Root art

I’ve already talked a lot about eating roots, but check out how these little guys stack up.

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Shown here are heirloom rainbow radishes, purple turnips, beets, and blue potatoes. All grown locally and organically of course.

It’s as if they posed for a nice family photo before I chopped them up and roasted them with garlic and shallots.

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Winter Roots and Blues

As a hipster, I try to use those obscure words or pronunciations of words that allow me to seem smarter than other people without actually knowing anything more. I’ll call suspenders “braces,” use the British pronunciation of “perseverance,” and insist that, originally, the T in “often” is supposed to be silent. More recently, I’ve really been enjoying the word “locavore.”

A locavore is one of those people that is committed to eating locally and even seasonally in order to support the local economy and agriculture. It’s also great to not have to think about the thousands of miles a particular tomato traveled in order to arrive in your salad, when it was last “alive,” and how nutrient-starved it has become along its little journey.

Living in Lancaster Pennsylvania sure makes it easy to find fresh produce. In fact, it can be tough to avoid it in the summer. Fresh and locally grown vegetables are still here in the winter: you just have to know where to find them. This year, my wife and I were excited to join our first CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program through the Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative as a means to fulfilling our desire to maintain our locavore status (especially because I can’t survive solely on Thistle Finch).

We are now five weeks into the 15 week winter season, and I have to be honest, we have been eating a lot of roots. Yes, roots. Not the good kind of roots: the Americana music genre featured at Lancaster’s Roots and Blues festival this weekend. No, these roots are the kind that live underground all their lives until we get to eat them.

Potatoes, carrots, shallots, turnips, rutabagas, radishes, beets. It’s been an interesting month. I certainly have expanded my culinary boldness. I’ve mashed, roasted, juiced, fried, and baked these things into submission. I’ll be honest, after the first few weeks, I didn’t think I would be able to go the distance. But as I begin to push my palate to new places, I have started to see the beauty in the complexity of the root. While some offer smooth and mild flavors, others are sweet, and still others spicy. My taste for the tuber has grown to the point that I am no longer singing the blues over these roots. Now you’ll hear me singing the praises of the fruit that sun forgot.

So go ahead and enter into the life of the locavore. Because even if you think these roots taste like the dirt they’re grown in, at least you know that dirt is local.

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What’s in my Window #6: Woodruff

Preservation of the harvest is an important part of homesteading. Innovation in finding new things to harvest is also key to building hipster credibility. That’s why I have been drying wild-growing woodruff in my kitchen window. To fully understand the preservation and use of woodruff, I feel I need to back up and dive a little deeper into the makings of a hipster.

I have said before that a hipster makes you believe that he or she is an authority in just about any area of conversation. For those aspiring to become hipsters, this can seem like a daunting obstacle that would keep many from achieving hipster status. In reality, there are ways to skirt the actual knowledge needed for this and still retain an apparent level of conversational command. One way in particular that is used by many hipsters is to become well educated on a very niche subject. When you talk a lot about a subject that other people don’t really care about, then they will naturally assume that you know a lot about everything.

This rule applies especially to the topic of beer. Hipsters like to drink beer, but even more so we like to know a lot about beer. There’s a lot that goes into beer and beer-making, so instead of actually learning about beer, hipsters have gravitated towards knowing about very particular beers. I attribute the craft beer revival of recent years to highfalutin hipsters attempting to prove their beer knowledge by spouting off random facts about the then-small segment of beer manufacturing:

“I only drink craft beer. You probably don’t realize this, but to be a craft beer, it has to be made with only all-grain. The beer you’re drinking is made with all adjuncts and extracts.”

As craft beer (and the knowledge thereof) has become more ubiquitous, hipsters have struggled to retain their firm grip on this faux knowledge of the beer industry. This has led to the most obscure styles of beer becoming favorites of hipsters. Most notably, hipsters have espoused an enjoyment of sour beers to trump all other beer drinkers. Sour beers, such as the Berliner Weisse style, taste bad, and have a nose that reminds you of a rotting compost heap.

Here I admit my shortcomings as a hipster, since I like to drink beers that taste good. But oh the respect that is garnished upon the hipster that can proclaim “I love sour beers.” To the less learned beer drinker, this is thought of as an accomplishment and indication of a finer palate. However, these sour beers originally brewed centuries ago, were never meant to be served alone. Sweet syrups of sugary extract are added to take the edge off; usually the drinker is given a choice between raspberry or…wait for it…woodruff.

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And now we have circled back to what it is that has been drying in my kitchen window. Woodruff, or sometimes called Sweet Woodruff, is a traditional brewing ingredient that pre-dates hops. It happens to grow as a fairly common ground cover, and we found some in our backyard. Over the past years, I’ve been doing my best to propagate its growth to the point that I could begin to harvest it for brewing.

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As the woodruff dries, it gives off an almost unnaturally sweet vanilla scent. Just the small amount of clippings that I took filled our kitchen with its scent. I recently finished brewing a fall beer in which I added my dried woodruff at the end of the boil. After it dried, it weighed in at half an ounce, and yet it packed a powerful sweetness to the five gallon batch of beer I made. But even more amazing than the beer is my niche knowledge of the topic.IMG_0035

My Modular Rooftop Garden, Part 2

A lot of hipsters like to think of themselves as poor kids trying to scrape by. The reality is that most hipsters are twenty- and thirty-somethings that work enough to blow their money on craft beer, vinyl music, and custom moped parts. Because of this, you often see a hipster’s living conditions as either a run down row-home that was bought with friends as a communal living space, or an appropriately sized city apartment. My wife and I fall under the latter category, having lived in the same nice apartment for the past few years.

One of the favorite features of our apartment building is the flat rooftop. In fact, as soon as we moved in my resourceful mind went right to work devising ways to utilize that space as a garden. My industrious side had visions of building a deck over the black rubber roof, where we could create a green garden getaway in the middle of our little city. Incidentally, due to just another technicality in rental contract law, the roof is not actually part of our lease agreement. So instead of heading to Home Depot, I started by asking the permission of our landlords. It just so happens that the owners of our property are really great people, and they granted my request with only one caveat: every winter all garden-related materials should be removed from the rooftop.

There went my big vision, but my creativity was jump-started into action. I talked a lot about the self-watering containers that we use (originally described in The Urban Homestead), but the majority of what we grow is in pallets. A lot of people use pallets in the ground to garden in nice even rows, or stand them upright to put out on a patio. I use them because I can move them. Yes, they are heavy when they are full of dirt, but two people can carry a pallet down the stairs with a little effort. Over the winter, I can remove them from the roof and stack them on top of each other under our pergola.

Pallet gardening is a great way to organize your space. In choosing a pallet, I look for one that is in decent condition, and one that looks “fresh.” A lot of pallets are treated with chemicals so that they last longer, and the wood in these pallets has a distinct discoloration (similar to pressure-treated wood), so it’s easy enough to avoid. With a roll of fabric week-block and a staple gun, I go to town on the bottoms and sides of the pallets. Weed-block is perfect because it allows the water to drain so the plants do not get over-watered, but it also helps keep moisture in so the pallets don’t dry out as quickly.

The biggest downside to growing vegetables out of pallets is that you don’t have the “depth” that you typically would have in larger individual gardening containers. The upsides for using pallets vastly outweigh this: the larger square footage means that the soil doesn’t get as overheated from the black rubber roof, and the moisture retention is significantly better than even a large planter. This is only our second season using pallets, but we’ve seen good yields both years. All of my suspicions were confirmed about the ability to garden in shallow soil when I heard Mel Bartholomew on the radio talking about his book Square Foot Gardening, in which he says that all you really need is 6″ of perfect soil to grow a nice garden. Our “perfect soil” is a mix of potting soil and compost, and it’s only about 4″ deep, but we do pretty well nonetheless.

We garden out of two “types” of pallet gardens: standing pallets and flat pallets. The standing pallets are constructed by taking two pallets and fastening them at the top before weed-blocking them on the back. Flat pallets are simply single weed-blocked pallets laid flat on the rooftop. The standing pallets are of course lovely space-savers, and are perfect for climbing cucumbers, herbs, and lettuces. We’ve also had success in the flat pallets with squashes, radishes, and chards.

There’s something about a constant breeze that plants seem to love. I haven’t been able to scientifically quantify it, but up on the roof, our plants are happy. When I’m up on the roof, watering or weeding or harvesting, I’m happy. Not to get too meta or anything, but there’s a peace to helping and watching things grow. And when you live in a city, big or small, it’s good to have a place where you find peace in the midst of the busyness.

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Lettuce in a standing pallet. I angled the the boards on this pallet because I specifically knew I wanted to fill it with lettuce.

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Radishes ready to harvest in a flat pallet garden.

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A climbing cucumber uses the boards on this standing pallet to make her ascent.

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Ten kinds of our favorite herbs grow on the front side of this standing pallet.

What’s in my Window #5: Sage

There are many ways to hipsterfy yourself around a particular topic. The most common way to is to find obscure things and make them part of your everyday routine (such as mopeds and mustache wax). Alternately, you can use more common things in a very obscure ways (bicycle polo and stemmed beer glasses). For the very artful hipster, however, doing the obscure thing is way too hipster-mainstream.

Take for example the humble sage plant. Hipsters of course have found the most historic and obscure uses for this herb and made it part of their routine: brewing it in tea, burning it as incense, using it as a natural preservative, and even naming their babies after it. This is one instance where I like to pull a reverse-hipster: since any hipster can do something obscure; it’s even more hipster to do something absolutely common with sage. I like to cook with it.

Sage has been a staple in our garden since I first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair. Cut fresh, I’ll throw it into stews and soups. Fresh chopped sage mixed with a little olive oil and fresh cracked pepper makes an excellent wet rub for grilled chicken. In order to keep a ready supply of sage year-round, it’s important to be able to harvest and preserve sage properly. Because the sage leaf is more fibrous, I find that it takes a little extra effort to dry it out fully.

Fresh lungwort hangs between bunches of sage that have been hanging for a week or more.

Fresh lungwort hangs between bunches of sage that have been hanging for a week or more.

This year I did a two-step drying process. First, I tied bunches of larger branches to hang dry in the window until the leaves were mostly dry. Second, I removed the leaves from the stems and branches and allowed them to further dry by placing them in my Costa Rican seed-drying gourd and hanging it in my window for another week or so. This little gourd was a gift from my in-laws, bought from a farmers’ market in Costa Rica. (If you don’t have a Costa Rican seed-drying gourd, you can alternatively use a brown paper bag with holes poked in it).

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After further hanging in the drying gourd, this sage leaf is ready to be processed.

When I am convinced that the sage has dried sufficiently, it goes into the mortar and pestle. To maintain an even consistency, I push my crushed sage through a sieve before storing it in a spice jar (similar to the way I harvest basil).

Sure, I don’t do any of the most obscure things that you can do with sage, but that’s just fine. You’d expect every hipster to do that, so instead I use my hand-picked organically-grown sage for common culinary uses. If it’s not obscure, at least it’s ironic.

My Modular Rooftop Garden, Part 1

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One of my favorite parts about being an urban-dwelling hipster is being able to have a roof garden. Seeing as how hipsters are generally a self-aggrandizing group, I manage to work it into many of my conversations. Examples below:

Example 1:
Other person: I sure do love this spring weather.
Me: I just hope we don’t get a late frost again this year. My organic heirloom radishes have already begin to sprout on my rooftop garden.
Other person: Oh that’s cool! Rooftop gardens are really popular now.
Me: Well, I had a rooftop garden before it was mainstream. You’re just jumping on the bandwagon.

Example 2:
Other person: I’m thinking of getting a burger, what are you doing for lunch?
Me: I packed a salad with organically grown lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, and cucumbers. I grow my own salads at home in my roof garden since the produce they sell at the farmers’ market is never fresh enough for my refined vegetarian palate. Meat is murder, murderer.

These are extreme examples, surely. Especially considering that I don’t think I have ever turned down an offer to grab a well-made burger, and I am rarely that obviously vindictive about other people’s life choices. The point remains the same: I have a roof garden.

The truth is that everyone can grow stuff. As a matter of fact, stuff has been growing all by itself for a long time. Roof gardening only has a few adjustments to compensate for the fact that you’re on a roof instead of on the ground. The biggest adjustment I had to make is moisture control. Our garden is on a black rubber roof, and I have had to employ various strategies in order to keep my vegetables well-watered. I had read about self-watering containers in The Urban Homestead a while back, and tried them out for the first time last year. This year we went into high production and tripled the amount of self-watering containers we use.

Building a SWC is a fairly simple process, and consists of two nesting 5-gallon buckets, a wicking chamber, and a piece of PVC. I only caution you to make sure that you use food-grade plastics so as not to leach any harmful chemicals into the vegetables you are growing. I found old pickle or sauerkraut buckets from a local restaurant that didn’t charge me to take them off their hands. The smaller wicking chamber we made out of 32 oz yogurt and sour cream containers.

The way they work is really ingenious, and unfortunately I can’t even take credit. Between the two nesting buckets there forms an open reservoir. The smaller container, drilled with many holes, goes into that reservoir. When everything is put together, a PVC pipe goes from the top of the bucket lid down into the reservoir, allowing you to easily fill the reservoir with water. After filling the inner bucket with dirt, the smaller container acts as a wicking chamber, drawing the moisture up from the reservoir and delivering it to the growing vegetables. This closed system keeps evaporation to a minimum and an even moisture level in the soil throughout the hottest days of summer.

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This year we have six tomato plants, four pepper plants, and an eggplant all growing from SWCs. Since our roof gets so hot, we also put them on top of pallets to avoid heating the water unnecessarily. The best part about it all is that I didn’t spend a dime to build them!

What’s in my Window #4: Lungwort

When I finished hanging a fresh harvest of lungwort leaves in my kitchen window this week, I came to three telling realizations.

#1: I realized that I’ve posted a few things already about what’s hanging in my kitchen window. First, I talked about basil seed; next, basil leaf; then stevia.

#2: I also realized that I have hung many things in my kitchen window the past few months that haven’t received a post: sage, roses, and my all new Costa Rican seed-saving gourd (more on those later, no doubt).

#3: My third realization was more poetic: this kitchen window often acts as a window into the Hipsterly habits of this House Husband. There’s always a frugal/industrious/resourceful reason for my efforts to preserve the various things that hang in my window. I have an obligation to share these things.

So starts this recurring “series” in which I will detail the items in my window and the ways I plan to use them.

Back to the lungwort. Over the winter, I was looking up different kinds of teas that we could add to our little rooftop garden in the spring. I found some information on lungwort, which grows in large quantities in our backyard already. I was taken aback by all the benefits that this plant offers when dealing with the ailments of the lung: coughs, congestion, asthma, etc. It can also be used as a poultice on open wounds. This is a plant all hipsters should love: it’s European in origin, and you’ve probably never even heard of it. In fact lungwort is given credit for helping to curb the Black Plague in Europe in the 1300s. Who knew? I do, now.

Frankly, I was skeptical, but it wasn’t until late April when my wife and I both caught a springtime flu that we were able to put this to the test. Both of us suffered from the flu-induced cough and congested lungs. What a prime opportunity to give this lungwort tea a try. As soon as it had begun to grow back in early spring, I had harvested a few handfuls of leaves and let them dry. To make tea, simply steep in boiling water for 10 minutes. While the flavor is unique, it isn’t bad. Honey helps, or even stevia if you have any of that growing. More importantly, it really helps reduce the cough! Awesome, now I make my own medicine. (Also, I should probably put in a disclaimer about not being a doctor and how you should always consult with a physician, etc.)

Lungwort flowering in early April in my backyard.

Fast forward 30 days, and the lungwort in our backyard is loving life and growing like crazy. This week I harvested a huge amount of large leaves and tied them like a ristra of chiles to proudly hang in my window. Now I can’t wait to get a cough again…and that’s what’s hanging in my kitchen window.

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