We’ve started a new garden plot at the neighborhood community garden

LynnAnnRose and I have a plot at our neighborhood community garden. After removing the drip irrigation tubing and raking back last year’s straw mulch, we prepared the soil and planted some pre-sprouted sugar snap peas and radishes so far. The soil is sandy, in contrast to the compacted, silty soil in Flagstaff; it required very little loosening. We had to buy some compost to spread on top since we don’t have our own compost bin yet. Compost works to improve all types of soil. We added plenty of new straw mulch on top to prevent soil water evaporation. The tomato cages on top are preventing the mulch from blowing away.

We bought the pea and radish seeds and other heirloom seeds from Native Seed/SEARCH, including one of LynnAnnRose’s favorite foods, Chimayo chiles. Chimayo is a small village not far from Santa Fe. The chiles have been grown for centuries by Hispanic farmers in the region. We also have some purchased seedlings of vegetables and herbs that will be planted mostly in out back and front yards. We plan to save the seeds from the open-pollinated varieties.

Native Seed/SEARCH is a regional seed bank for Native American and Southwest Hispanic seed varieties. Limited quantities of these seeds are available for purchase.

Milk & cookies!

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Organic, homemade soy milk and peppermint chocolate chip soy okara cookies made with freshly ground whole wheat flour, that is.

Eat your edible weeds!

I planted my one tomato seedling, a short season Big Boy indeterminate vining variety (78 days to maturity) that can grow up to eight feet high. As part of my vegetable crop rotations, I planted it in the trellis planter on my back balcony where I grew sugar peas last year.

The extra nitrogen produced by the peas fertilized a crop of self-seeding lamb’s quarters, a common garden “weed” around here. Lamb’s quarters are related to spinach and chard, but are even more nutritious. Many common garden weeds are nutritious edible. Lamb’s quarters have a mild flavor and make excellent salad and stir fry greens. If you have too many to eat, they also make great nitrogen-rich mulch or additions to a compost pile. I used the woody bottoms and roots as mulch around the tomato plant. Tomatoes don’t need too much nitrogen, so the lamb’s quarters won’t hurt the seedling’s growth; too much nitrogen causes tomatoes to focus on growing leaves rather than fruit.

It will probably take more than 78 days to produce ripe tomatoes in my climate, as the days to maturity is relative and commercial seeds are grown in warmer areas. Nighttime temperatures are now in the low 40s, still quite cold for tropical tomatoes, so I expect the plant will grow fairly slowly for a while.

Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains 4th Edition Book Cover Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A Guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens

2014 home permaculture gardening highlights at 7,000 feet elevation in Flagstaff, Arizona

Many people mistakenly think it’s difficult or impossible to grow food at my altitude in a semi-arid climate. The trick is learning how to work with the climatic and ecological conditions.

It’s been a great gardening year. My home urban/container garden produced quite a bit of food for it’s size:

  • We enjoyed a delicious winter Meyer lemon crop. We also received some home grown oranges and grapefruit from southern Arizona.
  • I harvested the first rhubarb stalks from new plantings last year.
  • There were a lot of spring greens, herbs & Alliums  including kale, nettles, arugula, lettuce, lovage, dandelion, chives, cilantro, walking onions, and Chinese garlic chives.
  • Summer brought sugar peas, summer squash and tomatoes.
  • Summer also brought a bumper crop of barberries (Oregon grape), from which I canned jam.
  • The monsoon rains made my tea and baking herbs grow profusely, like my mints and oregano.
  • I also grew many flowers for the bees and other pollinators.
  • I recently finished harvesting my first fig crop. The tree has just started to grow a new set of leaves, too.
  • There was plenty of free urban apple foraging to be had. I made cider, apple sauce and apple butter. We also ate raw apples for two months.
  • Cooler fall temperatures made my perennial and self-seeding leafy greens rebound until hard freezes finally ended the outdoor gardening year.

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Prickly pear cacti provide food & dye in the desert

A flowering wild prickly pear cactus on the way to Prescott, Arizona at around 5,500 feet elevation. What a gorgeous sunny Arizona day!

A vegetable & a fruit

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains:  A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

All prickly pear cacti (Opuntia spp.) have edible pads (nopales in Spanish) and delicious fruit. Each fruit variety tastes a little different. Prickly pear cacti grow wild across the Western U.S. There are many species, and they hybridize easily in the wild. Purchase varieties suited to your microclimate(s) at a native plant nursery or collect seeds or root cuttings of plants collected nearby. Domesticated varieties with small spines are from Mexico; domesticated nopales and fruit are sold at locally owned grocery stores in Arizona.

I have a couple of safe canning recipes for prickly pear juice that I created in The Natural Canning Resource Book: A guide to home canning with locally-grown, sustainably-produced and fair trade foods.

A food for a natural dye source

Cochineal scale insects (Dactylopius spp.) parasitize prickly pear cacti. They produce carminic acid, a red dye, to deter being eaten by other insects (carminic acid does not taste good to other insects). Carminic acid dyes protein fibers (wool, silk, soy silk, milk fiber). Cochineal insects are found from South America through Central America and up into North America as far north as Colorado. Flagstaff, Arizona, where I live, has a wild cochineal species living at 7,000 feet.

Commercial dried cochineal insects and pure cochineal dye extract come from Dactylopius coccus, a species domesticated by indigenous people in Central America hundreds of years ago.The domesticated species produces more dye per unit of weight than wild species do, plus the insects themselves are much bigger than wild ones are, so you need fewer of them. However, the wild ones are perfectly usable for dye, too.

Back in the days when bread baking was a communal affair, a large loaf of peasant bread or a stack of pitas might have had to last for a week or two … or longer. Use leftover or freshly-prepared sourdough bread as the base for a variety of delicious dishes.

In Tuscany, Italy, bread salad is known as panzanella. In Arabic countries, torn flatbread is used to make fattoush salad. Use bread that is partially dried or lightly toasted and cooled. Add seasonal vegetables, greens and herbs and toss with your favorite dressing. The bread soaks up the dressing and vegetable juices.

Since June, when the tomatoes started to ripen, I have been making myself bread salad with toasted sourdough croutons, homegrown tomatoes, steamed edamame, and sometimes additional vegetables form the Flagstaff Community Market.

Adapted from Wild Bread: Handbaked sourdough artisan breads in your own kitchen.

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Juniper Street Community Garden and Community Compost Center

Adapted from Growing Food in the Southwest Mountains: A guide to high-altitude, semi-arid home permaculture gardens:

I took these photos a couple of days ago at Juniper Street Community Garden, which I used to coordinate. Typical Flagstaff late summer garden beds: a lot of leafy greens like chard and kale, summer squash and tomatoes, herbs like basil and dill. One person is growing butternut squash. These winter squash take a long time to mature compared to our short growing season length. The squash look they need a few more weeks to mature at this elevation; they might have just enough time before our first frost. Nighttime lows in the upper 40s to low 50s depending on whether the skies are clear or cloudy (clouds act as an insulating blanket).

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