The Extreme Gardener

Experiments in permaculture and
other gardening adventures in northeastern Vermont

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Annapurna

December 6th, 2014

Albert Einstein said that god does not play dice; however, the Hindu gods and goddesses do…

In their abode, high on Mt. Meru, Shiva and his consort Parvati were fond of playing dice with each other. One day they decided to liven it up with a little bet. Shiva bet his trident against some of Parvati’s jewels. Shiva lost, and then bet his tiger skin to win the trident back.. and he lost again. He bet his malas… and lost. He bet his cobra, his drum, his begging bowl… and lost them all. Parvati won all the throws of the dice and Shiva lost everything he had. Naked and humiliated, he fled into the forest in a huff.

Vishnu happened to be in the forest and saw Shiva in an utterly dejected state, and asked him what was wrong. Shiva told him, and Vishnu said, “No problem, I’ll load the dice so that you will win everything back.”

So Shiva went back to play dice again with Parvati. With every throw, the dice fell in his favor and he won all his stuff back item by item. Parvati, however, had became very suspicious of such consistent “luck”, and she called him a cheat. “Indrajala (magic) is not fair. That is sooo lame!”

Then they had a very vigorous conversation that went something like this:

Shiva confessed to having Vishnu’s magical assistance, but said that it wasn’t really cheating, because the whole universe is just an illusion (maya) anyway, and possessions are transient, and the ultimate truth is we’re all one, so what’s the difference?

Parvati said, “Of course, so why did you run away with your tail between your legs when you lost all your stuff in the game?”

Shiva sheepishly said, “I just needed some time out. Anyway, the only thing that really matters is to seek moksha.” (liberation from maya, the illusion). “All this maya stuff just gets in the way, it’s nothing but a distraction.” (Parvati represents maya) “See how you, Parvati, spend so much time worrying about silly things like clothes and food and…”

Parvati was not impressed by Shiva’s philosophizing. “So I’m a distraction, an illusion, am I? Take your magic dice and go play with yourself in the forest. I’m out of here, and I’m taking all the food with me. Go sit and meditate on that!” With that Parvati vanished, and everything edible in the world vanished with her.

Soon all the world was suffering from hunger. Even the most austere yogis sitting out in the woods were having trouble meditating.

An apologetic Shiva humbly cried out to Parvati to come back into the world. Parvati was moved by his contrition, and also by the suffering she saw caused by hunger everywhere. She returned to the earth, bringing grain to eat and seeds to plant, which she freely gave to all. Shiva came to her with his empty begging bowl, which she filled with delicious porridge. He then gave her the name Annapurna.

Anna means food or grain, and purna means full, complete.

Annapurna carries a serving spoon and a pot of food. It is not a big pot, but it always has enough for everyone, and the porridge she serves is delectable, completely satisfying and health giving. She provides bodily sustenance easily so that we need not worry constantly about having enough food to eat; and with our physical needs met, we can meditate, and ponder about, and enjoy the illusion we walk within.

Our gardens and this website are dedicated to Annapurna. Whenever we go to the gardens with our begging bowls, she fills them with just what we need for nourishment, delight and wonder.

Getting lunar in the garden

February 28th, 2014

The comment from keshavapuri was “tell us about ekadashi and trayodashi in sasya yoga.” This needs more than just a comment reply, so here’s a full post. Thanks for the question, keshavapuri!

Ekadashi (eleventh day) and trayodashi (thirteenth day) are tithis (lunar days).

In vedic astronomy and astrology the month/lunar cycle is divided first in half: Krishna paksha (waning moon) and Shukla paksha (waxing moon); then each half is divided into 15 divisions (tithis). Each tithi is calculated according to the angle between the sun and moon in increments of 12 degrees.

Ekadashi and trayodashi occur twice a month and are significant as preparation points for amavasya (new moon, 15th day of Krishna paksha) and purnima (full moon, 15th day of shukla paksha) .

I must confess that I am fluent in western astrology, but not so much in vedic. Still, if you know how to work with lunar cycles, the translation is not too much of a problem.

Fundamentally all processes (cycles) can be broken down into two parts, as we say in the western alchemical tradition, solve/coagula – dissolve/coagulate, breaking down and building up. This corresponds with the lunar cycle’s waning and waxing moon.

In the garden, very roughly, the moon’s waning phase (Krishna paksha) favors “solve” activities, ie getting rid of what is not wanted, such as weeding, pest control, pruning, etc. The waxing phase (shukla pahsha) favors “coagula”, ie nurturing activities, sowing seed, watering, and feeding.

The smaller cycle of tithis refines our understanding of and our ability to work with the lunar cycle. New and full moon, the 15th and 30th tithis, have energies that can be problematic – it’s easy to get swept up in karmic vortexes at these points in the cycle, and what occurs on these tithis sets energies in motion for the following cycles. One way to steady and direct these energies is to prepare for them when the energies are easier to guide. So, ekadashi (about four days before new and full Moon) and trayadashi (about two days before new and full moon) are auspicious times for this preparation.

On ekadashi, we work with the solve aspect of preparation – we identify and remove what is not wanted. On trayadashi, we identify and nurture what we do want. Traditionally ekadashi is associated with fasting and meditating, and trayadashi with celebration.

In terms of physical tasks, for instance, for making compost, on ekadashi before new moon would be a good time to clear the space for the pile, and segregate and chop up materials, then on trayadashi before new moon, you would then assemble the pile. Ekadashi before full moon would be a good time to weed around plants in preparation for spreading compost, then on trayadashi before full moon, you would side dress your plants with compost.

But probably more effective than trying to physically perform all the preparation tasks that you might wish to get done on a particular tithi is to take time during the tithi to meditate on these tasks, and what you are trying to accomplish. With the tithi supporting your efforts, even a small amount of mantra and meditation can have strong effects, and lead to some very interesting insights.

I don’t really spend much time trying to schedule my gardening activities according to the lunar cycle – there’s too much to do in too short a time in our very short growing season. Still, as an astrologer, I am quite conscious of lunar, solar and planetary cycles and often notice how my gardening activities coincide with them anyway…

Sasya yoga

August 11th, 2013


In Sanskrit, sasya means “plant”. As a tantric yogi, my particular path involves a life style in which I engage intimately with the natural world, particularly the plant kingdom…

Read more

Rudbeckias ate my garden

July 25th, 2013

Sun in Leo brings riots of rudbeckias

Believe it or not there was a time when I held rudbeckias in contempt. I mean, yellow is such a difficult color to combine with other flower colors, and you know, black-eyed susans grow everywhere anyway. Ubiquitous. Boring.

Long ago I began my gardening career with the attitude that non-edible ornamentals were indulgent frou-frou. I still definitely give priority to stuff we can eat and otherwise consume, however my stance has softened over time. I really do love flowers.

Anyway, about 20 years ago in a major act of feng-shui, we moved the driveway from the front of the house to the back, and needed to make the old driveway area quickly look like it was not a driveway. A bit of cedar fence, and a very large rock we dug up nearby helped, but some lush greenery was needed. Trouble was, where the old driveway had been, the soil was super compacted, poor to the point of being almost non-existent, and dry, dry, dry.

What Indian Summer
looks like

I had stumbled upon Indian Summer rudbeckias in some seed catalog the prior winter. In spite of my prejudice against yellow flowers, I bought a packet and started a couple of plants in the spring. Their vigor was amazing, as was the size of their flowers, and they created an instant-but-lasting vibrant display of solar yellow and greenery. Driveway? What driveway?

Rudbeckia hirta’s USDA plant profile lists it as annual, biennial and/or perennial, which tells you something about its vigor, diversity and adaptability. They can set seed in one season and over-winter, but as for the perennial part, in our gardens they are short-lived – they mostly behave like annuals and biennials. Still, I’ve never had to resow any – all I do is yank them out when they pop up in inconvenient places, which they do. Yes, you could call them weeds.

What ancestor Cherokee
looks like.

Indian Summer impressed me sufficiently to let them self-seed, which they did with abandon. I even began to consider other rudbeckia varieties, and after a few years introduced a couple of plants each of Cherokee and Chim Chim Cheree into the naturalized population of Indian Summer.

On their own, Cherokee and Chim Chim Cheree didn’t click with me the way Indian Summer did. Cherokee is a smaller plant, with very double and smaller blooms, and a lot of darker orange and reddish brown. It hit me as a bit too poufy-looking. Chim Chim Cheree is also smaller, with a lot of darker colors, and has very unusual rolled petals that look like quills, so it resembles a chimney brush. The flower had a spiky, kind of sparse appearance that, in my opinion, didn’t come off very well in the garden because the plants were not all that vigorous to begin with. But each of these varieties added some genetic spice to the rubbeckia pot.

Above, slightly quilled petals from
ancestor Chim Chim Cheree.

Over the years the added genetics have done magic, adding subtle and not so subtle variations to the dominant stock, Indian Summer. I especially like a bit of brown-orange at the base of the petals, as if they had been just lightly air-brushed. As a cut flower, they’re superb – nice strong stems and they last for days in the vase.




I occasionally mark outstanding plants to make sure to leave them to go to seed, and intentionally rogue out anything that looks less than lovely and vigorous (there are not many). Other than that, they take care of themselves very well… maybe too well. They are one of the most fire-tolerant plants I’ve ever worked with.

Why, you may wonder, would I care about this? It’s actually a benefit because our gardens consist of permanent raised beds that are never tilled, with perimeters and paths between beds maintained by flame-weeding. The rudbeckias can manage a good living for themselves in the corners and edges of beds, where most plants would succumb to the torch passing by.

Three ayurvedic herbs for cold climates

April 2nd, 2013

For many years I tended to ignore the tropics as a source of plant material for our gardens, and cast my eyes towards cold places like northern Europe and Siberia with climates like ours. Plants that can acclimate and be naturalized here have long been my primary fascination; but, let’s face it, what would a gardener’s life be without melons, squash, tomatoes, peppers, corn, beans and so on – all of which require (here, at least) the hand of a gardener to grow and to propagate.

The question becomes how much energy, space, time and treasure does any particular plant require, and is what you get out of it worth the input? I am quite willing to start peppers and tomatoes early on a kitchen window sill and hand-pollinate squashes. They’re definitely worth that much to me, but, for instance, I wouldn’t go so far as to buy plastic mulch, build hoop houses, etc, at least not at this point in time. This is all to say that I am quite delineated about how much space, time, energy and treasure I am willing to allocate for a given plant.

Tomatoes and peppers were originally perennials from the lower latitudes, but we have adapted them to grow as annuals and be productive nearly all over the globe. So, from that perspective, there are no doubt other valuable tropical plants that can acclimate to our gardens, even in northern Vermont, without too much fuss.

Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera)

Ashwaganda roots

A few years back I started hearing about gardeners in similarly cool climates growing herbs from India, particularly ashwaganda and tulsi, so we cautiously trialed some. We’ve had significant success with three of the primary ingredients for chyawanprash, which is now part of our daily diet, and consider these permanent members of our plant menagerie.

Ashwaganda is a perennial nightshade, a relative of peppers and tomatoes, and is grown pretty much on the same schedule – here it must be started early indoors and transplanted out after danger of frost is past. It is more frost tolerant, likes drier conditions and requires less fertility compared to tomatoes and peppers.

We use the root dried and in chyawanprash, and were thrilled last season when, out of the 18 plants we had growing, one set fruit, and viable seed. None of the others showed any sign of even flowering, so this was exciting and promising for it to adapt as an annual here, maybe even to naturalize (though I do not know how freeze tolerant the seeds are). Now we are growing out the seed from this very early individual, and expect to develop our own short season strain. On trial for this season we also have a strain from Africa purported to have high vigor, so maybe it will throw some early fruits, too.

A young tulsi plant

Tulsi, or holy basil (Ocimum sanctum) is simply a lovely plant to have around, never mind that, like ashwaganda, it is an adaptogenic herb. In its native India, it is perennial and grows big enough for the stalks to be made into mala beads. It is ubiquitous at the entrances of homes and temples. Its fragrance is strong and uplifting.

A tulsi mala. (Tail of Arjuna the cat in the background.)

Although I have long grown numerous types of culinary basils, I never was able to get a good seed set from any of them, and I assumed that basils in general were all as cold sensitive as Ocimum basilicum, which is even more cold sensitive than melons. I had resigned to having to buy seed for basil, and I never tried tulsi, figuring it would be even less cold tolerant than its cousins.

A visitor gifted us with a plant one season, and I was pleasantly surprised. When the more familiar annual basils bloom and go to seed, which they are apt to do here prematurely from cold stress, it’s all over. The energy withdraws from the foliage, and the plants decline quickly, becoming an illustration of the term “gone to seed” used as a negative description. Tulsi sustains blooming and seed set, and continues to make new leaves and stalks. It dosn’t blacken at the slightest touch of frost either.

Tulsi actually sets seed well,
despite our short growing season.

Since we can get seed reliably from it, and grow it as an annual, it’s actually a sustainable plant here. I sow it about 4 weeks before the last frost, the same as the other basils, and set them out into warm soil. Because we don’t have a greenhouse or cold frame, window sill space for growing transplants is at a premium. I discovered that all the basils do very well sowing fairly thickly into 2 inch pots, and leaving a dozen or so seedlings in each pot. While it’s not as ideal as sowing into plugs or something like that, the seedlings do fine as long as they are transplanted fairly promptly when the time is right.

i

Brahmi in its winter quarters.

Our third import from India is brahmi, Bacopa monnieri. It is similar in some ways to another herb from India that I have had a great interest in, gotu kola (Centella asiatica). They both have been used medicinally to support healthy brain function, and both are swamp plants. I didn’t know of brahmi until recently, but had tried several times to grow gotu kola without success. I like using gotu kola enough that I was willing to pamper it as a houseplant, but it was impossible to keep the surrounding air humid enough for it, even in a terrarium.

Brahmi, on the other hand, is perfectly happy as long as its feet are wet. It summers in a pot set into a wet garden bed, where it spreads rampantly. In the fall, a piece can be put in a 4 inch pot to winter over on a kitchen window sill, as long as the pot is kept wet. Just that much is quite adequate for two people to nibble off daily sprigs throughout the winter, and have a good sized plant to set out in the warm weather. Brahmi is perennial in India. We have gotten some flowering but I’m not sure about seed set – the seed capsules are tiny, and while some capsules formed, I could not tell if they any had viable seed, and I haven’t yet noticed any volunteers. That’s OK, though – it roots so easily there’s no need to bother with seed.

Conti’s Marconi Rampicante Romano Bean

February 20th, 2013

The name is musical and surely doesn’t sound like a Vermont heirloom bean, but indeed it is, with a history approaching 100 years of being grown in Barre. It just goes to show that there really was some cultural diversity in Vermont in the 20th century, even though, at least when I was growing up, cultural diversity was not much discussed or encouraged.

pods of conti's marconi bean

I received this seed from Alan LePage, a market gardener in Barre, who received it from one of his neighbors, Constantino “Stan” Conti. Stan’s parents brought the seed with them to Barre sometime between 1914 and the mid 1920s when they emigrated from the stone-quarrying village of Lettommanoppello, in eastern central Italy, to live in the granite-quarrying town of Barre, central Vermont.

“Rampicante” is Italian for “climbing” and this is a rampantly climbing pole bean for sure. I’ve had some jump their 10 foot poles and climb into an apple tree. This vigor extends to their pod production as well – the flat Romano pods average 10 inches long at maturity, and if kept picked it will keep bearing until the frosts come. But, what is amazing about this bean is the superb flavor and crisp texture, even when the pods reach 10 inches and more. I can understand why the Contis brought the seed with them and continued to grow it in Barre all those years.

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Conti’s Marconi Romano behind some “wild” (non-bulbing) perennial fennel.

The “Marconi” part of this bean’s name was probably given as a tribute to Guglielmo Marconi, an inventor known as the “father of radio.” He was evidently widely celebrated in Italy with many streets in towns and cities all over the country named after him. There is a Marconi sweet pepper, and a quick internet search reveals Supermarconi Romano pole beans, Supernano Marconi Gold, White-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans, and Black-Seeded Marconi Romano bush beans being offered by seed vendors. If anyone knows anything for sure about the history of "Marconi" beans in Italy, I’d love to hear about it.

I find it interesting that there are no Romano beans, or anything resembling them, listed in The Beans of New York. Published in 1931, Beans of NY was part of a WPA project to catalog vegetable varieties known in the Northeastern US at the time, and it’s pretty thorough. I’m sure there were many other folks besides the Conti family who brought Romano-type bean seed with them from Italy when they came to the US in the early 20th century, but evidently these beans were not well known outside the Italian-American community.

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Romano beans as a category are snap beans, stringless, with flat, wide succulent pods. They are great examples of the plant breeding proficiency of Italian gardeners and farmers. Consider that many vegetables now considered quintessentially Italian – tomatoes, beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), peppers, and corn – had their origins in the New World and were unknown in Italy until the 16th century

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The seeds

While its culinary aspects are excellent, for a bean, Conti’s is a bit of a nuisance to get seeds from. What makes it so tasty – the pods’ ability to stay tender and crisp – means that the pods are not inclined to dry down well and protect the seeds from mold at the end of the season. Plus, the seeds are thin-skinned and prone to splitting open in the drying process. Our autumns tend to be cool and damp, so the pods with mature seeds have to be brought inside and dried with gentle applied heat. I hang them in net bags near our wood furnace, and turn them daily. The extra attention is well worth it. This is one of the finest tasting green beans you’ll ever come across.

Two Remarkable Tomatoes

February 4th, 2013

Dan and Val McMurray, or Grunt and Grungy as they were known on the Homegrown Goodness Forum, were fellow extreme gardeners in British Columbia. Their presence is sorely missed, but many of us were gifted with seed and good gardening advice from them, and they live on in our gardens and memories.

Tomatoes were a particular passion with them. When I realized the extent of their tomato endeavours (I believe they grew hundreds of varieties) I had two questions to ask: Of all the varieties you have grown, which are the best tasting early tomatoes, and which are the longest keeping tomatoes?

Burztyn

I promptly received seed for several varieties of each category in the mail. In trialing them, two real stars emerged that adapted well to our climate and have become “must-grow-every-year” tomatoes for us.

Burztyn was aquired by Dan and Val in 2004 in a trade with someone named Jetta in Denmark. There may be another variety in the Seed Savers Exchange that goes by the same name, but is indeterminate. Our Burztyn is determinate. To add to the confusion, the word “burztyn” means amber-colored in Polish, and there are a few varieties floating around from eastern Europe and the former USSR called Amber or Amber-Colored. I may have to try to get a few seeds of the SSE’s accession to grow out to see if they are the same variety.

Burztyn a few weeks after picking

Here’s Dan and Val’s description: “60 – 70 days, det., regular leaf, blemish free amber colored fruit, 2-4 oz. Very good tomato taste, more sweet than acid. A must regrow here. 9 lbs/plant.”

We found it to be nicely early, and the flavor is such that when it’s ripe there is a tendency to ignore other ripe tomatoes. Burztyn seems to have a certain amount of disease resistance – it can stand up to late blight a little longer than some, though it’s certainly not immune. It also keeps a month or so after picking, which is very handy in our climate where frosts can strike any time after September. Burztyn can be purchased at Tatiana’s Tomato Base

Giraffe Abricot has very tall vines

The second tomato is not a luscious tomato by any stretch of the imagination, but no other tomato I know of stores as well. It’s called Giraffe Abricot (or just Giraffe), giraffe because the plants are very tall and elongated (it requires about 6 feet of vertical support), and abricot because of the apricot color (yellow blushing orange) of the ripe fruits. I don’t know exactly who Dan and Val got it from, but it is a Russian commercial variety bred at the VI Edelstein Vegetable Experimental Station.

Giraffe Abricot picked in early September
for winter storage.

Here’s more about storage tomatoes.

Now, as I write this at the end of January 2013, I still have 3 Giraffe Abricots left that were picked in September of 2011. I wouldn’t seriously plan on keeping them into a second winter as part of our food scheme, but I am amazed by their shelf longevity. Nothing was done except to pick them carefully into a flat lined with newspaper (as seen in the photo above), and put the flat on a shelf in our cold room. In all honesty, after 16 months in storage, they are not really palatable – at this point they completely lack acidity and they are rather pallid. You can see the color difference in the two photos.

Giraffe Abricot in first winter of storage.

Through the first winter, they do have enough flavor to make a positive contribution to such culinary endeavors as omelettes, sandwiches, quiches, etc., if they are thinly sliced, but forget about salads, sauces or salsa.

This tomato is about storage, not flavor. It has better disease resistance than the other long-term storage tomatoes I’ve grown. Those others have better flavor, but when it comes right down to it, the better flavor doesn’t do me any good if they are going to promptly rot out. We’ve been dealing with late blight for the past few years, and I’ve found that for Giraffe, if I pick the fruit at the first signs of LB on the plant’s foliage, the fruits escape infection. That’s how it was when I harvested this batch in September 2011. I was not paying close enough attention this past fall, and the blight got into the fruits, so I lost the entire crop.

Giraffe Abricot in second winter of storage.

So, of course it has occurred to me that maybe a cross of these two gifts from Dan and Val would result in an improved storage tomato. I think I’ll have to try it this coming season. A Burstin’ Giraffe perhaps?

Chyawanprash, Vermont style

October 6th, 2012

Cooking chyawanprash

Reducing the chyawanprash to a thick paste.

Last winter we decided to attempt a home-grown version of what is possibly the oldest recipe in the world – chyawanprash. “Prash” means jam, and Chyawan was an ancient Indian yogi, as the legend goes, from 10,000 years ago. Yes, four zeroes there, and don’t laugh. Increasing evidence is being found of large sophisticated urban areas that now lie underwater off India’s coasts. They may very well date back to the last Ice Age, before sea levels rose as the great glaciers melted.

But, I digress. Chyawan was getting on in years, and was given a young bride in marriage. A pair of herbalists concocted a rasayana, a blend of herbs in a fruit base to rejuvenate him so that he would be a suitable companion for a young woman.

Chyawanprash is a staple condiment in India, and the most popular ayurvedic product in the world. At first I was very skeptical about jam that cost around $15 a pound, but we purchased some, and were very impressed.

The purchased chyawanprash has a really bizarre texture, kind of like slightly sticky silly putty. It actually fights back when you insert a spoon and try to get it out of the jar. The flavor is unusual, but very pleasant in my opinion, rather like mincemeat pie with a whole lot of other stuff going on, including a lot of pepper.

black currants

Black currant was substituted for amla as the fruit base.

The primary ingredient in classical chyawanprash is amla (Indian gooseberry, Phyllanthus emblica), which is a very strong antioxidant, and has many other attributes beneficial to human health. I am sure there are folks who will say that without amla, chyawanprash is not chyawanprash. Whatever. Our goal was to develop an approximation – a rasayana in a fruit base with as many home-grown ingredients as possible, and amla is a tropical plant and simply does not grow here. However, we do have abundant black currants, which have much in common with amla – for instance, a high concentration of vitamin C and tannin. I picked and froze a gallon or so of black currants in July to wait for the other ingredients to be ready.

worden grapes

Worden grapes, hit by frost, and ready for jam. Yes, they live in a balsam tree. It was an accident.

The other fruit ingredient in the purchased chyawanprash (which we used as a rough guide) was grapes. By Equinox our Worden grapes were ripe enough for a batch. They are not seedless, but that’s a virtue, I think, for this application. I ran the grapes and frozen currants through the blender, skin, seeds and all until all particles were pulverized enough to be palatable in a paste. A lot of the nutritive value of these fruits is in the skin and seeds, so this way we keep all that in the mix. I have always preferred to not peel or strain fruits and vegetables unless it’s really necessary.

ashwaganda

Ashwaganda can be grown here as an annual. It is perennial in milder climates.

The pulverized fruit was slowly simmered on the lowest heat possible, and the other ingredients prepared.

Chyawanprash typically has from 15 to 80 ingredients. Ours ended up with 20 ingredients. We found that we could easily grow or were already growing some of the major herbs involved: ashwaganda (Withania somnifera), tulsi (holy basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum), brahmi (Bacopa monnieri), tribulus (Tribulus terrestris). We make ghee (clarified butter) regularly from a neighbor’s raw milk, so that was easy, though we preferred go light on the ghee. We used purchased long pepper (Piper longum – this is a really important ingredient, though black pepper could be substituted), honey (we’ve not yet recovered from a bear devastating our bees), organic cane sugar, kudzu, cardamon, cinnamon, and clove.

brahmi

Brahmi also can be grown as an annual here. It grows well in wet conditions. The photo was taken early in the season.

tulsi

Tulsi or holy basil

Ashwaganda roots, tulsi leaves and flowers, brahmi leaves and stem tips, and green tribulus fruits were gathered fresh in early September, in anticipation of frost, which I feared might damage these herbs. The ashwaganda root was chopped up and tossed into the blender with the tulsi, brahmi and tribulus, with enough water to be able to blend them into a thick liquid. This was frozen in glass canning jars, then later (when the grapes were ready) added to the simmering fruit mixture.

long pepper

Long pepper (Piper longum)

The purchased spices ground up and added to the mix were long pepper (in great quantity), cardamon, cinnamon and clove. We made substitutions for some of the herbal ingredients. Instead of the root of Indian elecampane (Inula racemosa) we used Inula helenium which we have growing. Foraged wild ginger (Asarum Canadense) was substituted for regular ginger (Zingiber officinale).

wild ginger

Wild ginger

Elixir jam seems a perfect venue for other adaptogens and tonic plants and fungi, so to this batch we added the mushrooms turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) and chaga (Inonotus obliquus), and my own favorite, Siberian ginseng root (Eleutherococcus senticosus). These three we have growing in abundance.

turkey tails

Turkey tail

In the future, we may add some others that are not yet as well established in our gardens (but show some promise), including fo-ti (Polygonum multiflorum), Schisandra chinensis, Rhodiola rosea, and Maral-root (Rhaponticum carthamoides).

The chaga was wrapped in a cloth, pounded with a hammer into small chunks, then soaked overnight with the turkey tails, chopped fresh eleutherococcus root and nigella sativa seed. Then I ran all these through the blender until smooth, and added the mix to the simmering pot.

chaga

Above, chaga, Inonotus obliquus

Below, eleutherococcus

eleuthero

If you’re familiar with the flavors of some of these ingredients, I know it sounds like it would taste like a train-wreck in your mouth. But somehow there’s a synergy there that works. It tastes great. We sweetened it just enough to take the very sour edge off the fruit. The consistency is like apple butter, and the cooking of it is similar – it is reduced very slowly on very low heat, then when sufficiently thick, poured into glass canning jars.

Chyawanprash can be eaten simply as is (you only need a teaspoon or two a day), diluted with water for a beverage (hot or cold), eaten with yogurt, spread on bread, whatever – essentially you can consume it any way that you would use any other jam or chutney. It’s definitely more fun than swallowing a lot of capsules of dried powdered herbs!

Everything you ever wanted to know about pole beans

January 31st, 2012


Here’s an article I wrote that appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Permaculture Activist, under the title “The Vagaries of Phaseolus.” (Umm, not my title, but whatever..)

Passumpsic Jerusalem artichokes

October 1st, 2011

Passumpsic blooming

I brake for Jerusalem artichokes (and you should, too).

I don’t recommend car window botanizing for drivers, but it’s a fine sport for passengers, and can yield treasure. That’s what I was up to in the early 1980s when one day, on RT 5 as we passed a local burger and fries place, I spotted a small patch of Jerusalem artichokes just off the edge of the big gravel parking lot. I later returned under cover of darkness with folding shovel and bucket to pilfer a few for planting.
I now have a big fine patch of them, which is a good thing because the burger joint parking lot became a used car dealership, totally paved over, and there’s nary a sunchoke to be seen on the banks of the Passumpsic River. RT 5 between St. Johnsbury and St. Johnsbury Center has been heavily strip developed.

Jerusalem artichokes

So, how did they get to the banks of the Passumpsic River? Jerusalem artichokes, helianthus tuberosus, are closely related to the common sunflower, and were originally domesticated by Native Americans in the Midwest of the USA, where they grow “wild”. The thing is, here in our short growing season, they barely have a chance to flower before hard frosts, so they never set seed. Thus, my conclusion is, any plants found in our area were originally planted from tubers by humans, especially as far up in the watershed as we are.

The odd name “Jerusalem artichoke” is a corruption of the Italian “girasol” which means “turns toward the sun.” Jerusalem artichokes were brought to Europe and appreciated there both as livestock fodder (pigs adore them) and as famine food. They saved many people in France from starvation during World War II.

However, the Europeans who came to this country had little respect for this plant. They much preferred potatoes. There was also a cultural issue, especially in our area, because this plant was associated with Native Americans. In living memory, even Abenaki descendents here would shun anything that might betray “indian-ness”, and for good reason. They were targets of a state eugenics program in the 1930s, which itself was a crescendo of strong racial prejudice that came with the English-dominated European settlement of northern Vermont.

I seriously doubt that the patch I found above St. J. was planted by anyone in the last hundred and fifty years or so. I believe it was a remnant of a Cowas (the local Abenaki band) river bank garden. I have named this variety Passumpsic after the river, whose name means “clear flowing water.”

The tubers of Passumpsic

The tubers of Passumpsic Jerusalem artichoke.

Passumpsic is a very good quality Jerusalem artichoke. It is long and smooth, and easy to clean, unlike the knobby types that are more common. My favorite culinary use for them is in kimchee – they are really delicious lacto-fermented: nice and crisp. They are perennial and can be left in place and dug up as needed whenever the ground is not frozen, and they’re at their best in the late fall and early spring. If given a good sunny position and decent soil, they will thrive. However, I do not allow them in the garden proper. They have their own area off to the side, with recyled metal roofing mulch between them and the garden beds. They are definitely invasive in a garden situation. They need to be managed ruthlessly once established if you want to continue to grow other plants as well, although I’ve heard that if you put pigs on them, the pigs will devour every last one.

Jerusalem artichokes in their own patch

Note the metal mulch. It’s too narrow and is being replaced with wider sheets to be more effective at keeping them in their place.

So, if you happen to be in any of Vermont or New Hampshire’s river valleys, keep an eye out for the tell-tale tall yellow fall flowers, or the clusters of tall dry grey stalks from the previous year’s growth. You just might be able to rescue a Native American heirloom plant.