbs. (nasturtiums, tarragon)
  14. Plantain and banana sunscreen adjacent to the western wall of the house in the hottest, driest area of the landscape. Leaving plenty of space between plants to allowing for expansion of the mat over time. Eventually will provide shade and absorb some heat from the afternoon sun.
  15. Clothes line screened from the street and somewhere around here is an outdoor shower
  16. Established mango orchard provides shade. Understory of shade tolerant food plants for humans and birds. (coffee, monstera, mushroom cultivation)
  17. Loquat, jack fruit, olive, cinnamon, neem, moringa, tamarind, and royal poincianna
  18. Carambola (star fruit)
  19. Macadamia Nut
  20. Allspice with Seminole Pumpkin patch at ground level.
  21. Lychee
  22. Mulberry
  23. Fig
  24. Wildlife garden area. predominately cabbage palms and  pines
  25. Palmetto and cocoplum
  26. Laural, scrub, and sand oaks
  27. Guava
  28. Gumbo Limbo
  29. Avocado
  30. Southern Magnolia 
  31. Jabotacaba and elderberry hedge
  32. Dragon fruit, black pepper vine, and native passion vine scattered around the property climbing up into most trees 

May 13, 2011

key lime pie

Made this 8 egg pie for Easter brunch, but just getting around to posting it now. Using the freshest, just laid eggs available makes the meringue stand higher.  

keeping chickens May routine

This adventure in living and raising our own food is insanely satisfying and whimsical. I love the routines it requires, and finding my own steady rhythm especially during the summer when the waitress job is closed for the off- season. The hard part isn't the laboring, organizing, dirt, and sweat of the farm chores or the long mind numbing hours of wage slaving and commuting, but the living between drastically different worlds. It's hard on the mind.

Watering and careful observation of the garden at first light while the nighttime coolness is still left in the air is one of the best parts of the May routine. It isn't always pleasant, but it is gentle and predictable work to wake up to and gain my bearings.  Sometimes this means being followed around the yard by a cloud of gnats.  Next is letting the big girls out of the coop. If I'm not up early enough for their liking their squawking has me out the back door in a hurry, calling out apologies. I've heard Rhode Island Reds can be pushy. Then its time for dog omelets and a beach walk with the dogs. Mid- day is reserved for being still, finding shade, and stealing air conditioning. We all have our vices, this time of year I tend to drink coffee out just for that reason.

One of my favorite aspects of the evening routine involves the dumpster at Barbour's Produce at the end of the block.  I absolutely love rummaging through the dumpster to find perfectly good delights and riding home with overflowing buckets on my handle bars.  The brood loves berries, tomatoes, apples, peaches, squash, greens, grapes, herbs, and melons.

Working on an infinite project certainly has a way of quieting the mind and getting me through the winter. I read somewhere that the winter season for farmers is that of hardship and suffering, I agree for different reasons. 

April 15, 2011

making strawberry jam

Strawberry season in  South Florida has come and gone, and I managed to put up 3 variations this month- strawberry & mulberry, strawberry with mint, and strawberry lemon zest. I cheated a bit and bought quart after quart from the grocery store. Still the food miles were under 100 and the berries were at their peak. Each batch was canned without added pectin; only strawbs, sugar, lemon juice, and small amounts of either mulberry, mint, or zest. Each of the additions to the recipe were foraged from the neighborhood! Can't help loving free, local, regional, delights! I let the ingredients macerate for 2 hours before I boiled everything down until it reached 220 degrees or the gel stage. The test for gelling is seriously simple. Plop a little of the mixture on a plate in the freezer, let it sit for a couple of minutes, and test it by pushing your fingertip into the edge. If its gelled correctly it'll wrinkle a little and hold its form, if it's still runny boil it down for 5 more minutes. While the berries cooked down I sterilized all the jars and lids. Just funnel the mixture into the warm jars, process for 10 minutes in a water bath, and your done.  I use this book all the time for reference with different food crafts.

April 12, 2011

Citrus Rangers

I've expanded the flock! It's back to keeping chirps in the bathroom until they're old enough to move to the coop with the rest of the ladies. I've been reminded of the duties that come with being a chick nanny. 3 sweet peeps = big mess. They waltz around in the food and water, spreading fecses throughout. I now spend my free time cleaning up behind them during all daylight hours.  Since it's warm and sunny here, I've built a play pen for them to hangout in during the day just outside the window so I can keep an ear on them and keep the mess outside.

These new babes are more docile than the first batch of chicks I've raised. Combining Rhode Island Reds and Buff Orpingtons, a local retiree in Palm City developed Citrus Rangers. This breed is especially adapted to hot weather conditions. He's been selecting his best over the past 15 years for laying and table.

A new experience this time around is unsexed chicks, aka straight run. Only professional chicken sexing experts can determine the sex, and even then they are only 90% accurate.  At Ranch Feed Store, I learned an old wives tale to predict the sex of a chick. If you pick them up in your palm, flip them upside down, and their legs are fully flexed and kicking you got yourself a cockerel (male). If they are calmer and they keep their legs close to their body then you get a pullet (female). According the the tale I have 2 pullets and 1 cockerel. I'm not sure how well a rooster is going to go over in the neighborhood, but it's a homesteading adventure... We'll deal and maybe eat fried rooster.

March 17, 2011

gratitude & abundance

A 10 year anniversary coincides with a homegrown, home cooked feast of garden bounty. I am thankful for fresh and delicious food grown and prepared with love. 

February 25, 2011

Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers=blood on my shoes

The first signs of spring are generally regarded as a good thing, except when that first sign points to lubber grasshoppers. These are the biggest nuisance I've come across so far with building a micro farm at my house. Normally I approach farming problems by careful observation, lots of thinking even dreaming, reading books and blogs, chatting with the more experienced, and eventually working through the situation. This is not the case with these guys.

When I started Park Street Micro- Farm a little under a year ago the property was unmaintained and the grasshoppers ruled the neighborhood with their large armored orange bodies. One would have a hard time focusing on the ground because of the rippling sea of grasshopper. I've been researching, consulting the County Extension agents, and finding out the hard way some of their behaviors. 

Lubbers have one generation a year, hatching in the spring from eggs deposited 2 inches below the surface of the ground. They wiggle up and out of the ground most often in sandy areas, ditches, fence rows, weedy abandoned lots, even pinelands since they are actually native. I spent an afternoon observing this process from start to finish taking everything in me not to kill while they are vulnerable. Young grasshoppers are called nymphs, are red-orange, and have limited mobility at first. After a few hours they stretch they legs, move slowly in a pack, and quickly grow through successive stages. Within the first week they turned black and had a firmer exoskeleton.  

By early summer they are adults and the females start laying eggs for the next generation. The ladies poke their butts into the sand and squirt out egg cases, the nests are resistant to moisture and cold winters. So long as the ground isn't disturbed we can count on these pests poking up like a fresh spring bud each February in south Florida. 

  Nymphs crawling out of their nest.

Within the first week.

The outbreak continues.

Grasshopper sex from last season, just as an idea of what we're dealing with here.

So what's a girl to do? Did I mention they are immune to even the harshest insecticides, have adapted to habitats that their natural predators have left, are poisonous to birds, and feed on a variety of plants like amaryllis and the veggie garden type?

For now I'm patrolling the yard every few hours, stomping each group as they hatch, and thinking up ways to reduce the threat for the next year. Maybe barrier plants surrounding the garden that they detest? Horehound, cilantro, and calendula are supposedly beneficial against pests, but I don't know about these resiliant pests. How to eliminate potential egg laying sites for this summers lay? I've been dreaming of compost heaps of seaweeds such that deter the female away with the salts and will get too hot for the eggs that are deposited through the winter, but that would be a quarter acre compost pile. Yikes! Maybe ripping out the lily ornaments that are their biggest food sources along the boarder of the whole property? Eventually these would go anyway because I would like every plant on the property to be edible or native to the area. All in all its going to be a huge project with lots of blood on my shoes.