Spring Weeds–Dock

Springtime is weed season, and there are plenty in my garden–57 species at last count.

I grumble about weeds, but I also find them fascinating. Weeds are the opportunists, the survivors, the tough and persistent plants of the world. Some have been spread accidentally, through virtue of their mobile, sticky, or tough seeds, but many more have been introduced on purpose. They are plants we once considered useful, and it is our changing values that make them weeds today.

So I’ll be introducing some of my weeds over the next few weeks as they sprout and flower and generally annoy me. We’ll start today with a weed I love to hate–broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

Dock isn’t my worst weed. Not by a long shot. But it is persistent. Deep, branching taproots make it a struggle to pull out, and with each plant able to produce up to 60,000 seeds a year which can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years, there is an unending supply of new plants. Still, dock struggles to compete with established plants, so it’s mostly a weed of disturbed soil.

The goats absolutely love it, so I can’t complain there. Dock is high in magnesium, phosphate, and potassium, and the tannins in the leaves can help prevent bloat in ruminants. Any dock I pull out of the garden goes directly to the goats.

It is likely dock was brought to New Zealand (from its native Europe) on purpose in the mid-1800s. Though the leaves are high in oxalates, which can irritate the stomach and bind to calcium, potentially leading to calcium deficiency, the plant was regularly eaten like spinach. It was also used to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs to cancer.

Dock often grows side by side with stinging nettle and, like many nettle associates, it can supposedly cure nettle stings. I’ve used dock for this purpose, and can attest that it seems to help, but then so does just about any fresh leaf rubbed on nettle stings.

I wouldn’t want to fight dock on a large scale–it scoffs at most herbicides, easily survives mowing, and can resprout from pieces of root left in the soil after ploughing–but for me, it’s a manageable weed that even has some utility.

 

Nettle Season

It’s stinging nettle season and, as I’ve mentioned before, my garden is host to an irritating quantity of nettle—quite literally.

But though it is a stinging weed, I’ll admit to a certain fascination with nettle. Look at the stinging hairs (trichomes) under the microscope, and you’ll find beautifully wicked structures like fine hypodermic needles. Those syringes are full of an irritating mix of acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin, moroidin, leukotrienes, and formic acid to irritate your skin.

But the triggering mechanism for the trichomes depends upon turgor (water pressure), so once a nettle wilts, it can’t sting.

And once it wilts, nettle is an incredibly useful plant. It is edible and quite nutritious for both humans and livestock. The cooked greens are used in traditional dishes throughout the Northern Hemisphere where it is native.

It can be used to make a vegetarian rennet for cheesemaking, and is used to flavour and decorate some cheeses. I’ve made nettle rennet myself as a substitute for commercial rennet when I’ve run out.

Nettles can be used to make tea, cordial and beer.

The fibrous stems can be used to make linen-like textiles. The roots can be used to make a yellow dye.

Fed to chickens, nettle is an effective egg colourant, which may explain the deep orange colour of my chickens’ egg yolks at this time of year.

All in all, stinging nettles don’t deserve their bad reputation. Like many of our weeds, they’re useful plants that we’ve forgotten how to use.

Supreme Spring Salad

2016-10-21-17-49-45-smWe had occasional salads all winter, from the fall planting of lettuces and spinach. We’ve also had several salads from this spring’s lettuce planting. But all these salads have been small, and have required me to scrounge every available leaf to glean even a modest quantity.

Today’s salad was the first of the Supreme Spring Salads—salads for which I have so much lettuce, I can choose to pick only the best, most perfect leaves, and can adjust the proportions of each variety to perfectly suit the meal. I also had a few lovely radishes from my daughter’s garden to add to the salad, making it even more perfect.

And this was just the first. With luck (and a fair bit of weeding), we’ll have many more Supreme Salads to look forward to in the coming months.

 

Cricket Flour

IMG_1784I was running errands in town today, and called in to Bin Inn for some flour and cornmeal.

I was excited to find this sitting on the shelf next to the rice flour and barley flour. It was the first time I’ve seen commercial insect products that admit to being insect products sold in an ordinary store (there are plenty of things you’ve probably bought that contain insect products, but manufacturers generally don’t advertise that).

It’s nice to see insects showing up on the grocery store shelves. I am a proponent of entomophagy, even though I am a vegetarian. If you’re going to eat meat, insects are probably the most environmentally sound way to go.

Being cold-blooded, insects convert feed into body mass much more efficiently than our warm-blooded livestock. You can raise a kilo of crickets on just 1.7 kilos of feed. Compare that to chicken at 2.5 kg of feed per kilo of chicken, or cows at 10 kg of feed per kilo of cow. Adjust these numbers for percentage of the animal that’s edible, and they favour insects even more—80 percent of a cricket is edible, whereas only 55 percent of a chicken and 40 percent of a cow is.

It still takes resources to produce insects. Though they convert feed into food more efficiently, insects need to be kept warm—warmer than you need to keep a cow, because they can’t keep their own bodies warm. There is an energy cost in that.

Of course the biggest problem with farming insects is getting people in Western countries to eat them. Most of the world’s people actually do eat insects, but our modern Western culture had separated us so much from our food, that we even get squeamish when we can identify the animal that our cuts of meat came from.

Consumers generally don’t want to actually see the animal when they’re preparing dinner. I’m sure cricket flour goes over better than, say pickled whole crickets (sort of like sliced ham vs. pickled pigs feet).

It will take a change in our attitude toward insects before Westerners will agree to bar nuts that include roast, salted crickets (which are delicious, by the way). When preschoolers learn that a cricket says “chirp, chirp” along with the cow says “moo”, we’ll be on our way. When we begin to view insects, not as enemies to be beaten, but as fellow organisms on Earth, we’ll be on our way. When we stop seeing insects as dirty, but rather recognise that they carry fewer potential human pathogens than our close relatives the cow and pig, we’ll be on our way.

As a vegetarian and a gardener, I value the insects that come into the kitchen on my vegetables. I don’t get enough vitamin B12, because it is only found in animal products. Insects are full of vitamin B12. So, I’m casual about cleaning the insects off our organically grown vegetables. We eat a lot of aphids, and quite a few caterpillars, I’m sure. And that’s great—it gives us all the nutrition we need, without any extra effort on our part (less, in fact).

Indeed, though I support insect farming, I’m afraid I will probably never buy any insect products–there are so many wonderful insects out there free for the taking, I couldn’t see spending $120 per kilo (and that’s half off!) for cricket flour.

Besides, I prefer my crickets whole—the best part about them is the crunch, after all.

Fabulous Fennel

100_4031 smThere’s not a lot coming out of the garden at the moment. The summer crops are pretty well finished (though we’re still scrounging the odd pepper or eggplant from the tunnel house), and the winter crops barely had a chance, with the hot dry weather we’ve had until last week. But among the few crops that are available right now is fennel.

This little-used vegetable is versatile and delicious in the kitchen, and attractive and useful in the garden. Leaves, seeds, and bulb are all edible.

Fennel grows year-round here, though the cooler months are when we appreciate it most. I plant it in both spring and autumn, but it seeds in readily, and we eat as many volunteer fennel as we do planted ones.

Fennel has a mild anise flavour that goes well with many other vegetables. When raw, the flavour is refreshing and numbing.

Raw fennel, sliced thin, makes a crisp and refreshing addition to salads. Or it can make a salad all on its own.

It can be braised and eaten as a side dish, or chopped and added to stews or casseroles. It goes particularly well with potatoes in a cheesy gratin, and makes a delightful risotto.

Fennel leaves can be added to salads and stews, even if the bulbs aren’t ready to harvest.

The ground seeds make a zesty addition to burgers, chai, and cookies, too! Or just crunch a few between your teeth after a meal to sweeten your breath.

In the garden, fennel’s big yellow flower heads attract all sorts of beneficial insects that help keep pests in check, and when the plants get too big and rangy, I can feed them to the goats, who love fennel as much as I do.

Invasion of the Cabbage Whites

2016-03-02 14.24.23The small cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae) is the bane of gardeners’ existence all over the world. Native to Europe, Asia and North Africa, the butterfly is now found throughout most of North America, Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand.

In my little corner of New Zealand, the butterfly is especially common, presumably because of the huge numbers of commercial brassica crops grown here. In late summer, the roadsides shimmer with the butterflies, and their tattered wings flutter like flags in my car’s grille.

These butterflies are the reason broccoli is a seasonal crop for us. Broccoli can be grown year-round here, but mid- to late-summer broccoli becomes infested with caterpillars. For a few years, I dutifully treated my broccoli with Bt (an organic bacterial toxin that selectively kills caterpillars), but I eventually stopped bothering.

By mid-summer, there is so much other food coming out of the garden that, truth is, we don’t need the broccoli. And having a broccoli-free part of the year helps bring variety to our diets, and makes broccoli more special when it is available in winter and spring.

Sour grapes? Not at all! Just learning to work with the local wildlife instead of against it. Makes life easier for everyone!

Aphids

20151127_125023710It’s aphid season here. Lettuce, strawberries, dill, parsley, and roses are covered in the little green girls.

I used to fret about aphids—they can certainly cause a great deal of damage, particularly to young plants. But I’ve learned to live with them. Here are a few of my aphid strategies:

  1. When I plant out, I check every plant carefully, and squish any aphids—knocking back these early individuals goes a long way to limiting damage.
  2. If a plant is heavily infested, I turn my hose on jet and blast the aphids off. This technique doesn’t get them all, but it does knock the population back to manageable levels.
  3. I allow some plants to get covered. In my garden, my early dill always gets nailed by aphids. I accept this. I don’t kill the aphids, either. The aphids on the dill attract ladybugs, lacewings, and parasitic wasps that eat aphids. Lots of aphids on the dill means lots of predators later in the season.
  4. I plant purple varieties of crops, which are usually less attractive to aphids.
  5. I accept aphids as a source of extra protein and vitamin B in our diets. We eat aphids. They’re good for us.
  6. I have patience. By midsummer, the aphids have all but vanished, decimated by the predators I cultivated in springtime.
  7. I admire aphids’ abilities and beauty—parthenogenic reproduction (that is, the females clone themselves—no need for males), dainty legs and antennae, and a remarkable ability to survive.