Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Growing Asparagus




What can you do to cure the winter blues? You can think of sunshine, longer days, warm breezes, and succulent spring asparagus.

Asparagus has long been a harbinger of spring. Protected by an old fence line dividing our yard from the neighbors, hidden behind an ancient lilac bush, lingered an old asparagus bed that had been planted by my great grandfather. When winter had pasted and the sun warmed the ground little buds would poke through the soil sending their tender shoots skyward. We passed the asparagus bed each morning on our way to the bus stop and when the shoots were about six inches high my mother would come forth with a big basket for carrying her bounty back to the kitchen.

That house is gone from my family now. I imagine if no one found the hidden spot that the asparagus grew until the stalks were tall and tough, a feathery crown reaching skyward. Since it is still one of my favorite vegetables and so easy to cook in so many ways I decided to plant a bed at my own home.

Asparagus grown in your own garden is tastier and much less expensive than any you can get at the grocery store or at a gourmet restaurant. Once you have eaten your own fresh asparagus after you have harvested it from your own garden, you'll never go back.

It is important to realize that the work that goes into establishing an asparagus bed doesn't pay off in good eating for several years and will take a bit of work. However, asparagus is a perennial vegetable, once established it keeps coming back and getting better year after year. A good asparagus bed can truly last a lifetime with minimal work once it has been well established.

Go Ahead, Get Growing

The best time to begin digging and preparing your asparagus bed would be in autumn, but don't wait another season; go ahead and start as soon as you can.

To have a fine bed of asparagus, plan carefully. If you haven't had a recent soil test, you should get one, knowing what the pH of your soil is will save you a lot of difficulty and help your asparagus bed properly establish itself. Soil pH should be maintained between 6.5 and 6.8. Asparagus does poorly at pH levels below 6.0.

Choose a site with good drainage and full sun. The tall ferns of asparagus needed to help establish a strong root system may shade other plants, so plan accordingly. Properly preparing your bed is equally important. If your soil is heavy or full of clay you will need to incorporate generous amounts of well decomposed manure, organic matter such as compost, and maybe even a little sand.

Early in spring when you can work the soil without it clumping (if the soil is too wet, you will end up with hard clumps of earth) dig your trench add your fertilizer, lime, if needed, and organic matter as needed. In heavy soils, double digging is recommended. To double dig, remove the top foot of soil from the planting area. With a spading fork or spade, break up the subsoil by pushing the tool into the next 10 to 12 inches of soil and rocking it back and forth and digging a V-shaped trench. Do this every 6 inches or so. Double digging is ideal for the trench method of planting asparagus since a 12-inch-deep trench is usually dug anyway. The extra work of breaking up the subsoil will be well worth the effort, especially in heavy soil.

Asparagus, a member of the lily family, is just about impossible to grow from seed but you can easily purchase 1-year-old asparagus crowns, which are the roots of the plant. Look for bundles with 10-15 roots that are dormant (showing no green shoots) that look firm and fresh, not limp. The bundles can be obtained from a local plant store, nurseries, mail order catalogs or sometimes your local hardware store. Just time your purchase accordingly because you should plant as soon as possible after purchasing.

Asparagus requires lots of space. Crowns should be planted every foot or so in rows 4 to 5 feet apart. Place the plants in a trench 12 to 18 inches wide and a full six inches deep. The crowns should be spaced 9 to 12 inches apart. Spread the roots out uniformly, with the crown bud side up, in an upright, centered position, slightly higher than the roots.

Cover the crown with two inches of soil. Gradually fill the remaining portion of the trench during the first summer as the plants grow taller, but do this a little at a time until you are eventually at “ground” level again. Asparagus has a tendency to "rise" as the plants mature, the crowns gradually growing closer to the soil surface. Many gardeners apply an additional 1 to 2 inches of soil from between the rows in later years.

You’ll also want to give new plantings one to two inches of water a week; after that, water only when rainfall is scant. Weeds and grasses are asparagus’ worst enemy. They compete with the developing spears in your garden and can significantly decrease yield and quality. Start frequent, light, shallow cultivation early in the spring in both young plantings and mature patches that are being harvested.

Asparagus produces both male and female plants. The female plants are pollinated by the blooms of the male plants and produce red berries in the fall. The berries contain seeds that self-sow. The list of commonly available varieties has significantly changed in recent years. Standard varieties like Mary Washington, Martha Washington and Waltham Washington are still being offered; but a number of new varieties that are either predominantly or all male recently have been introduced in to common usage.

Many gardeners recommend that you select the new all-male hybrid asparagus varieties such as Jersey Giant, Jersey Prince, and Jersey Knight. These varieties produce spears only on male plants. Seeds produced on female plants fall to the ground and become a seedling weed problem in the garden. Female plants also have to expend more energy to produce the seeds that decreases the yields of asparagus spears on female plants. The all-male hybrids out-yield the old Mary Washington varieties by 3 to 1. Since I like things natural and productive I think a mix of both male and female can be used and easily maintained. I also believe it will add length of life to my asparagus bed. It’s nice to think that after I have moved on someone else will be able to enjoy the fruits of my labors for many, many years.

Once your bed is set it should be fertilized in the same way as the rest of the garden the first 3 years. In the spring, apply 10-10-10, 12-12-12 or 15-15-15 fertilizer at the rate of 20 to 25 pounds per 1,000 square feet of area or 2 pounds per 100 square feet and incorporate gently till into the soil. Starting in the fourth year, apply the same amount of fertilizer but delay application until June or July (immediately after the final harvest). This approach encourages vigorous growth of the "fern," which produces and stores nutrients in the roots for next year’s production season.

HARVESTING ASPARAGUS

Refrain from harvesting any spears during your plants' first year in your garden. Each spear needs to "fern out" so that the roots can grow stronger and more productive. The second year you can pick a few that reach about the size of your index finger; the third year, pick finger-size spears for two to four weeks in the spring. In subsequent years, take all the finger-size spears you want until the spears that come up are thin and spindly.

Use a knife to harvest spears. Use one hand to hold the top of the spear you are harvesting. Cut the spear off about one inch below the soil line. Be careful not to cut too deep - it will damage the asparagus crown. Harvest all the spears that come up during the harvest season. A good general rule for length of harvest season is the 2-4-6 week sequence. Harvest for 2 weeks the second year the plants are in the garden, 4 weeks the third year, and 6 weeks the fourth and all following years, each succeeding fall, remove any brush after it has turned brown.

If you harvest asparagus that not be used immediately, wash the spears and place the cut ends in about 2 inches of water. This way they will keep in the refrigerator for several days.

Friday, April 18, 2008

WAITING:Continuation of a Short Story

so here we are, as I have time the story develops. not sure where we are going, but hopefully getting there will be fun, and we all won't have to sit around, waiting...

Warm, lazy days like this called the memories to her; colorful siren songs painting her thoughts. She remembered.

Blade thin, pale legs slicing the air, a stream of blond hair flowing behind, waves of grass undulating ahead of her in the breeze. The black tire swing bit warmly into the bare underside of her thighs, just below her shorts. Amelia knew what would happen if rubber marks smeared her clothes. If the faded jean material rubbed between her soft skin and the tire’s rim marking her with black punishment was inevitable. As it was she was taking a chance; but those worries were for later, for now she enjoyed the freedom that came from the endless twirling.

“Spin me, spin me again Tilde”, she giggled.

Her sister stretched forward grasping Amelia’s ankles. As Tilde propelled her round and round Amelia threw back her head.

Budding leaves from the branches above blurred against the blue sky, swirled, eddied into green ribbons like brook moss dancing in the current. Soon the swirling became almost unbearable. Struggling against the centrifugal force Amelia heaved herself back upright tucking her legs under her and the tire’s circular movement became faster, tighter.

Amelia laughed out loud in happy desperation. Tilde giggled from the ground where she had fallen, their laughter twining together, tinkling wind chimes singing in the breeze. She watched her sister spin, enjoying the luxury of their laughter. A flash of color caught her eye. A blue jay sat silently in the boughs above, head cocked to one side staring down at the girls.

The twinkle in Tilde’s eyes dimmed. Even the watch dog of the woods knew what a curious situation it was for her and Amelia to be laughing out loud. Usually the jays chattered and scolded, alerting everyone of curious goings on, but even the purple-hued sentinel seemed to know enough to keep quiet and not draw attention to the sisters.

Suddenly the jay cocked his head again, to the right, to the left, and then quickly flew off. Tilde, too, heard the faint chug of the old tractor as it paced steadily up the far hill. She leapt to her feet, grabbing Amelia’s ankles, halting the twirling and causing a look of alarm to flash across her sister’s face.

“Get down, now”, she hissed, before running north through the meadow, back toward the dilapidated farmhouse on the hill.

Amelia scrambled off the swing and followed her sister. Grass whipped their bare feet and ankles, leaving red lashes across white skin, but that pain was slight in their experience. Their singular intent was to reach the front door and escape into the house before the tractor reached the crest of the hill.

Crashing through the front door they ran to the front room diving to the floor underneath the window.

“You look, look and see where she’s at,” whispered Tilde.

“I can’t. I can’t”, said Amelia shaking her head.

Taking a breath Tilde grasped the edge of the window sill raising her eyes to the edge. Lace curtains wafted slowly in the breeze; a bumblebee buzzed angrily against the screen; the tractor chugged in the distance. She could hear but still not see the source of her anxiety. Wide-eyed she watched and she waited.

*****

I’m not sure what I’m waiting for but I’ll know when I see it. A solitary street lamp illuminates the dingy parking lot I watch over, a faded pool of swirling yellow lapping at the darkness. Shadows from the convenience store hide my presence.

From where I sit the view is clear and I can see the light undulating like the sea, its mesmerizing. I don’t think many kids think about the light rolling like waves. There are lots of things I think that are different from the other kids, lots of things that only I see; it’s always been that way.

I have thick glasses and problems with dry eyes, so I blink a lot and I always blink slowly. And I’m big for my age, 5’ 6” and 150 pounds at 12-years-old makes me, well, noticeable. So I sit and I blink and I think while watching the occasional person swim back and forth through the dirty pool of light.

One of the guys at my new school, Rory Johnson, he looked at my blinking eyes and my freakish body and started calling me “Hooey”, something about Baby Huey, some fat duck cartoon that used to be on television ages ago, and the an owl ‘cuz of my blinking. Of course it caught on. So I sit alone, my quilt gathered around me. I blink and suck my thumb – thank fuckin’ god Rory doesn’t know about that.

This quilt is the only thing that belongs just to me. I can’t quite remember where it came from, although I have vague memories of a soft-spoken woman with a twisted smile underneath the quilt with me, the quilt held up by her arms like a tent before it slowly descends enveloping us in a soft, warm darkness, she laughs in my ear, gravelly, like pebbles in a cement mixer, holding me close and wrapping the quilt around us. I remember being happy then. That’s all I can recall.

It’s actually quite large, my quilt; perfectly square when you open it up. The pattern, identical on both sides, held together by an infinite amount of perfectly matched black stitches. The quilt’s pattern is crazy; riotous blues crash into shimmering greens, slim bands of silver shoot throughout everything and the edging is silky, crimson red.

So I sit in the shadows, sucking my thumb, my quilt wrapped around me, comforting me as I watch and wait.
*****

copyright 2008 - all rights reserved

Friday, April 4, 2008

GARLIC: NATURE'S OLDEST SUPER FOOD








Garlic is as good as ten mothers. Proverb

ANCIENT HISTORY

Among the oldest known horticultural crops, for centuries garlic has been renowned for its healing properties. A belief in the sacredness of garlic can be traced back to the third millennium B.C. when it was offered to Egyptian gods and painted on the walls of tombs.  Ancient Indian cultures referred to garlic and it’s uses, and there is clear evidence of its use by the Babylonians. Some ancient writings suggest that garlic was even grown in China 4,000 years ago, giving this little bulb a long and powerful history.

Egyptian foremen and their slaves believed in the power of garlic. Inscriptions in the pyramids at Giza indicate those who built them subsisted largely on onions, garlic, and radishes, the garlic to give them strength. The Egyptians credited these three foods with magical and medicinal powers responsible for physical stamina and spiritual integrity. It has been recorded that when the supplies of these foods ran out the slaves refused to work, proving just how valuable these food sources were.

An Egyptian holy book, the Codex Ebers, dated approximately 1550 B.C., was discovered in 1878 by a German archaeologist and lists more than 800 therapeutic formulas in use at the time; twenty-two of them were based on garlic. The Codex says garlic heals headaches, heart problems, body weaknesses, human bites, intestinal parasites, lack of stamina, heart disease, and tumors.

Archeologists have also discovered clay sculptures of garlic bulbs and paintings of garlic dating about 3200 B.C. in Egyptian tombs in el-Mahasna. Garlic was found in the tomb of Tutankhamen (Egypt’s youngest pharaoh) who was sent into the afterlife with garlic at his side, and within the funerary complex of Saqqarah in the sacred animal cemetery (a vast necropolis in the region of Memphis). When Herodotus (484-425 BC) arrived at the foot of the three famous pyramids, he was awed by the work involved in creating these magnificent structures. He also learned that the hieroglyphs inside praised garlic's power.

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, used garlic for treating infections, wounds, and intestinal disorders, not to mention a savory lamb stew. Others from this ancient civilization used garlic in a variety of ways, from repelling scorpions, to treating dog bites and bladder infections, to curing leprosy and asthma. Garlic was left out as an offering to the Greek goddess Hectate. Early Greek military leaders fed garlic to their troops before battles to give them courage and promise victory (and perhaps in an attempt to fell the opposing army with one good whiff!) Even Greek Olympic athletes counted on garlic to stimulate their performance.

The "stinking rose" was sold in large Greek towns, and later in Roman cities, by peddlers. Every Greek who wished to enter the temple of Cybele, mother of the gods, had to pass a strict breath test aimed at detecting garlic. To the Romans, garlic was a symbol of the proletariat since no noble would debase himself by smelling of garlic. Horace explained that garlic could be absorbed by the iron stomachs of the working class but made those used to more refined cooking feel unwell. Roman legionnaires attributed strength, courage and stamina to garlic and took it with them as they conquered the world, thus spreading its use and cultivation everywhere they went. Praised by Virgil and other poets of antiquity, garlic was progressively introduced into various parts of Europe during the Romans' campaigns.

Garlic was introduced to France by Godefroy de Bouillon, leader of the first crusade who, when he returned to the country in 1099, was elected king of Jerusalem. Henri IV of France was so fond of garlic that, according to a Juran├žon legend, the good king must have been baptized with a clove. Despite his royal station, the king was not above lending a hand in the kitchen: he became famous for his stewed chicken with garlic. Today the French, known for their love of good food and wine, incorporate garlic into a plethora of savory culinary dishes.

"You reek of garlic! Get out!" was the irrevocable judgment that befell any knight who dared appear at the court of King Alfonso de Castille with garlic on his breath; it was Spain and the year was 1300. Any knight who smelled of garlic was banned from court and not permitted to speak to other courtiers for an entire week.

Home of the vampire legend, ancient Transylvanians found garlic to be an effective mosquito repellent as well as a way to ward off midnight visitors. Modern representations of the vampire legend always seem to show braids of garlic hanging from the beams of kitchens in which poor peasants tremble with fear.

In the Middle Ages garlic was thought to combat the plague and was hung in braided strands across the entrances of houses to prevent evil spirits from entering. The belief that garlic could combat evil dates back to the medieval era when children would play or work in the fields with cloves of garlic hung around their necks to protect them from the evil spells of the local witch; every one knows that witches love children! This custom gradually changed, and in the 19th century, cloves of garlic adorned only the necks of cows and heifers.

Throughout ancient India, Egypt, Greece and Rome, into the Middle Ages, and forward into modern times, garlic has always been considered potent medicine. Today garlic has maintained supporters as both a favorite food and for its medicinal properties. It is good for zapping bacteria, keeping your heart healthy or warding off coughs and colds, and adds amazing flavor to everything from marinara sauces to a hearty beef stew.

HOW DOES YOUR GARLIC GROW?

Today garlic only grows wild  in Central Asia (centered in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).

In the past wild garlic  grew over a much larger territory and may have bloomed in an area from China to India to Egypt to the Ukraine. This region where garlic grows in the wild, is referred to as its "center of origin" since this is the geographic area where the crop originated and the only place where it flourished in the wild. Only in this region does garlic routinely grow without the assistance of human propagation. The "center of origin" for a plant or animal species is also referred to as its "center of diversity" since this is where the broadest range of genetic variation can be expected. That is why those who have sought to find new genetic variation in garlic collect wild garlic in Central Asia.

We know almost nothing about the early types of cultivated garlic. No designation of garlic varieties was made in early writings. Throughout garlic's history some have speculated that softneck garlic was the predominant type cultivated, although evidence of  a hardneck varietal has been found interred in Egyptian tombs. It was not until garlic was cultivated in southern Europe that the distinction between hardneck and softneck was routinely noted.

Throughout history, humans migrating and traveling through Central Asia and surrounding areas have collected wild garlic (and still do) and carried it with them for later consumption and cultivation, and so garlic came to be cultivated. It is easy to imagine early garlic connoisseurs migrating beyond the natural range of wild garlic and carrying it far from its center of origin. There are plants in the United States locally referred to as "wild garlic", Allium vineale, but this is another species of the garlic genus (Allium), not garlic itself (Allium sativum).

Learn how to pickle garlic here.

GARLIC TODAY

Today about 2.5 million acres of cultivated garlic produce about 10 million metric tons globally each year, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization . Garlic is a crop widely grown on a small scale for local markets and, particularly in the U.S., by a few large-scale producers for processing and fresh sales.

Although widely cultivated, production of true garlic seed was underway before the 1980's, it is only since routine seed production became possible in the 1980's that garlic can be called a domesticated crop. A strict definition of domestication is the process of selective breeding of a plant or animal to better meet human needs.  For many years garlic was shunned by Western cultures, such as Britain and America, because of the residual smell it left behind. In seventeenth century England, garlic was considered unfit for ladies and anyone who wished to court them, and it was avoided in America even early into the 20th century when famous chefs would substitute onion for garlic in recipes. As America experienced a huge influx of immigrants during the 19th century, however, garlic slowly gained a foothold on the American palette.

GARLIC'S HEALTH BENEFITS

Beyond superstition, modern research has confirmed what our ancestors believed about the health benefits of garlic. In 1858, Louis Pasteur documented that garlic kills bacteria, with one millimeter of raw garlic juice proving as effective as 60 milligrams of penicillin.

During World War II, when penicillin and sulfa drugs were scarce, the British and Russian armies used diluted garlic solutions as an antiseptic to disinfect open wounds and prevent gangrene. Though not completely understood at the time, today’s research has confirmed that garlic’s healing powers stem from hundreds of volatile sulfur compounds found in the vegetable, including allicin, (which gives garlic its offensive odor), alliin, cycroalliin, and diallyldisulphide.

The allicin in raw, crushed garlic has been shown to kill 23 types of bacteria, including salmonella and staphylococcus. Heated garlic gives off another compound, diallyldisulphide-oxide, which has been shown to lower serum cholesterol by preventing clotting in the arteries.

Vitamins in garlic, such as A, B, and C, stimulate the body to fight carcinogens and get rid of toxins, and may even aid in preventing certain types of cancer, such as stomach cancer. Garlic's sulfur compounds can regulate blood sugar metabolism, stimulate and detoxify the liver, and stimulate the blood circulation and the nervous system.

In many cultures, garlic is also considered a powerful aphrodisiac and a vegetarian alternative to Viagra; some say it’s even able to raise a man’s sperm count. In Palestinian, tradition dictates a groom who wears a clove of garlic in his buttonhole will be guaranteed a happy wedding night.

Garlic is widely used around the world as a seasoning or condiment. The flavor varies in intensity and aroma with cooking methods. It is often paired with onion, tomato, or ginger. The parchment-like skin is typically removed before using in raw or cooked form. An alternative is to cut the top off the bulb, coat the cloves of garlic by dribbling olive oil (or other oil based seasoning) over them and roasting in the oven.

While experts vary in opinion regarding the recommended daily amount of dietary garlic, most of them agree that fresh garlic is better than supplements. To negate the aromatic after effects of fresh garlic herbalists recommend munching on fresh parsley.

YOU CAN DO IT: GROW YOUR OWN GARLIC


Growing your own garlic at home can be fun and relatively easy. Garlic grows from the individual cloves, with each clove producing one plant with a single bulb, because of this garlic is self-sustaining. Garlic’s unique fungicidal and pesticide properties can also help keep neighboring plants healthy. Garlic typically enjoys a Mediterranean climate, but has regularly been cultivated now in cooler climates.

Choose a garden site where the soil is not too damp and sunshine is abundant. Plant the cloves individually, standing upright and about an inch under the surface. Cloves should be planted about 4 inches apart, with rows about 18 inches apart. Warmer temperate areas - generally speaking, can plant in late autumn through to early winter. Under warm temperate climatic conditions autumn planted garlic will remain dormant for a few weeks and then develop roots and a shoot. With the onset of winter growth is fairly slow until temperatures warm in spring. The cold of winter is needed, as with many bulbs, to initiate the side buds that will ultimately grow and swell to become cloves (and in some types, to initiate the flower bud).

The lengthening days of spring are the signal for the initiated but undeveloped side buds to start forming into cloves. It is possible to sow in early spring and get a reasonably good harvest, but everything is against you - wet, difficult to work soil; no early root growth; less exposure to winter chill. Early spring is possible, but definitely not the first choice.

In temperate areas plant after the first good frosts of autumn. Spring planting is possible in the higher latitudes, as the longer day lengths promote bulbing, but the shorter season means the bulbs are often smaller. Autumn garlic will produce roots, but either no, or short, top growth which is good. If the garlic sprouts have emerged, they can survive freezes and snowfalls.

Autumn planted garlic should have strong roots by winter, and these roots will help prevent the 'seed' being pushed out of the ground as the soil alternately freezes and thaws ('frost heave') but they should be mulched heavily (about 6 inches/15 cm) to prevent heaving and frosting of any possible growth. Just make sure to pull the mulch aside in spring.

A good rule of thumb is to harvest your garlic when half of the leaves around the base of the bulb are green and the other half are turning brown and dying off. Take your garlic inside right away, brush off any dirt, gently wash the bulbs and hang in a cool, dry place. Leave them for at least a week to dry. It is best to dry your garlic out of the sun or your bulbs will sunburn. Because weather is so changeable it is really best to dry your garlic under cover. When the bulbs are dry, you can trim off the roots, scuff off the outer discolored parchment, and braid your garlic for storage.

If you intend to keep your own clove seed, select the biggest and best bulb. Leave the cloves on the bulb, and at planting time select only the best cloves to use as seed cloves. Store your seed bulbs in a relatively cool, dry place; heat in storage can cause the seed cloves to develop into a plant that produces a single large clove , rather than a normal multi-clove bulb. Prolonged exposure to low temperatures can also disrupt proper growth.

Often glorified, sometimes maligned, the strong, pungent scent and distinctive taste of garlic makes for strong opinions on this bulb’s epicurean quality. Garlic has had an amazing array of nutritional and medicinal applications throughout human history, and it’s still improving the health of many today. So grab a clove and enjoy the many benefits of nature’s oldest super food: garlic.

References:
Philipp W. Simon, USDA, ARS, Vegetable Crops Research Unit, Department of Horticulture, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization