A deer was here

Someone took a nap in my tomato patch! Note the smushed and well-nibbled stems.  by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0 

As the days get shorter and season draws to a close, there comes a certain point when the garden plants quit. The tomatoes stop producing, the patty pan squash withers up and the flowers all go to seed.   This year, we had some 4-footed visitors who helped hurry that end date along.

To be fair to my visitors, my garden patch is not fenced and I haven’t had too many problems with nibblers all summer.  I don’t even mind a few bites here and there, there has been plenty of garden snacks for everyone. I noticed that the cherry tomato plants, which had been done for a week or so, now looked like someone (fairly large) had taken a nap on top of them.

There were some other clues, too.  First, the hoofprints in the soft soil.

When you see hoofprints, think deer (not unicorns).  by PPJ (2018) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/2b7bgyM

Next, the poor denuded sunflowers and okra stalks:  Tasty, tasty leaves and flowers!

Finally, the stuff they left behind: Spicy nasturtiums they did not touch (too spicy!)  and a deer scat “calling card.”

I don’t really begrudge the deer their end-of-season buffet.  (I think I would be far less magnanimous if the nibbles happened in the early spring.)   The days are a little colder and the wind a little sharper.    I would just have to tear anything still left in the garden next month when it closes for winter.  At least this way, the deer get a last hurrah before a long winter of  eating bark and stems.


Goat Gatorade

As Slow as Molasses
As Slow as Molasses by Marshall (2009) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/64f7NE

I have been working on a post about neonicotinoid pesticide toxicity to bees, but have decided to back burner that piece to bring you a post inspired by summer camp (and goats!)

This summer, I’m running around with elementary-age kiddos at a science & nature day camp in Ann Arbor, MI. We just finished our first week of camp with campers, included a few very hot days. To help me stay hydrated, I made my own rehydration solution (aka “Goat gatorade”) from a glug (1-2 tsp) of blackstrap molasses dissolved in 16 oz of water. At a muddy dark brown, goat gatorade not as colorful as the panoply of commercially available sports beverages, but there are significant nutritional and dehydration-prevention benefits to this unusual beverage.

Blackstrap molasses is produced from the third boiling of sugar cane (or sugar beets) in the sugar-making process, concentrating minerals such as Iron, Manganese, Magnesium, Copper and Potassium. It is also a great source of B-vitamins.

I first learned about “goat gatorade” when I worked helped with spring kidding (birthing of baby goats) at Adamah in March 2013. After a mama goat had given birth, we gave her a solution of blackstrap molasses dissolved in water to replace fluids, electrolytes and minerals lost during labor. The mama goats also really seemed to like the taste!

Momma's Boy
Some cute pictures of newborn goats with their mama. Momma’s Boy by Sara (2007) CC By-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/3ipNQC

When I found myself getting dehydrated during field work at Adamah, despite what I thought was copious water consumption, our farm manager suggested I try drinking the blackstrap molasses rehydration mixture. I discovered I also liked the taste of the solution(sort of a slightly bitter burned sweetness), so I drank more of it than plain water. The solution also seemed to help ward off dreaded dehydration-triggered migraine headaches. I started mentally (then verbally) calling the beverage “goat gatorade” in a nod to the mama goats.

As an apologetic hipster, I have to admit that I’ve been enjoying my unsulphured blackstrap molasses glugs mixed with ground ginger powder, a dash of kosher salt and a pint of tap water shaken vigorously in a repurposed glass pickle jar. If you’re letting it sit overnight in fridge, you can even up your hipster points by adding 1 tsp of chia seeds for an interesting globby texture.

While I like the storage capacity of glass jars (pickle/mason/etc.) I learned that I may want to reconsider using them to transport beverages at camp. I hid my goat gatorade jar under a bench to keep it from getting knocked over during a camp activity. Little did I realize that the top of the jar was in exact place where a 6-year-old’s heels might hit if he or she was swinging them nonchalantly while sitting on the bench. Thank goodness the only casualties in the incident were a broken glass jar, a puddle of chia molasses liquid and my ego (after an embarrassed radio call to my camp director asking for help in cleaning up the puddle/broken glass prevent anyone from getting hurt.)

broken jar
It’s not goat gatorade, but you get the idea. Chunky Zilla by Mark Turnauckas (2012) CC By 2.0, on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/bCv6wb

While the health and wellness blogosphere loves blackstrap molasses for its nutrition content, not everyone loves the taste or consistency. Some cooks warn not to use blackstrap molasses when a recipe calls for regular molasses, especially in baking recipes, because it will change the texture of the final baked good.

A quick search of Google Scholar and the NCBI database has not revealed much published research on blackstrap molasses solution for human rehydration on hot days. I mostly found information on blackstrap molasses as livestock food additive (because goats!), a feedstock for fermentation and other chemical processes, and as a plant-based dietary source of iron in nutrition journal articles.

Molasses seems to come in both sulphured and unsulphured varieties – the sulfur dioxide is added during the process as a preservative to keep the sugar cane fresh. I’ve try to avoid sulfur dioxide (I suspect it can trigger headaches), so I’ve been sticking with the unsulphured variety. (I also am not sure what causes the spelling changes from “f” in the chemical sulfur dioxide to the “ph” in “unsulphured” food product description.)

Fancier version of goat gatorade have been around for years in the form of switchel or haymaker’s punch. In The Long Winter, Laura Ingalls Wilder even describes a version of “ginger water” made with sugar, ginger and vinegar, that Laura and Pa drink while bringing in the hay harvest.

Rotten Tomatoes

Tomato rotting on vine
End of Season by TimLewisNM (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr https://flic.kr/p/8KxiHj

One the downsides of an abundant tomato crop is that the tomatoes ripen faster than humans can organize to pick them. This is especially true of a volunteer-run community garden project. Sunday morning, I agreed to come to help harvest ripe vegetables and to arrange logistics of delivery to food pantries. I hadn’t been to the Mitzvah Garden, a project growing food for local pantries, all summer. I discovered that after working all week at the Children’s garden, I couldn’t force myself to get up early on Sunday morning to … work in another garden. Only a special request from our usual organizer (who would be out of town) got me into my garden clothes for a 6th day of the week.

When I arrived Sunday morning, it was great to catch up with other volunteers whom I hadn’t seen all summer. However, it was finally time to get to work. Other headed for the bell peppers and the cucumbers. I grabbed a “slush bucket” and “good tomato bucket” and headed for the tomato forest. We were both blessed and cursed with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes. The tomato plants burgeoned with ripe fruit, but the humans weren’t fast enough to get them before overripe tomatoes became food for various invertebrates and microorganisms.

As the only tomato harvesting volunteer at first, I realized I need to move methodically down the rows, putting mushy tomatoes in the compost bucket, while keeping the solid citizens in a separate container. Then, I would transfer the good tomatoes to the flats I put strategically at the end of each row. Physically, it was pretty challenging, squatting or kneeling between the rows to reach low-hanging tomatoes.

However, I hadn’t taken into account the sheer … gloppiness of the endeavor. As I reached for tomatoes on the plants, it wasn’t always clear which ones were good tomatoes and which ones were rotten. Putting my hand around rotten tomato often resulted in its explosion, coating my gloves and clothing with stinking, rotten tomato juice. I tried to keep the stinky slush off the good tomatoes (which occasional got splattered) by wiping them off on my pants. Soon, I was completely marinated in a coating of fermented, rotten tomato slime, sweat and dirt.

Eventually, other volunteers joined us to help harvest tomatoes (and then some of them snuck away to do other activities.) I let other people deal with the good tomatoes and focused on the slushy ones. I made 4 separate trips to the compost pile to re-empty my bucket of rotten tomato paste. I also hadn’t counted on the sheer volume of tomatoes I was dealing with: Even with perhaps a 3 to 1 ratio of mushy tomatoes to good tomatoes, we still ended up with 8 flats of tomatoes for delivery! Though there was a silver lining to our adventure, I was too miserable and smelly by the end of the harvest to appreciate the mitzvah.

As I walked in to the house, I stripped off my filthy shoes, hat and clothing. Then I made a beeline for the shower. Maybe scientists will some day discover that rotten tomatoes are actually an excellent skin tonic. However, now I think I know why bad comedians are pelted with them: Soaking someone in rotten tomato slime clearly indicates the depth of one’s displeasure with the object. That is all.

A post about pickles

Pickles in jars
Pickles!! by M Prince Photography (2014) CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/p3cNV5

For a blog that calls itself “Protopian Pickle Jar,” it occurs to me that I rarely post about fermented vegetables.

However, last week, I got a real hankering for pickles. Not just any pickles from the grocery store, mind you, but an authentic deli-style, non-vinegar based lacto-fermented pickles. Like the kind that used to come from a pickle barrel on the Lower East Side. Or that we would make in the Picklearium (aka Center for Cultural Proliferation) at Isabella Freedman and devour off the IF salad bar. Surprisingly, these are kind of hard to find. They do sell them in the “refrigerated kosher section” at the grocery store. I bought 2 jars and started eating them almost immediately upon returning home.

Maybe it was all the salt-loss from our 105 deg F heat index weather. Maybe my gut microbes were calling out for replenishment. Maybe, as my grandma would said, I was in search of a “cheap drunk,” that the biting taste of fermented pickles provides.

Internet-provided potential pickle-hankering insights:

In her Tablet Magazine article, “A Barrel Full of Jewish Flavor,” Marjorie Ingall provides some context for the yearnings of her pickle-fiend children.

But not everyone viewed pickles as a benign and tasty foodstuff. …WASPier Americans saw the pickle as morally suspect. [Jane Zigelman] quotes physician and author Dr. Susanna Way Dodds, who wrote in 1883: “The spices in it are bad, the vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness … and the poor little innocent cucumber … if it had very little ‘character’ in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the ‘totally depraved.’ ”

Jews did not get this memo. When Lower East Side public schools let children out at lunchtime, kids ran en masse to the nearest pushcarts. Social service workers were horrified. “Pickles were seen—by a nation on its way to Prohibition—as a compulsion for those too young to drink alcohol,” noted Ziegelman. They were often classified as a “stimulant,” along with coffee, tobacco, and whiskey. … The City’s Board of Education established school lunch in large part to wean immigrant children away from their degenerate pickle lust.

Mmmm, degenerate pickle lust.

But there may also be a serious psychological component to my yen for fermented veggies.

Peter Andrey Smith, in the New York Times Magazine, examines how bacteria in your gut can affect your mood. In the study of “psychobiotics,” scientists recognized that communities of microbes living in our not only do things like create vitamins, but they also secrete neurotransmitters that can affect our moods. Nurturing the bacteria that release these chemicals may help alleviate depression and anxiety in their human hosts.

In addition, researchers at William and Mary found an association between increased consumption of fermented foods and reduction of social anxiety in genetically-prone young adults.
While there is much research to be done in this intersection of psychology and delicious, delicious fermented foods, I can testify that I was a pretty happy human when consuming vast quantities of fermented vegetables from the Isabella Freedman salad bar. (I see a potential sociological/microbiological study to be conducted by generations of future Adamahniks…)

Finally, the New York Times Video profiles Sandorkraut: A Pickle Maker, a short documentary (~12 min) by Ann Husaini and Emily Lobsenz about legendary (in Adamahnik-circles) pickling enthusiast and writer Sandor Katz.
I first became aware of Katz’s work at Adamah (his book, “Wild Fermentation” is recommended reading for incoming cohorts.) The filmmakers explain, ” While empowering his followers to try their own hand at fermenting, he is not only reinvigorating an ancient cultural practice, but also reminding us what it means to be in a symbiotic relationship with microorganisms that have evolved alongside us throughout history.”

Kitchen Table Cloning

One of the benefits of working at a garden is that I have access to plant cuttings trimmed off during regular maintenance. Some plant cuttings, like coleus, root well in plain water.
I decided to put on my DIY mad scientist skills to work on potting some of these beauties for my kitchen window.

To propagate coleus cuttings:

Allow cuttings to develop roots by placing them in plain water for a few days.
rooting coleus

Locate some appropriate containers to place the cuttings into.
empty yogurt cups

Make sure there is adequate drainage. I punched a few holes in the bottom of each plastic cup with the pointy end of a bottle opener.
yogurt cup drainage

Fill cups with potting soil.
potting soil

Place seedlings in cups.
coleus plants in yogurt containers

I also did a similar experiment with Portulaca grandiflora (aka moss rose) cuttings.

I took a polystrene egg carton and cut the top and bottom halves apart.
egg carton

After poking holes in the bottom of the egg cups, I stacked the top half of the carton underneath the bottom half to catch drips.
stacked egg cartons

Then I filled the egg carton with perlite to promote drainage.

After wetting the perlite (per directions), I used a pencil to make holes in the wet medium. Then, I inserted the unrooted portulaca cuttings into the holes I had made.

plants in yogurt cups and egg carton
Coleus and Portulaca Plants, DIY Cloning by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC BY SA 2.0

Kitchen table cloning! Mwahahahahaha!

Tangents for this post:

I am a huge fan of Chobani yogurt products, mostly because they are delicious, but also because the cups from their Greek Yogurt are incredible useful for many DIY tasks.
I found out that my Greek Yogurt habit may not be so environmentally friendly, because acid whey produced by the straining process can cause problems when released into natural bodies of water.

One alternative is to give the acid whey to farmers to feed to animals or apply to soil. Chobani has also developed a filtration system for acid whey that concentrates the solids, separating out clean water, which the company can recycle at their plant.

A plant in the wrong place

A Large Piece of Turf (1503) by Albrecht Durer via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer_-_The_Large_Piece_of_Turf,_1503_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
A Large Piece of Turf (1503) by Albrecht Durer via Wikimedia Commons

These days, in my work at the children’s garden, I spend a lot of time thinking about weeds. Weeds growing through cracks in the bricks, sprouting up around around the tomato plants, and snaking in between the raspberry canes. Weeds that are so hardy that we need to throw them in the trash (instead of the compost heap) to try and stem their spread. (I think of those as “biological toxic waste.” )

I tell my group visiting the garden that weeds are plants in the wrong place at the wrong time. (When plants reseed in the beds, they’re “volunteers.” When they escape the beds, they’re weeds.) It is partly an issue of fashion – that plant is lovable, but a weed isn’t. It’s partially an issue of control: a plant behaving itself under human (or other ecological) controls is okay. A plant growing wherever the heck it wants, not so much.

I just finished reading “Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants” by Richard Mabey. (The subtitle on the British edition is different, but also hilarious: How Vagabond Plants Gatecrashed Civilisation and Changed the Way We Think About Nature.) The author details the history and travels of many common weeds, especially those appearing in literature and art.

I’m pretty impressed with tenacity of weeds that are able to thrive in what amounts to a stripped wasteland – whether a stretch of cooled lava from a volcano or forest fire ashes or the pristine brickwork and pavement of human construction – building soil and retaining moisture, creating conditions to allow other plants to grow.

Cool things about weeds:

Green Deane’s Eat the Weeds site has a fascinating information about foraging for edible weeds.

Nancy Shute explainssalad foraging around NPR’s Washington DC office for edible plants.

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden demonstrates you can also make a delicious “roadside pesto” out of invasive garlic mustard.

From NPR’s The Salt blog: Eating purple nutsedge (now considered a weed) may have helped ancient people prevent cavities. Archaeologists studying a site in Sudan found traces of the plant in the dental plaque of skeletons buried there. Turns out, the nutsedge produces antibacterial chemicals that prevent the growth of Streptococcus mutans, an acid-producing bacterium that breaks down tooth enamel.

Earthly Delights Farm in Boise Idaho invented “Weed Dating” sessions, where participants can sign up to meet other singles and weed a patch of farm at the same time! Weeding with other people has been a very entertaining and satisfying activity, which I have experienced in my time with the children’s garden, and as an Adamahnik and Mitzvah Garden volunteer. I think this is a great idea for organizations looking to engage volunteers to do some weeding for them, as well as kindle new relationships!

We can have meditative brick weeding of the path at the children’s garden in partnership with a local meditation retreat center, giving participants a chance to mindfully weed a square foot patch of path.

Is a Tomato a Fruit or a Vegetable?

mini tomatoes on vine
Mini Tomato by Toru Wantanabe (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Well, it depends on who you ask.

If you ask a botanist, a tomato is a fruit because it develops from the ovary of the flower and contains seeds of the plant.

If you ask a court, they might decide otherwise.
In 1893, the Supreme Court declared tomatoes to be vegetables. In Nix v. Hedden, a fruit importer challenged the Port of New York’s classification of tomatoes as vegetables, which unlike fruits, were subject to a 10% excise tax.

The court wrote,

“Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of a vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans, and peas. But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert. … As an article of food on our tables, whether baked or boiled, or forming the basis of soup, they are used as a vegetable, as well when ripe as when green. This is the principal use to which they are put. Beyond the common knowledge which we have on this subject, very little evidence is necessary, or can be produced.”

h/t to Nikki for this fun fact!