All posts by Irena

Austrian Winter Peas

May2016 (176) flowering Austrian Winter Peas prcsd

Last fall I scattered Austrian Winter Pea seeds over several of the small beds in the herb garden next to our office, and lightly raked them in.  For the past couple of weeks, every other day or so I pinch off a few of their small shoots as I walk from the house to the office and back.  Like many children, I relish the ability to eat vegetables right in the garden, within a few moments of picking them.  At this time of year, I cherish the diversity Austrian Winter Peas add to the range of very fresh food I can eat.Feb2017 (18) Penny eats Austrian Winter Peas prcsd


Yesterday I brought some pea shoots to Penny and her mother Scarlet, and then I brought Penny and Scarlet to the Austrian Winter Peas.  Penny devoured them, and Scarlet said that one of her favorite memories of her own childhood was of eating peas and pea shoots in her neighbor’s garden in British Columbia.

In a few weeks I’ll be frequently snipping off a bowlful at a time of large, lush shoots, adding them to salads and stir-fries, as well as snacking on them.

May2016 (80) Austrian Winter Peas prcsd

Like other legumes, these peas form relationships with rhizobial bacteria in the soil that pull nitrogen out of the air and make it available both to the pea plants themselves, and to the next crop we plant in these beds.  Austrian Winter Peas are more frequently planted as a cover crop than for eating.  Our half-pound package is appropriate as a cover crop for small gardens, and as food crop for gardens, homesteads, and other small farms.  For maximum nitrogen fixation, we could decide to till these peas under shortly after they start to flower.  Or, we could leave them a little longer to enjoy the two-tone purple edible flowers.

May2016 (184) flowering Austrian Winter Peas prcsdwinter peas in rye prcsdI wish I was a better record-keeper and could tell you what day I planted this small crop of Austrian Peas.  The best time is 4-6 weeks before your first fall frost, but I planted well past that date.  Even planting them now would yield some benefit in our climate, and in colder parts of the country, Austrian Winter Peas are generally spring-planted as soon as the soil can be worked.  They can take lower temperatures than other peas, even a little below 0°F for short periods, but if you plant them in fall in zone 7 or colder, you might want to mix the seed with rye to shelter the pea plants through the winter.

Thinking like a plant

Books-Vegetable gardening in the Southeast-smallGarden Primer bookBarbara Damrosch states, early in her 633-page Garden Primer book, that “Good gardening is very simple, really.  You just have to learn to think like a plant.”

One of the challenges of learning to think like a plant is that not all plants think alike.

When you’re wondering how best to take care of a particular crop, the first question you’ll ask yourself might be “Where can I find good instructions?”  You might, for example, start by looking at the cultural notes in our catalog, or by looking in the “Edibles A to Z” section of Ira Wallace’s book Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast, or Barbara’s Garden Primer.

Another question to ask yourself is, “What do I know about the needs and habits of this plant’s relatives?”  Plants tend to be similar to their relatives in terms of the conditions they need for germination or fruit set, the relationships they form with soil microbes, the strategies they use to spread their seed, and many other factors.

For example, if you know that luffas are related to pumpkins and cucumbers, you can guess that growing luffas will be more similar to growing pumpkins or cucumbers than to growing tomatoes.

photos mid fall 2011 177 luffa stages
Left to right, the progression of luffas from flower bud to mature fruit: buds, flower, baby fruit with spent petals still attached, edible young fruits, intermediate-maturity fruits, and mature fruits for retting and use as sponges.

Luffas (also called loofahs), like most crops in the squash (cucurbit) family:

  • prefer dryer soil than most other plants, particularly while seeds are germinating
  • have delicate root systems, but can be transplanted with care
  • can sprawl or climb
  • use tendrils to cling to surrounding plants or structures
  • have flowers that are very attractive to bees
  • have separate male flowers and female flowers on androgynous plants
  • are easily killed by frost

If I was sending a soil test to a lab and wanted a recommendation on whether to amend the soil before planting luffas, I’d check the box of another crop in their family (assuming luffas aren’t on the list).  If I was worried that an insect might be attacking my luffa crop, I’d run through a mental list of the insects that I’ve known to attack other crops in its family. If I wanted to make a guess at which nutrients are abundant in luffas (when picked small for eating), I’d start by looking up which nutrients are abundant in other cucurbits that are also harvested before the seeds mature, like cucumbers or summer squash.  If I wanted to  harvest pure, market-worthy seeds from one variety of luffa, I’d plant it at least 1/2 mile from any other varieties of the same species of luffa, based on the similar isolation distances recommended for harvesting reliably pure seeds of other cucurbits.

However, any plant will have some significant differences from its relatives.  For example, most cucurbits set their seeds in a wet environment, but luffas set their seed in a dry environment.  Thus the techniques we use to clean luffa seeds are very different from those we use for most seeds in the cucurbit family.

It might be tempting to focus your gardening efforts on one family, grow lots of its members, and really learn how they think.  But diversity of plant families in your garden is one aspect of agrobiodiversity, and will help ensure that the bugs or diseases that like one of your crops won’t like too many of your crops.  It’s also important to rotate your crops, and like many farmers and gardeners, we organize our crop rotation according to plant family.

For an easy way to learn which plants are in which families, take a look at our illustrated list of the predominant plant families in American gardens.

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Pumpkin Butter

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the size of your winter squash harvest.  But not to worry.  Winter squash will keep for months if undamaged, cured well, and stored well.  If you have enough pumpkin recipes and squash recipes, you won’t get tired of it. Pumpkin butter is delicious, and it’s not hard to make two months’ worth at once.Oct 2016 (26) Pumpkin butter on biscuit croppedFeb2015 (45) squash for squash butter prcsdFeb2015 (51) squash for squash butter cropped

 

Start by cutting any kind of pumpkin or other winter squash in half or quarters. Scoop out the seeds, and for best texture, scrape out the stringy pulp around the seeds. Lay the squash on a baking sheet. Some prefer face up; others prefer face down. We cooked ours face up. You’ll retain the most moisture in your squash if you cook it face down, with a little water in the pan.

Bake the squash until it is easy to put a fork through it.  We baked ours for a little over an hour.  Large chunks of very large squash would take longer.

When the baked squash is cool enough to handle, scrape it off the skin.  Even if the skin is tender and soft enough to be palatable with a chunk of squash, the texture of the pumpkin butter will be much better (and more buttery!) without it.Oct 2016 (14) Pumpkin butter cropped

Now it’s time to add spices and sugar.  We used one part sugar for every four parts squash.  We also added cinnamon, ginger, and cloves.  Sorry, we didn’t measure the spices; we just tasted the spiced pumpkin and added a few more pinches of ginger.  Some people add orange zest, but we didn’t.

When you’ve mixed the spices into the squash, put it back in the oven.   Ours made a layer about 2 inches deep in a steam table tray, and we baked it for about 45 minutes at 350 degrees the second time around.  If you spread yours into a thinner layer, you’ll probably want to bake it for less time.

I like pumpkin butter the most when some areas have just started to turn dark brown and caramelize.

Oct 2016 (31) Ken eats pumpkin butter on a biscuit prcsd

While Ken was planting spinach in the garden,  I brought him a biscuit with a thick layer of fresh pumpkin butter.

We like to put our pumpkin butter in mason jars, but we don’t can it.  It’s not acidic enough to be canned in a boiling water bath, and pressure canning might ruin the texture.  We’ll store these jars in the refrigerator for up to a couple of months.

Oct 2016 (44) Pumpkin butterYou might also want to try the pumpkin jam recipe that was recently featured in our e-newsletter.