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Showing posts with label backyard permaculture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label backyard permaculture. Show all posts

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Winter Birdseed Cakes

 



I hope I don't need to state that this is not intended for human consumption. All that being said, I can't stop you, if you are so tempted. Live your life, right?

The holidays are coming and a lot of people are joining the "Support Small Businesses" movement! While this is incredible, it's still going to be a difficult holiday season for many humans on this planet. Not only have many lost loved ones, have come down with a chronic illness, are isolated from what we all used to view as a normal life...and let's not forget the financial hardship that has kissed all of us full on the lips this year. I'd love to tell you to buck up, to hold on, to stay optimistic...but I won't. I'll just tell you that I'm with you, I understand, and that it's okay to do a handmade holiday this year. 

Although I am an incredibly social person, I have enjoyed the last few holidays with only my husband and myself. Thanksgiving, especially, was lovely, as we got to enjoy all the stuff we wanted without a large family, screaming children, drunk uncles, and pants. (Yes, pants. And bras, for that matter, which I frankly don't see having a comeback after 2020.) The point is that, although this year has been exceedingly and extremely difficult for me and my family, it has been oddly freeing. So, no, I have no problem sending out handmade cards and gifts this year for the holidays! I don't think you should either...

This birdseed cake project is frugal gift-giving at its finest. I do this whenever I have something like fried chicken or doughnuts and I have to clean out my pot of oil and fat. I usually dispose of the fat in the garbage pail, but don't scrape it clean...because I'm using it to make these cakes.

And, hey, all you really need is a fancy ribbon for it to be #PinterestWorthy.

Winter Birdseed Cakes
yield 1 doz muffin-sized cakes

  • The remains of a greasy oil-filled pot, usually 6 or 7 Tbsp of fat
  • 1 c steel-cut oats
  • 1 c whole dried corn*
    • I owe my friends at KC Farm School at Gibb's Road for this particular corn, that's been dried in my pantry!
    • I'm using corn in my recipe because I have a lot of jays in my area, but please feel free to substitute this for dried fruits, depending on the kinds of birds you have in your area.
  • 1 2/3 c birdseed mix
  • 1/4 c flour
  • 4 Tbsp sugar or honey
  • 2 Tbsp unflavored gelatin bloomed in about 6 Tbsp cold water
  • String or ribbon, as you like
  • **A wooden skewer or a chopstick, as well as a muffin tin
Bloom your gelatin and grease the muffin tins with oil. Heat your oil leftover from your last deep-frying adventure (which will probably have some goodies in the bottom of the pan) and add the oats, corn, and birdseed mix. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a spatula to ensure you get absolutely everything off the bottom of the pan. This is a great way to also get rid of bacon grease or schmaltz from the bottom of a pan, even if you aren't deep-frying anything. A little fat is good for the birds, because birds are carnivores, and they eat bugs...which do have some fat on them! 

Add in your oats, corn, and bird seed mix, and stir gently. The idea of this step is to make sure that your granules are coated with your fat. Sprinkle in your flour and add the sugar or honey, and continue to cook on medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Make sure you're scraping the bottom and the corners well with your spatula!

Add your gelatin and turn off the heat. Stir well to make sure that the gelatin melts and everything is incorporated. Next comes the fun part that also takes the longest!

Portion the birdseed mix in the greased muffin tins and pack down well to ensure that everything is as dense as possible. You can do this with a spatula, of course, or you can wet your hands and press it down tight with your fingers. As little air as possible could be in this seed cake! Remember, it has to stand up to being outside in the wind and rain, and being knocked about by birds, squirrels, and other woodland creatures that would like a nibble.

Use an oiled wooden skewer or a metal chopstick to poke holes near where the top would be for each cake. This is essential to do now, before it sets, so you can hang the seed cake outside on string later. Set these in the fridge or on the counter, in a cool place, for at least two hours. While we wait, I'd like to talk a little about how birdwatching has nurtured my soul in this troubled and uncertain time.

I was certainly never what one would call a bird watcher, or bird enthusiast. Backyard birding seemed to be the hobby of someone's great aunt that you talk to every so often, that has books about it and sits in the park every weekday and feeds the birds. Being stuck inside for 8 months, however, helps you explore your inner old auntie and set her free with all the wild abandon you would imagine that person to have. Looking back on my first spring indoors, I was quite grateful when my husband's late grandmother gifted us her two encyclopedias on backyard birding when the pandemic hit. I was safe at home and able to watch from my huge windows and cozy couch. 

My cat appreciated all of the snuggles, too.

Sitting at my window, watching the birds, and sipping my coffee was a meditative act that I could easily do when I was feeling restless and anxious. I told myself that when I started there may not always be birds, but - to my surprise - there were a lot more birds than I expected. I'm fortunate enough to live near a forest and to have four mature trees on my property, so there is plenty of nature to be had. From my couch, I've watched puffy red cardinals fluff themselves up to keep warm, and small groups of starlings glitter in the morning light. I've laughed over Blue Jays and how much they scream and fight with each other. I've even had the pleasure of seeing baby rabbits wander across my yard in the early morning. If you've ever had the opportunity of gazing into the eyes of a wild animal, you'll know how oddly exhilarating and humbling it is. 

The birds have been integral to my backyard permaculture endeavors, as well, with my victory garden. I'm aware that birds are usually considered a pest when it comes to gardening, but I have appreciated their presence when it came to insect and pest control. Jays are aggressive, so they keep stray cats away from my garden. The finches, sparrows, and coal tits have been wonderful to watch from my office window, as they perch on my Giant Sunflowers and eat the seeds, which is a worthwhile investment for entertainment alone. When the seeds were gone, they turned to the nasty beetles and grasshoppers when they noticed I had a reliable food source. Did they eat the odd strawberry or tomato? Certainly. But did I have considerably less pests this year, now that I'd taken an uber-organic approach to the garden instead of spraying everything with neem oil and calling it a day? Yes, absolutely!

I know this is getting preachy, but believe me when I say that the birdfeeders I now have hanging from my roof have brought me peace in a way I didn't believe they would have. I live in the Midwest of America, so that means I get to see cardinals, blue jays, woodpeckers, golden orioles, starlings, sparrows, mourning doves, falcons, and more. Giving myself permission to sit lazily and watch these animals go about their day has given me a strange sense of peace and connection to nature. I hope this will encourage you to at least try hanging up a birdfeeder near your window, just to see what will happen. 



To remove, all one has to do is give them a rather strong knock when you turn the tin upside-down, but you may use a spatula to get the cakes out of their hiding places. String them on ribbon or twine and double-knot a square knot at the top to get your loop to be tight. I like to let these air-cure on a cooling rack for at least a day at room temperature before I set them outside, but this step isn't absolutely necessary if you're living in a dry climate. 

And there you have it! A thoughtful, attractive gift for the bird-lover in your life. These thrifty things are excellent stocking-stuffers, or the perfect "Just Because" gift. They can be made any time you deep-fry something and happen to want to clean out the bottom of your pan in an economical way, and they store for ages so you can keep them in your cellar or pantry for a quick gift on the fly. I know that my birds appreciate it, especially in winter when their diets have to change. Remember, not all birds migrate, so if you play your cards right, you're going to have some wonderful winter entertainment if you invest your time in making these. 

Please be safe this holiday season.

Thanks so much! Happy cooking, happy eating, and happy gifting!

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Real Girl Guide to Victory Gardens

It's me,  your girl, coming to you LIVE from Kansas City!
In the spirit of keeping my promise to all of you out there on how to survive this awful Plague - and thus the quarantine - this piece is going to not contain any recipes. This is going to be a review and honest testimonial of what it is to grow a Victory Garden in modern-day life.

What the heck is a Victory Garden? In short, it's a gardening plot grown for the sake of supplementing your food supplies in times of shortage. A non-insignificant amount of them are coming back right now because they were immensely popular in nearly any wartime era in modern western civilization. Ranging from 1917 Canada to 1940s Great Britain, the government propagandized growing your own food. It was really all translation for: "grow your own food because we're not gonna bloody pay higher prices to Brazil for meat and we're a tiny-ass island that relies on imports so bugger off." The only difference is that they didn't say that they said "WAGE WAR BY GARDENING! GLORY TO THE EMPIRE!"

Audrey Hepburn famously said: "To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow."  That's a nice quote, but what on earth are you meant to do when you need food today and are worried about tomorrow? A Victory Garden is an amazing idea in theory, but not the best idea in practice, considering that it's not something that gives you food immediately but will give you food later. 

I think that the idea is that you were meant to have a deep freezer, a good supply of edible things, but in the spirit of someone who's been experimenting on permaculture for the last 7 or 8 years, I'd like to share my POV from a person that doesn't have all her own land, that lived in a rental, that now owns her home and has had experience with container gardening as well as in-ground stuff. I want to tell you what works, what's fast, what's realistic for you - the part-time gardener - to expect. This is a real testimonial from a real working person that's grown her own food to supplement and saved a lot of money. Here we go!




Chilies
I personally have never had very good luck with bell peppers, but small, hot chilies in containers have done wonders for me, especially when grown in hanging baskets on the south-facing side of my house. I have no earthly idea why they seem to have done better for me that way, but they sure have. Maybe because they're mostly a tropical/warm climate berry that does better indoors away from the cold at night? Either way, one summer I got so many chilies I had to resort to drying them as I went because there was no amount of salsa I could make that would possibly catch up with what I was producing. I dried them and pounded them, and hung them in bunches near my door. Small, hot chilies like bird chilies are great to grow in small containers, and you'll love having them dried and ready to go in the pantry.



Nasturtium
What is my favorite thing about the nasturtium? Perhaps it is because watching these guys in the rain is oddly satisfying, considering they're hydrophobic. Perhaps it's because their peppery taste makes them incredible for pesto, and that the entire plant is edible so you don't only have to pick the leaves. Perhaps it is because the flowers and leaves make beautiful garnishes. Perhaps it is because you can dry them and use them in everything from tea blends to hair toner. Perhaps it is even because of this plant's aroma, planted between other plants, help to keep pests at bay. The world may never know. 

Please note: these are Parisienne carrots, which grow in little globe-shapes like this!

Carrots
Here's what's annoying about them: they're so finicky about their soil type. And, no, they're not the kind you can really do well in a container. The seeds are paper-thin so you would be hard-pressed to have success should you plant them on a windy day. They're small so you need to sew them in clumps, but if you don't thin them you'll never get anything out of them. The good thing about them is that even if the root never takes hold and makes a big fat carrot, you'll still get the greens, which are tasty in an of themselves. You can braise them or add them to curries and soups, or saute them with bacon and spices. They're not the easiest thing to grow and I wouldn't really recommend for a victory garden unless you have the absolute right kind of soil. I've had some very mixed results with carrots so I wouldn't start here.

Beets do come in all shapes, sizes, and colors!
Beets
Falling in the same category but with large enough seeds to actually plant would be beets. You do have to thin them to get decent roots, but they're easy enough to grow and aren't as finicky about soil as carrots are. They come in a variety of colors, and if you get sugar beets you can even make your own sugar from them! They're a great crop for a beginning gardener because they grow relatively fast and can stay in the ground for just about as long as you want them to, so long as it's not too hot. I'd also like to tell you to not be alarmed when you pee and it's red. In case you don't know, beets color your pee and poo.

Cat not included.

Roses
They look dead most of the year, but I don't think I need to tell you how glorious a rose garden can be in the summer. The best part about cut roses is how they look, of course, but did you know that you can make jam from rose petals? You can also make rose water, of course, and your own essential oils. The real reason you should grow roses, however, is that you most likely need a visual pick-me-up. I wouldn't recommend these for a Victory Garden, but it does help to have glorious perennial flowers to attract pollinators.




Marigolds
Edible and hardy, they keep pests away! Plant this intermittently between other veggies, especially tomatoes, to help keep pests away and attract pollinators. And did I mention the blossoms were edible? You can eat the flowers or put them in salads, or chop the blooms up and mix with eggs, then steam or fry them. I know it sounds weird to the western palette, but it won't kill you to give it a try.






Who wants to hear a story? πŸ‘‡ So I am a lot of things. In addition to being first generation American, a chef, a married person to someone I totally dig above all others, I am a huge fan of PEACHES πŸ‘πŸ‘πŸ‘ so much so that I finally convinced my husband that our house would only be a home if we had a peach tree out back. 🌳 It took me something like 4 years, but last spring I was able to get to @family_tree_nursery and sneak home a peach tree πŸ€«πŸ˜‰. It took a lot of fertilizing, a lot of care, but it yielded an incredible crop of the most delicious little peaches. I made peach blossom tea, peach pit jelly, and of course a ton of #peachpie. It was so quickly producing that I even had to can a fair chunk of my peaches. . I'm sure I'm not the only one that has faced financial difficulties since the quarantine began in March. I'm very fortunate in that I have a partner that has been able to work from home, but I don't have that luxury as a chef. But you know what really gave me hope? 🌸 When I saw my peach tree blossoming in the backyard πŸ˜©πŸ™ reminding me of last summer. . I looked in the cabinet today and only had two small jars of #peaches left, which was JUST enough to dot the tops of my favorite coconut chess pie, along with some peach leaf pie crust decorations! . A chess pie is an American southern #classic in which a custard is baked directly in an unbaked pie shell. I always par bake my crusts because nobody likes a soggy bottom along with an overcooked custard. I make mine with coconut milk and farm fresh eggs I was able to trade a neighbor for a few masks. πŸ˜‹ I especially like them because you can make them big or small, and you can even #bruleΓ© the tops! . So today I submit my Peach and Coconut Chess Pie for the #saferathome KCRW's Good Food Instagram Pie Pageant, with nothing else but the hope that it will inspire YOU to bake! . . #kcrwpie #kansascity #pastrychef #piesofinstagram #pie #baking #quarantinelife #kosherbaking #dairyfree #foodphotography #homecooking @kcrwevan
A post shared by Chef Kolika (@wannabgourmande) on

Peaches
A fruit tree is expensive and needs a lot of care. Stone fruits like peaches, cherries, and plums are self-pollinating, which means they're a-okay to be planted solo. If you want apples, you need more than one tree and don't even think of slacking off with them because the second they fall to the ground they'll ferment. Why is this bad? It's bad because you'll get not only drunken squirrels but drunken hornets. Another reason to not get these unless you have bags of time or more than one child to do the grunt work, apple harvesting ruins a lot of free time. Where the heck are you going to store all those apples? Do you know how to store apples? Get peaches instead, which - with proper care - will repay you with glorious fruits that can be preserved with ease. And did you know you can make tea from blossom, peel, and pit? It's a big investment to get a tree that's large and mature enough to give you fruit the same year you plant it in your yard (about $150) but I yielded a decent harvest my first year, enough to justify the first initial cost. Plus, nothing beats a blossoming tree in the spring for your soul.



Asparagus
I've been growing this thing for about 7 years now and just last year was I able to get four or five spears worth eating. When you grow asparagus, you quickly realize why the heck it's so expensive. Or maybe you don't? See, asparagus needs a dedicated patch to work. Nothing else can grow in that patch. This plant is bought in what's known as a crown, that will be planted six inches below ground and thusly spread out as it grows. You do need to add and compost and do all that fun permaculture stuff to it every year but you can't use that patch or transplant it anywhere else once established without difficulty. Asparagus yields only a few spears per season depending on how big the patch is. Think about that if you were a farmer, paying rent on your land, uncertain that you'd even get a crop in the 5 years it takes to grow from crown to be big enough to sell? You'll quickly learn why it takes so much time and effort to grow asparagus, and so for that reason, I don't recommend it for a quarantine garden.




Spinach
I absolutely love this green and couldn't say more to its virtues. Fast-growing and fabulous, you can grow spinach in an egg carton on your windowsill. Yes, it grows in shade! It's one of those incredible plants that you can only cut what you need and it will come back again and again. You know how a salad is nice and all, but you end up only eating a salad once or twice and then you stick that big plastic container of salad greens in your crisper drawer, and the grossness of the green sludge monster grows instead of your good intentions? Well, don't you dare worry! You can't do that when you only eat what you want from the spinach plant! Oh, and it's a plant that you can cook and freeze, so you'll get savory savings out of it. And don't even get me started on the smoothies you can make!



Blackberries
It's difficult when you have a large number of birds around, but there are few things as satisfying as going out to your blackberry bramble and eating off the berries. They're decently low maintenance and need a lot of unfiltered sunshine, but the best part is is that they seem to be bulletproof. Your harvest will depend on how well you fertilize and how you prune and care for it, and you mustn't forget to trim back the dead canes each year. I would definitely not buy a young plant, but opt for an older plant that has been hanging out at the garden center for a while. It'll be more expensive, but you will get much more out of your first harvest from a mature plant this way!



Peas
The masses may riot over what I have to say,  but I think they're a little more trouble than they're worth. I absolutely love peas but the trouble is that I never seem to get enough to harvest all at once to make into a meal. Maybe I'm not planting enough of them? They grow some very large tendrils which are very fun to draw and take pictures of. They do freeze perfectly but I must say that I'm almost certainly disappointed by my pea operation. That being said, they grow better in containers than they seem to do in planted beds. Who knew?



Potatoes
We've all seen those things on Pinterest claiming: "you can grow potatoes in a sack!" Well, no you can't. I've tried it a couple years in a row and the results are disappointing in proportion to the effort put in. I have heard from members of various permaculture groups I'm a part of that you can try it with different kinds of potatoes. It is my opinion, though, that if you do grow potatoes, it ought to be done outside in a raised bed. What's great about potatoes is that they're impossibly easy to grow. If you care for these plants, they'll repay you tenfold. I especially love them because you can store them forever and they seldom go bad in the root cellar (or basement, to you and me). If you don't have a root cellar and get a big potato crop, just cook them and freeze them - they freeze just fine and you'll do okay by them! But they are beautiful plants when they do grow and they'll give you a lot back. The trouble is they take time to grow, so I don't know how well they'd do in your victory garden for now. They're not fast growers, but they're worth it in the fall.

The dog is definitely not included when you grow beans. You can't have this dog. He's my baby.
Beans
I love bush and pole beans, and I think they should rank high on your things to grow! They're so easy, they grow very quickly and virulently, and you have many options with them. You can pick the tender pods soon and cook them then, or let them all go to seed and then have dry beans for later eating or later planting. I really like Kentucky Butter Beans for my zone, as they've got a mild flavor and will grow in a heartbeat. Perfect for a Victory Garden!



Strawberries
Perrenial and beautiful, these are wonderfully satisfying. I think they do well in containers but they do just fine outdoors in my temperate climate. What's better the leaves turn a gorgeous bright red when cold or frozen! You must mulch them to make sure they're fine over winter, but gosh they are worth it. Even better, they make their own transplants, so you can sell or give away plants to friends lest you get a giant strawberry patch in your backyard. As far as berries go, I'd say that you'll only get a few here and there unless you have a large number of plants and a healthy dose of good luck for getting to them before the birds do. All that being said, there's just something beautiful about a strawberry plant. The flowers are fragrant and wonderful so they'll attract more pollinators to your garden for the other things! I've never really gotten enough to make a whole large pie, but definitely enough to make some turnovers.



Tomatoes
Okay so let's be real - how much do you ACTUALLY eat tomatoes? Answer this honestly, because otherwise, you'll just be growing something for nothing. Canning tomatoes can be a lot of fun, but it'll take a long time if you don't have a pressure cooker!  Also, remember what you'll be planning for. If you're like me and you love all tomatoes that are super colorful and interesting and eating them raw or grilled on a salad, then go nuts. But if you ever want a tomato sauce it's going to be gross-looking if you use anything other than bright red tomatoes. With all of that being said, one of my favorite smells are tomato plants! Heirloom tomatoes especially grow very well once you get them established, and will often produce quite a lot, especially if you get the cherry variety. You can also dry them and preserve them in cans or oils. Green tomatoes in a pickle brine are awesome, too. Be sure to get heirloom seeds, and be sure to plant many different kinds in your garden if you do go the tomato route!

My cat's name is Pumpkin Spice

Pumpkins
These babies take a lot of room and you're not always guaranteed to get a good pumpkin out there unless you can protect it with your life against squash beetles, rabbits, and more. These take quite a bit of land and effort, but the payout on a pumpkin patch is pretty darn worth it for the Instagram posts alone. Storage can be tricky, especially since they need coolness and space, so it's likely easier to just roast them, puree them, and freeze them so you have your own canned pumpkin puree for later! What's also good about pumpkins is that you can eat the leaves! They're super high in vitamin A, vitamin C, and more. The one thing about these is that you have to be incredibly vigilant about pest control, otherwise it's all gone to waste really quickly.

This was my "per diem" harvest for a few weeks.
Cucumbers
If I were to pick a bumper crop for any kind of Victory Garden, I'd definitely choose a cucumber. First off, they're fast growers. Second, they produce like no tomorrow. Third, they take up considerably less space than pumpkins or other winter squash do, and - as far as I personally have seen - are generally resistant to disease or pest. I have picked a few slugs and bugs off my cucumber plants, but it never stopped them from producing. Versatile in culinary and prepping ways, you can eat raw, juice, pickle, and braise cucumbers. One summer I got so many I didn't know what to do, and that was only from one or two plants. Make sure you get a small variety, though, as the ones that produce larger fruits will take up more room and - if you have them hanging on a trellis - might make it too heavy for the poor dears.



Watermelon
I've tried for years to get watermelons to grow, all with devastating results. If you live in a warm climate and can tend to these, please go for it and tell me how it goes. It just seems too dang cold up here in middle America for me to get it right. I'm trying again this year so wish me luck. But for a victory garden with no experience? I would not recommend.

This wasn't even my tallest sunflower.

Sunflowers
You want these in your Victory Garden not just because they're nice to look at but because they're incredible for attracting pollinators. Birds, bees, butterflies, and more will come flocking to these amazing towers of floral achievement like you won't believe. Good luck getting seeds out of them, but you'll love the leaves. Yes, the leaves can be eaten! You can dry them and steep them for tea, or boil them like spinach, or bake them to make crunchy chips. I also love these because they show you exactly where the sunniest parts of your garden are. If you plant a few of them at different intervals, you'll see which place in the garden gets the sunniest, the hottest, all by which ones grow the tallest. It's not exactly perfect for the short-term, but the long game playing will be good

I actually forgot to get photos of the plant. Sorry.
Chamomile
Grow this in your quarantine garden because it's a fast grower, you're going to get a high and continuous yield, and you're going to want chamomile tea for your nerves. Seriously, there's not a lot of stuff that's more satisfying than making your herbal tea blends.

This is apple mint, dried in the microwave, next to its fresh friends!
Mint
Mint is a controversial flavor, often described as "cool spicy". I tell you this, though, that I planted mint once five years ago and it has literally never stopped growing. It'll get out of control if you let it grow. It will also help prevent mosquitos and other annoying stingy insects near you, so bless. And mint tea is fantastic. And mint in other spice blends is fantastic. If you sneeze while you have mint-flavored gum in your mouth, it grows where you sneezed. That's how easily and quickly it grows. And prolifically.



Sage
Frost tolerant and attracts pollinators, as it's part of the salvia family. It's got a very unique sort of pungent flavor, but is incredibly fragrant and will add an autumnal touch to your dishes. This ever-bearing herb takes up very little space and will give you a lot of good stuff once dried



Lemon Thyme
This is one of those herbs that can over-winter in the right conditions and give you some ever-bearing stuff and helps keep mosquitos away. It's easy to grow, helps you add flavor to whatever you're doing, and is versatile. Win-win?

Please forgive me the truly abhorrent lighting in this photo
Garlic
This is great for a long term thing, but I wouldn't plant it in a victory garden if the idea is quick stuff. You can harvest it when it's just sprouting and starting to leaf out for what's known as green garlic but if you plant in the fall you won't get anything until June or July. You can plant garlic now in the spring for a very late harvest, but for whatever reason, garlic just seems to do better after there's been a hard frost like they've been in the refrigerator underground. One year I had so much garlic that I had to hang it in a braid by the door and ate off of it for about four months. They're great growers, but it might be a little late to plant them right now for a victory garden.