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The chaos of the holidays always seems to put good intentions on the back burner.

I had been hoping to cook a SOLE (sustainable, organic, local, ethical) meal before Christmas because I knew there was no way that Christmas dinner was going to adhere to the challenge rules. This year’s dinner was an extended family affair and although I supplied the local turkey I suspect most of the trimmings came from “abroad”. Between work, holiday shopping and various other commitments  however I never got around to cooking that meal.

And so, I bring you a Dark Days Boxing Day Breakfast instead!

Homemade 7 grain pancakes  made from Harmony Milk and Mountain Path flour with foraged raspberries and local Maple Syrup.

7 grain pancakes

L'Epoque Maple Syrup

Tea For Two

The night-time hum of the dehydrator has been constant lately. It’s a welcome sound and it gives off a bit of heat which is nice with the cold nights we’ve been having.

Last week I harvested many of the herbs I’ve been growing for tea.

Peppermint, Spearmint, Pineapple Mint, Chocolate Mint

Anise Hyssop

Chamomile

Although I normally dry herbs in the summer by hanging them in a warm sheltered area, these herbs are damp and risk mildewing if they’re not dried quickly; hence the dehydrator.

Dehydrator

I’ve been making some of my favourite winter tea blends using everything I’ve grown: a motley of different mints, lemon balm, anise hyssop, bergamot, sage, lemon thyme, chamomile, catmint, catnip and stevia. I’m also adding some of the herbs I’ve foraged such as red clover, violet leaves, yarrow, mallow flowers, rose hips and raspberry leaves. Violet leaves and rose hips in particular pack a wallop of vitamin C  and are great for helping to fight cold symptoms.

There are times when only the right cup of tea will do. When you might want something that cools a hot, itchy throat like mint or raspberry leaf or maybe you need to be comforted and soothed with chamomile and lemon balm.

Do you have a favourite tea ?

Wabi Sabi

 

Aster

My relationship to nature changed when I began to garden. Not that I didn’t always enjoy nature, but for some reason the physical act of tending a garden has strengthened my attachment to it. Now I want to look at and feel a part of nature. I want to find somewhere I can get off the beaten path and see it doing its own thing, without my interference. When I walk I study the weeds and trees, the insects and creatures that inhabit them. How can I bring that symbiosis into my life I wonder? All gardening is an attempt to get closer to nature, to understand its rhythms. I remind myself to garden with abandonment in hopes of achieving the ‘wabi sabi’ beauty I find there.

Spider and Yellow Leaf

My own small urban garden gives the illusion that it is bordering on wilderness, but the reality of all gardening is that it is about control. Disappear and your garden reverts to what it really wants to be. As I get older I’m more interested in exploring that fine line. Can I live and garden in a space without completely taking it over? Can it feed me, literally and figuratively without having to bend it to my will?     

Squirrel Leavings

The slow decay that begins to creep in during the fall makes it easier to follow this path. The time for barely restrained exuberance and growth is over; the need to marshal things into a height of productivity is declining. Come September I am usually ready for this change. Not only is the garden winding down but so am I. Autumn is when it’s easiest to let go as so little feels within my control anymore. It is a bittersweet time of year, the culmination of work and hope and the sweet exhaustion that comes with it. This is the best time for taking walks and observing how nature puts her own garden to rest. Where have the insects and creatures gone? They are lying low, much like me.

Looking Harder

Sometimes you have to dig a little deeper than the surface but a thriving food culture is often there if you look for it.

I was in Cleveland a couple of weeks of ago and despaired about the lack of fresh food in the downtown core. Nothing but gated convenience stores and closed retail shops as far as my feet could carry me. And then, on Friday morning from my hotel window I spied some tents set up in the public square across the street. I ran out with a cloth bag and a few dollars in my pocket and hit the jackpot. Greens, bread, jams, salsa, cheese and more. I bought one of everything that I could eat that didn’t require cooking and had a picnic back in my hotel room. I did a little research that afternoon and found a website for the Downtown Farmer’s Market. http://downtownclevelandmarket.blogspot.com/   They are only there once a week but this apparently is in addition to several other small markets that pop up daily in the city, not to mention the large and well established West Side Market, which has been in operation since 1912. http://www.westsidemarket.org/  I wish I had the time to visit this fabulous market but that didn’t happen on this trip. I did however find the Free Stamp vegetable garden on the grounds of City Hall. http://www.newsnet5.com/dpp/news/local_news/cleveland_metro/cleveland-city-hall-gets-a-new-garden

Spot the Cherry Tomatoes on the Ground?

I wandered through and picked a few ripe cherry tomatoes off the ground and some Thai basil to throw in my farmer’s market lunch. There was a little of everything in this garden and separate beds full of herbs as well.

Lavender, Sage, Thai Basil and More

I came across another vegetable garden the following day when I visited the Cleveland Botanical Gardens; although I knew I would find lots of beautiful plants there I didn’t expect to find an ornamental edible garden created by students no less.

Cleveland Botanical Garden

Apparently I sold Cleveland short. After more research I discovered that this city really does have a strong food culture. Just because it didn’t jump in my face didn’t mean it wasn’t there. If you think your city doesn’t support urban agriculture try looking a little harder. I think you’ll be surprised at what you find.

Ornamental Edible Gardens

I thought of photoshopping out the clothesline, but this is the practical reality of an urban garden.

My backyard garden is small, maybe 300 square feet and some of that is concrete and some in deep shade. Although I am determined to grow as much of my own food as possible I still love the beauty and pleasure flowers give and would never consider doing without them. The garden is my refuge and where I spend summers with friends and loved ones or read with a glass of iced tea on a hot day. Or, as the weekend dictates share a beer instead.

Man and Beer in Garden

To make all this possible I follow a scaled-down version of polyculture. At its most basic this involves interplanting edibles with ornamentals in such a way that they both benefit.

Snapdragons, Cucumber Plants & Dill

For instance flowers and herbs bring in more pollinators, the scent of dill repels cabbage moth and marigolds release a substance in the soil that kills parasitic nematodes. These are all great side benefits but what I really care about is how pretty the garden is and whether or not my vegetables will produce happily. I plan my garden all winter; changing my mind dozens of times over where things will go, and what they will go with. Small spaces can restrict creativity but also help to narrow down choices -  something I find hard to do. It also becomes more difficult to rotate crops from where they were the previous year when space is limited. When one plants beans or tomatoes here and there instead of in one perfect row it is difficult to remember exactly where they were.

Tomatoes, Rose & Iris

Then there are my edible or beneficial weeds – I don’t usually have to plant these because nature does it for me. Garlic mustard, Nettles, Lambs Quarter, etc… Although many of these are invasive I find the best way to combat that is to eat or use them. So although my garden looks like a muddle(and it is), there really is a method to the madness. As much as I admire other gardeners’ straight lines of crinkly lettuce and docile peas scrambling up their well-spaced out supports I could never maintain such a garden.

My garden is a bit of a jungle but it’s one that provides.

Jungle Garden

Sunlight Through the Trees

Last week my tiny urban garden got a haircut. Although we don’t have any large trees in our own backyard our neighbours have large mature trees that overhang us. Manitoba Maples, an Oak and an Elm tree that make for a lovely but shady yard. Growing tomatoes, eggplant and squash is a bit of struggle when you’ve only got 4 hours of direct sunlight a day. And so, after consultation with the neighbours we went ahead and had one of the smaller, tightly packed trees removed and pruned the branches of the others. What a difference! Late morning sunlight now filters through this lighter canopy and strikes the ground in areas where leggy plants struggled in vain.

I expect to see these tomatoes turning red very soon now!

Green Tomatoes

Wild Grape Leaf

Last weekend I signed up for a ‘wild food workshop’ run by Amber Westfall, local wild food enthusiast, gardener and blogger. http://unstuff.blogspot.com/ She brought 20 people to her plot at the Kilborn Allotment Gardens and walked us through a list of 15 edible and medicinal plants that were growing freely in the surrounding fields and in her garden. Although I’ve been harvesting garlic mustard, dandelion and wild violets myself this spring I still shy away from other plants that I’m not comfortable identifying or who’s use I’m still unsure of. Thanks to this workshop I can now safely identify (and eat!) wild grape leaves among many other useful plants. A quick walk in the field near my workplace identified wild grape vines growing everywhere.

I was inspired by the snack Amber had made for her workshop participants and so Dolmades were on the menu. She made a vegetarian version for us while mine contain ground lamb but they are versatile and taste great with any filling. Wild grape leaves have many uses; they can be fermented like sauerkraut, shredded and added to stir fries or used to fill almost anything.

As more and more wild foods get introduced to my diet I’m finding that food really is everywhere and the variety of what’s available is exciting and tasty. Expanding the repertoire of what’s in your diet not only gives you the opportunity to be healthier it also displays the ecological diversity of what grows close to home. Food and medicinal plants that were brought here by European settlers are now often considered weeds because of a loss of knowledge on our part. We need to keep eating and using these plants or they will disappear into obscurity. When we buy all our fruits and vegetables in large grocery stores we mostly eat food that has been deemed relatively easy to raise, harvest and transport using mechanical methods; that cuts out a lot of good food. Anyone who grows organically or chooses heirloom varieties knows that the best tasting, most nutritious things take a little more work. Unless of course, you let nature do the work for you and eat it from the wild!

Dolmades

Grape Leaf Dolmades

Cook one cup of rice or chick peas and put aside. Brown a small chopped onion and roughly 1 cup of ground meat in olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Add a handful of chopped herbs, anything works but I used what was available in my garden which was dill, fennel and mint. Mix the meat and rice mixture and let cool.

Medium to large grape leaves are best, try to get them before they become dark green and tough. Cut out the stem, being careful not to rip the leaf. Wash your grapes leaves, then layer them in a large bowl or dish and cover them in boiling water. Let sit until the water becomes tepid and you can handle the leaves. Put the leaf vein side up and put a teaspoon of filling at the stem joint and roll up, folding the sides in at the same time. The procedure is no different from making cabbage rolls. Put them seam side down into a greased baking dish, sprinkle a little olive oil on top and bake for 30 minutes in a 350 oven. Baking them is optional as you can go ahead and eat them as soon as they are filled but I like that they firm up and the leaf texture becomes slightly crunchy after this step. They taste best warm, not hot so let them cool and eat with your favourite dip. Yogourt and dill dip is a great accompaniment.

When picking your leaves remember not to choose from somewhere where they might have been sprayed with pesticides and ask first if you are on private property. Amber provided all her participants with a great set of guidelines for wild edibles harvesting, here is the link to her document: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1c_xg2MyCyQCH78tVU1h5H6XeRNlWrIpkYaKv8x8bZaI/edit?hl=en_US&pli=1

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