A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sharing the Gardens with Wild Critters

Little Adri, picking dandelion heads.
When I was a little girl, walking the few, quiet, tree-lined blocks to school, I used to pretend I was a benevolent queen for the critters and plants along the way. When I saw a plant who's stem had broken, I'd lean it on its neighbors and instruct them to take care of their wounded comrade till strength and vigor returned. A pair of doves lived in the neighborhood and I enjoyed their crooning as if they were calling out to me personally as I passed. I imagined that when I was "grown up" I'd like to have a house that was so full of plants and critters inside that you couldn't quite tell when you left outside.

Sometimes it seems I got my wish (though I'm not sure I ever did grow up)!  I have to admit, now that it's up to me and Chris to do the housekeeping (thanks, Mom for all those years that it was mainly your job!) that I've had to reconsider just how much of the house I want to share with the 'creepy-crawlies' and the 'skitterers'.

House-plants on the porch, in summer...

...become part of winter's interior decor.
We don't really enjoy clouds of fruit-flies. House-flies can be awfully annoying as they buzz about or land on my nose when I'm trying to catch a little afternoon nap. Enter: Homer. Homer is the name we give to all the spiders that have colonized the many window-corners in our house. The bedroom window is home to multiple generations of ambush-hunters.  They don't build webs but lurk out of site and rush in to gobble up the gnats and fruit-flies that are drawn to window-light.

Some big, brown spiders are the masters of the web. In the Fall, when the flies get lazy and repeatedly bap their heads against the windows trying to get out, inevitably a few of them stray into web-land only to be wrapped in silk and saved for later times when food is scarce and Mama Spider needs extra sustenance to lay her clutch of eggs thus beginning the cycle anew.

This isn't the kind of spiders we have in our house but, you've got to admit he's cute!
Though we meant to seal all the nooks and crannies that a Mouse might enter, in a 141 year-old house, it's nearly impossible to find every one! During the summer months the pickin's are always better outside so we don't see much evidence of the little squeekers. But as nights get cold and the gardens are put to bed, the farmhouse gains in appeal. We have a few live-traps that we bait with peanut butter and cereal. A dish of water and some bedding adds to the appeal. Each morning, part of our winter routine is to see if anyone has checked into the Deluxe Mouse-Shuttle.

At first, before the winter rains started in earnest, the Mice received a one-way ticket to the compost bins. This gave them a ready food source while they established winter living quarters. But as winter wore on, we began to feel concern that, without shelter nearby, the mice would likely perish slowly from the cold/wet conditions so we began releasing them into one of the greenhouses. This worked fine...for awhile. Everyone was happy and the stream of House-Mice dwindled.

But then came pea-planting time. We like to start peas in the greenhouses so we have an earlier harvest.

Sara picking greenhouse peas.
Guess who has a taste for baby pea shoots...ah, yes, the Greenhouse-Mouse-Family. So, what to do? Have you ever put too much cayenne powder on something you were cooking? Did its heat bite your tongue? Did it make you sneeze? Well, it turns out it has the same effect on Mice! A few applications of the hot-powder sprinkled on the seedlings cured the Mice of their culinary habits! Problem solved.

Now that it's warm again, the compost piles are back to being the home of choice. Plenty of food to go around there!

Summer-time, and there's lots to eat, outside!
We have a family of ground squirrels living in our walls. We began noticing the mama squirrel a year ago, sunning herself atop our wood-pile and making furtive visits to our bird-feeders to fill her cheeks with sunflower seeds and millet. We'd heard her scrabbling in our walls and were amazed at her capacity for digging by burrowing under a 6-foot wide cement pad to have her exit hole from the house be as close as possible to this free and easy food source. We didn't realize she was "with-child" though until one day she appeared at our dining-room window to let us know that, "The bird-feeder is empty and I'm hungry!".

As she sat on the window-sill, we could see that she'd been nursing her babies. Once she knew she had our attention she hopped down to the porch and put her paws on the container of bird-seed, looking over her shoulder at us. She then hopped back up on the sill and peered through the glass as if to underline her point..."Where's my supper?!". Needless to say, we fed her right away and kept it up till we knew she'd weaned the babes and so could forage wider-afield.

Mama Squirrel and Chris eyeing each other.

Adri cleaning the bird-bath
Chris and I feel  happy knowing that our home and gardens provide shelter and food for so much wildlife. Each year we add a few more birdhouses, plant more bird and butterfly-food among the peppers and squash, peas and beans. The brush-pile has become a small hill full of nooks and crannies -- home to many critters. The clusters of un-mowed berry-bushes and grass-lands grow in size. Bunnies, snakes and birds increasingly call our home, their home.

It is a "sharing" garden, after all!

Update: Lest you think we're living in some sort of Utopia, in perfect balance with the wild critters around us...Just hours after I first published this post, I went walking in the gardens and discovered a big ol' bunny happily making its way down a row of cabbage and lettuce and helping himself to every third or fourth plant. Arrrgh! Guess who's going to be surprised when he comes back tonight and finds a dusting of cayenne has been added to the buffet!?


The Sharing Gardens is a non-profit and tax-exempt organization. We exist entirely through donations. If you have found benefit from our project or our site, please consider making a donation through PayPal. (Click button below.)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Grow Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans

by Chris Burns
Just like snow flakes, you'll never find two that look exactly alike,  attesting to Nature's infinite variety of expression!
Have you ever seen these beautiful beans for sale at any market?  Would you even know what they were if I didn't tell you?  Don't they look like some kind of 'Magic Bean' that Jack of 'The Beanstalk' fame might have planted?  If you haven't guessed by now, I'll tell you. They're Scarlet Runner Beans and they're called that for two good reasons.  One, they have the most intensely scarlet red flowers, and Two, they 'run' up any pole, tree, fence or trellis that happens to be close to where they are growing.  If you've never grown them then maybe it's time to consider giving them a place in your garden.

I've grown them many times before, but up until recently I always considered them to be strictly 'ornamental'.  Don't know why!  Perhaps it's because they were described that way in the catalog from which I ordered my first seeds.  As you can see in the pictures posted with this article, they add exquisite beauty to any garden patch. It wasn't until 2011 that I sampled them as cooked, dried beans and discovered their beauty is only rivaled by their delicious flavor!
Scarlet Runners vining up the bamboo trellis. We grew a 70-foot row last year and are doubling it in the 2013 season.
These beauties grow steadily to a dramatic height of 10-12 feet (or more) and need a sturdy trellis of some sort to support the weight of their generous profusion of bean pods (we used bamboo poles tied to a wire pulled taught between t-posts). For those who enjoy attracting pollinators to your garden, you'll likely find (as we did) that the flowers regularly attract hummingbirds and many beneficial insects. (If you have cats, best not to grow the runners as we've heard sad tales of hummingbirds being caught and killed by those furry, domestic predators).

Bean-trellis made with bamboo poles wired to a cable.
Scarlet Runner Beans will grow in a greenhouse too. Just be sure to leave enough vents open to allow pollinators to come and go.
Plant beans 4"-6" apart and 1"- deep. Soil can be course and should stay moist but not too wet as seeds germinate. Often we will pre-sprout the seeds by keeping them between wet towels for several days till they germinate. Be very careful when planting as the sprouts are fragile.
The pods are deliciously sweet when they are young and tender (about 3-4 inches long).  So sweet, in fact that it was the first thing our two teen-age garden-helpers would seek out and munch on whenever they came to the gardens.

Bean pod-loving teens!
If it's mainly green beans that you're looking for though, it's probably best to grow another variety like 'Blue Lake' or 'Contender' which provide you with more of a volume at each picking.  These Scarlet Runners tend to produce pods steadily over a longer season but they become tough and stringy if they aren't picked on the small side.  The reason they probably aren't grown commercially for dried beans is that they must be hand-picked. At the Sharing Gardens we've turned this limitation into an asset as the weekly bean-picking was a task that folks with back and knee-issues could accomplish easily standing up. After a few days laid out on screens in the greenhouse the husks were dry enough to split open easily by hand. This was a task that many volunteers (share-givers), who weren't able to do more strenuous tasks,  found fun and relaxing; it also provided an opportunity to sit in the shade and chat with new found friends.

Pods, any bigger than this and they're too tough to eat green.
If it's dried beans you want, don't pick the pods until they are evenly tan and dry. If picked too green, beans won't store well, nor will they be viable for planting next year's crop. Once the frost hits, beans will no longer ripen much more. Pull up the whole vine and let the beans finish ripening in a green-house or warm, dry place before picking them off the vines. When they are as dry as they're going to get, shell these partially ripe beans and use them first as they won't store as well as fully cured beans.

These beautiful beans are rather large --about the size of a fat Lima bean-- and therefore yield enough to make a pot of soup-beans in a short time. If you're serious about growing your own protein-source, Scarlet Runners make an excellent choice.
Harvest beans once their pods are tan and dry. OSU-students shelling Scarlet Runner Beans.

Shelling beans from their pods is a fun activity for all! Jim and Adri shelling kidney beans.
But the best kept secret of all is just how delicious the dried beans are. They have a mild flavor and, unlike Fava beans, their skin is thin (not even noticeable) and they have a velvety texture.

A bamboo tipi provides a trellis for beans and beautifully frames our garden helpers.
Recipe: To cook these beans for eating, soak them over night just like you would any other, with about 1/3 beans to 2/3 water in a stainless or cast iron pot.  Pour off the water the next day; rinse the beans with fresh water and put them back in the pot. Add fresh water until the level is about 2-3 inches over the beans.  Don't add any salt because it won't allow the beans to absorb the water as they cook and they'll never soften.  I like to cook them on the woodstove in the winter.   These beans stay very firm when they're finished cooking but can be easily mashed and used as refries, or made into a hearty chile with tomatoes, onions, peppers and Mexican spices.  I cook up a large pot at a time and, once rinsed and cooled, I pack them into smaller zip-lock bags which I stack in the freezer to add to stir-fried kale and leeks with potatoes all winter long. Instant dinner!

Be creative! Sometimes just a plain ole' bowl of beans with olive oil, soy sauce, finely chopped onions and grated cheese is all you need to get you in the mood to go outside and brave the winter elements.

Such beauty!
Anyway, if you want to enjoy these wonderful and versatile garden gems, the time to plant is coming up soon! (late May or first week of June in our region)  If any of our local readers need seed  please let us know and we'll get you started, and you can save your own for next year.  Happy Gardening!

The Sharing Gardens is a non-profit and tax-exempt organization. We exist entirely through donations. If you have found benefit from our project or our site, please consider making a donation through PayPal. (Click button below.)