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

Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Can I Speed Up Potato Sprouting?

Sorted potatoes and ripe Roma tomatoes
 Here's another question about growing potatoes:
"We just discovered that we can plant Irish potatoes at the end of this month, and were wondering if it is possible to sprout some of the ones from the grocery store (to have them ready by the end of this month).  I checked my potato bin in the pantry, and some potatoes have little eyes.....could I put a potato in some water, or would that just make them rot?" Ginny Lindsay - Paris Tennessee
Potatoes have a natural dormancy from the time they are harvested to when they begin to sprout, starting their next growth cycle. This can only be modified slightly by storage conditions. Though this dormancy varies from variety to variety, six-months is about average.

Sprouting potato, before dividing.
You can speed up the sprouting process slightly with increased moisture and warmth but putting them in standing water would lead to rot. We have had good success at layering potatoes in damp leaves and bringing them indoors to induce sprouting. Potatoes like to sprout in the dark however so don't expose them to light until the have begun to sprout. When the sprouts are about a half-inch (1 cm) long, they are an ideal length for "chitting". (See this blog-post for more details on chitting).

It is always best to use organically grown potatoes for seed as chemically grown potatoes have often been sprayed with a sprout retardant. While it doesn't usually stop potatoes from sprouting entirely, it can seriously slow them down.

Sprouting potato, after dividing. Each chunk is at least as big as a chicken's egg and has one or more sprouts.
Most varieties of potatoes take about 13 weeks to 17 weeks to mature. We like to stagger our plantings for several reasons. Planting succession crops gives you fresh-dug potatoes over a longer season. Also, if you save the seed-size potatoes out of each digging, they will naturally begin to sprout in succession too meaning that you will always have sprouting potatoes, ready for planting for next year's cycle of staggered crops.

Links to our other potato blogs, go to:
Sprouting Potatoes? What to do.

How to Plant Potatoes 
Planting Potatoes in Clay Soil

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Thursday, January 25, 2024

'Nooks and Crannies' hot breakfast cereal RECIPE

We get feedback sometimes that our posts are too garden-specific and, for people who aren't gardeners they wonder what they can do to live a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle. Well, here's a recipe for the hot cereal mix that we eat almost every morning.

We named the cereal mix 'Nooks and Crannies' because it seems to meet so many of our nutritional needs. After a bowl of it we feel incredibly sated and it gives us slow-burning fuel that lasts the morning. Our philosophy is to try and get as many nutrients (and as few toxins!) from the food we eat so we lean towards whole foods with the least amount of processing. We mainly buy organically grown foods and everything we grow is, of course, also organic. We also try to eat a variety of foods so that the micro-nutrients that are low in one food might be filled in by eating something else. (LINK: Why We Grow and Eat "Organic" Food )

This post contains the recipe for making 'Nooks and Crannies' cereal including a list of ingredients (all 31 of them!) followed by instructions for making your own pre-ground seed/nut mix. Enjoy!

Kassaby sorghum - sweet and nutty in flavor. (LINK: Grow your own Sorghum for grain and flour )

Honestly, the recipe for making the cereal itself isn't much different from what most people make and eat; grains and dried fruit.  What really sets Nooks and Crannies apart are all the toppings we add after the cereal is cooked.  Here are some ideas to make your experience truly deluxe! 

One of the unusual ingredients we add to our cereal is dried Lion's Mane mushroom. LINK: Health Benefits of Lion's Mane)
Nooks and Crannies special toppings: These are all added after cooking (to preserve their maximal nutritional value).   

pre-ground seed and nut mix - our current mix contains nine ingredients - all organically grown seeds and nuts. We pre-grind and pre-mix it so, at the time of making the cereal, we just put a TBSP on each serving of cereal (to make your own, see below).
dried and powdered turmeric - scant 1/8 tsp. - this is purported to provide anti-inflammatory relief (and a host of other benefits). We bought a big bag of it when we found it on sale but then found that its flavor got in the way of us using it regularly. By adding just this tiny amount to our cereal, it doesn't affect the flavor and we figure that having a tiny bit each day is better than none at all.
dried and powdered lion's mane mushrooms - scant 1/8 tsp. - though not as strong flavored as the turmeric and touted as having equally impressive health benefits (particularly for the neurological system) we just weren't eating it! So, now we get a little bit almost daily with our cereal.
dried coconut flour - 1 TBSP per serving - adds sweetness and protein
maple syrup - for many people, the dried fruit will make your cereal plenty sweet but we still like to add maple syrup after cooking
soy milk and/or nut milk - we've gone through phases of making our own but can't seem to use it fast enough to balance out the hassle of prep-time. It's frustrating when it spoils before we use it up and we have to throw some of it away. So for now, we settle for commercial soy and nut milks.

Making the cereal: As I mentioned above, the base for Nooks and Crannies is grains and dried/frozen fruit. (left: Llyn with home-grown blue corn)

I make the cereal in two steps: The first step is to cook the grains and dried fruits together. After they're done, I add a bunch more toppings (above).

As a rule of thumb, you'll want about 2 -parts water to 1-part dry ingredients. I start out with a 2:1 ratio but usually end up adding more water while the cereal simmers. I always start with, and add heated water so as not to retard the cooking process. 

The key to swift morning prep-time is to have some of the ingredients pre-ground and pre-mixed  - the grain mix and the seed/nut mix (see below). This makes the daily prep much faster as we just need a scoop or spoonful of each.

We have all the ingredients stored close together in jars with lids so I can just open each one and add a handful to the pot. The frozen fruits are also kept in jars; I just find it easier to open and close a jar than to mess with freezer bags (that zip closed) or twist-ties (which aren't air-tight).

So I go down the line of jars and add everything to the pot. The only thing I actually use a measuring cup for is the grain-mix (corn and sorghum). Everything else I just scoop out little (or big!) handfuls with my hands. You'll find what works best for you.

If time is an issue in your morning routine, pre-soak the grains and fruit overnight and add some hot water in the morning and simmer till done.

Basic recipe: (serves two adults)

1/2 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup pre-mixed cornmeal/medium-ground sorghum (We grow, grind and pre-mix this combo. If you don't have access to a grain-grinder, just buy the grains ahead of time and pre-mix them in the following ratio: 1 part each: blue corn meal, yellow corn meal, sorghum meal)
3/4 cup dried/frozen fruits and other goodies (for ideas, see below)
2 cups hot water
Add a pinch of salt
Pour hot water on dry ingredients, stir, cover and place on very low heat, simmering for 10-20 minutes.
Add more hot water if it's getting too thick, stirring occasionally.
After 10-20 minutes of simmering, turn heat off and leave covered for another 10 min. It will continue to cook.
Add Nooks and Crannies special toppings (listed above) and serve.

 Ideas for dried fruits and other goodies: Just choose a combination that pleases you -about 3/4 cup total. Here's what we use:
    raisins - (pictured left: the year we made raisins out of our own grapes. Very time-consuming and not worth it. Now we buy them but we could make them if we had to...)
    dried pears
    dried figs
    dried date pieces coated in oat flour - (these are found in the bulk section)
    prunes - I read somewhere that a few of these a day is especially good for bone density...We all know the other health benefit their known for...regularity!
    dried bananas  - Sometimes bananas will be sold at a huge discount if they become too ripe so we dehydrate a bunch of them for later use.  

Other goodies: these I also add before cooking...
dried shredded coconut - just a small handful
cacao nibs -  they're a bit bitter but highly nutritious so I just put about 1 rounded teaspoon per double person serving.
frozen blueberries or strawberries - (left: strawberries from our garden, frozen on a tray. They are SO full of flavor!)

After 10-20 minutes of simmering, turn heat off and leave covered for another 10 min. It will continue to cook.
Add bonus toppings (listed above) and serve.

Sorghum drying. We grow our own, dry it and grind it for cereal and baking.

Pre-ground seed mix: (Added after the grains and fruits are cooked - 1 TBSP per serving) As mentioned above, we save on morning prep-time by having the following ingredients pre-ground and mixed. Seeds are incredibly nutrient-dense. They need to be as they hold everything the little plant needs to get started in life! Be sure and consume only organically grown seeds...Better for you; better for the Earth.

We pre-grind and pre-mix this combo in advance and freeze the surplus. Seeds (and nuts), once ground can lose a lot of their nutrients quickly if exposed to air or heat. 

We use an electric coffee-grinder to grind the seeds. We have one that is specifically dedicated to this so it doesn't pick up the taste of coffee. Of the following list, the only thing we grow ourselves are the two kinds of amaranth (Right: Llyn with Hopi Red Dye Amaranth). Everything else is store-bought. We buy them in bulk. As you'll see, almost half the mix is composed of flax seeds.

A tip for grinding:
Measure out all the seeds and combine in a bowl or large measuring cup. Mix them well and scoop out the amount that fits in your grinder. Grind, and pour into another bowl. Scoop more/grind/pour etc. By mixing the flax seeds in with the other seeds the grinder won't get as bogged down with the seeds that are high in oils (especially sesame seeds). Store in airtight containers in your fridge or freezer.

Here's the combo of seeds we use:

4 parts flax seeds -  We love their flavor; they're great for digestion and give a sense of bulk/fluff to the cereal. I can't even remember all the reasons they're good for you (but there are a lot of them!) so that's why it forms the foundation of the seed mix.
2 parts pumpkin seeds - raw, unsalted
2 parts sunflower seeds - raw, unsalted
1 part sesame seeds - we use the brown ones as they've not had their hulls removed so they are more nutritious than the white ones
1 part hemp hearts - these are soft, inner parts of the hemp seeds after removing the outer shell/hull - highly nutritious. (Be sure to get the hulled seeds as those that still have their seed coating are a bit bitter. LINK)
1 part chia seeds
1/2 part poppy seeds
1/2 part Golden Amaranth - we grow this ourselves - sweet and nutty flavored
1/2 part Hopi Red Dye amaranth - this doesn't taste as sweet as the Golden amaranth but it volunteers all over our garden so we might as well harvest, dry it and eat it!

Grain mix: (cooked with rolled oats and dried fruit) (right: Daimant grain mill we use to grind our corn and sorghum).

We grow, process and grind the blue corn, yellow corn and sorghum ourselves.
We grind them courser than a flour...more like a "meal" (we like the texture and at this level of coarseness it doesn't take too long to cook).

We grind and mix up a few gallons of this grain mix at a time and store half of it in the fridge to maintain freshness. The other half, we keep outside the fridge for easy access when we're assembling the morning cereal.

2 parts ground blue corn - (higher in protein than yellow corn meal; turns your cereal a delightful purple!) (LINK: Grow Your Own 'Blue Corn' ) (left: Llyn with dried blue corn, before grinding)
2 parts ground yellow corn
1 part Kassaby sorghum - sweet, long-season sorghum
1 part BaYeKi sorghum - not as sweet; used primarily for baking (LINK: Grow your own Sorghum for grain and flour)

This post isn't meant to suggest a rigid rule for making 'Nooks and Crannies' but to inspire you in your own breakfast cereal creations. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Why We Grow and Eat "Organic" Food

Organics - Better for Health!
Here we are at the New Year 2023; time to commit to new Resolutions. If you've been wanting to increase the amount of
organically grown foods in your diet this article is for you! Here are many reasons including the beneficial effects on the environment, the people who grow and harvest our food, the animals raised to provide food and your own health. Thank you for taking this important step in your life.

Chris and I eat almost exclusively organically grown foods when we're at home. At 73 and 60 years old respectively(Feb. 2023), we are both very healthy. We take no prescription medications and, in fact had a bottle of aspirin pass it's expiration date in our medicine cabinet once because we were too slow in using it for occasional muscle soreness or headaches! We each have had three colds in the last 16 years but no other illnesses that caused us to be bed-ridden for even a day. Our food is our medicine (along with other healthy lifestyle habits including meditation, stretching and exercise practices and a generous lifestyle geared towards service) and we feel strongly that a societal shift towards an organic, whole foods, plant-based diet would have significant positive effects both on people's personal health and the health of the natural environment as well.
Image credit: Maria-Marlowe
We are at an advantage over most people as our large gardens provide a high percentage of the foods we eat but for many years we have made it a priority to let our food-budget reflect our values and we only buy groceries that are organically grown. The only times we don't eat organic are when we eat out at restaurants or are visiting friends, which amounts to two or three times per month.

This post offers an overview of what we feel to be the most important reasons to shift to an organic diet. For those readers who have the financial means to make this shift entirely, we encourage you to jump into an organic life-style whole-heartedly. We also encourage you to cultivate relationships with local farmers through shopping at farmer's markets and co-ops that feature local, organic foods or joining a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). See also: Seven Tips for Shopping at a Farmer's Market

We realize that, for many people who are living close to the edge financially, that committing to buying all your groceries organically-grown may be impossible at this time. If that is the case, consider making smaller incremental changes such as committing to only buying organically and humanely produced animal products (where farm chemicals become most concentrated) or only buying organic "treat foods" (whatever that means for you). Their higher prices may encourage you to eat less of these items which will be better for your own health and  for the health of the planet.

Another option to increase your intake of organic garden-produce is to start your own garden, or start or join a community-garden. LINK: So, you want to start a Sharing Garden.

We like to remind ourselves as we adopt new lifestyle choices that "it's a direction, not perfection." Be gentle on yourself as you make new changes and, if sometimes you decide to eat something on your "no-no list", do it consciously, do it with joy and then re-commit to following your chosen dietary guidelines once again. Happy eating!

Image credit: Enki quotes.com
So, here are some of the top reasons we feel it is important to eat organically grown foods.

Healthier for you: Ingesting farm chemical residues isn't good for your health. Many of these chemicals can build up in one's tissues over time so, even though we may only eat small amounts with each meal, their accumulated amounts can be significant over a life-time. Also, children tend to be more susceptible to environmental toxins as they are building new tissues at a faster rate than adults.  LINK-Pesticide Action Network
Any farmer who grows "organically" may not use herbicides, pesticides or fungicides - unless they have been approved by the organic-certification agencies.
Slow-grown food is more nutrient-dense.
More nutrient dense? The truth is, most organic-farmers struggle under the same competitive conditions as farmers who grow using conventional practices. This means, they need to invest the least amount of money in fertilizers and other soil amendments, and grow their produce as fast as possible, to get it to market ahead of their competitors to make the most profit. These practices lead to more "water-weight" and less nutrient-dense foods. This means that the vitamin/mineral content may not vary much between organic and conventional farmers.  On the other hand, some studies suggest that, on average, organically-grown produce is consistently more nutrient-dense and lower in pesticides and heavy metals. Nutrient Levels in Organic vs. Conventional Foods

This is why it is important to know your farmer so you can confirm that their food is slow-grown and that the farmers are replacing the minerals that get depleted in their soil from harvesting crops.
Adding compost-tea to our gardens is one way we replace many of the nutrients that are depleted through harvesting.
GMO versus organically-grown:  There is still debate about whether foods produced from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) are a health risk to humans. We are strongly opposed to them because of the compelling research pointing to the possibility that eating GM plants, or livestock raised on GMO feed can lead to leaky-gut syndrome and a whole slew of health problems including severe food-allergies, learning disabilities and autism-spectrum disorders in children. Autism and GMO's LINK Institute for Responsible Technology-a GMO watchdog group. Genetically Modified plants and animals have the potential of interbreeding with plants and animals that were not genetically modified, with unforeseen consequences. Some GM plants (corn and soy) are specifically bred to be resistant to Round-up and other herbicides meaning large amounts of these chemicals can be used to grow them. This leads to well-documented cases of super-weeds that have become resistant to herbicides and require ever stronger chemicals to keep them in check. LINK: The Dangers of Round-up Ready Foods, LINK-GMO Health Risks  Also, GM corn and soy are used extensively in livestock-feed so you can imagine how these farm-chemicals concentrate in their tissues.
We feel strongly that it is important to avoid eating any genetically modified plants. We feel it is especially important to avoid eating animal-products (meat, dairy, eggs) from animals fed on GM feed.
Sharing Gardens - 2019
But what about just eating non-GM foods? Well yes, this is a step in the right direction but just because something is non-GMO does not mean that it's grown without farm chemicals. Industrialized farming uses plenty of chemicals in growing the food. Did you know that it is also a legal practice for farmers to use Round-up as a desiccant (which causes withering and drying in plant tissues) to artificially dry crops if conditions are too wet for the crops to fully ripen in the field? LINK-Wikipedia, LINK-EcoWatch.
By definition, organic farmers are not allowed to grow Genetically Modified crops, or feed them to their livestock.
Better for the environment. Anyone following the news knows that our environment is under attack from all sides. Industrial farming is one of the biggest culprits.

Pollinators are under siege from the practices of growing "mono-crops" (all one variety) for thousands of acres, offering no variety in their diet of pollen, and many farm-chemicals are damaging to their health as well. LINK - Why growing sunflowers is great for bees.

Honey-bee on tansy. We let some weeds flower in our garden intentionally as they provide important pollen-food for beneficial insects. Here's some good news: Grassroots bee petition in Bavaria forces greener farming practices: 
Soil health: Industrial farming - through over-tilling and depleting soil of organic matter makes soils void of all life and destroys the structure of the soil itself which no amount of added fertilizers and chemicals can restore.
Healthy soil means healthy soil-organisms. Eight-year old, Ricardo holds an earthworm found in our gardens.
Industrial farming is a major source of water-pollution. Industrial farming has negative effects on the world's water for many reasons. Here are a few: Heavy Metals build-up; Algae Blooms, Dead-zones and Acidification; Nitrates; Pathogens and Over-use of water reducing water-levels in our aquifers. (LINK-How Industrial Agriculture Effects Our Water)

Many bird species have a hard time finding enough insects to feed their young. Farm chemicals tend to concentrate in the tissues of animals, the higher-up you go in the food chain as Rachel Carson so famously proved in her landmark book from the 1960's titled Silent Spring.

Thorin, Eliza and Adri harvest cabbage, 2018.
Be aware too, that this principle of chemicals concentrating in tissues applies to foods raised for human consumption too. The accumulation of these chemicals in our own bodies will therefore be less with a plant-based diet. The more meat, dairy and eggs one eats, that are not organically-raised, the higher concentrations people have in their bodies of these chemicals. Bear in mind too that the quality of life for livestock animals grown organically is more humane as well.
Organic farming practices keep our air, water and soil healthier and can even contribute to the increase of viable habitat for wild plant and animal species.
Organic farming is better for the farmers and farm-workers who grow our food. Sharing Gardens volunteers digging potatoes 2018.
Healthier for the farmers and farm-workers: When we use our purchasing power to make a statement about our values, we are directly contributing to healthier lifestyles for everyone involved in the food-growing community. LINK - Agricultural Chemicals and Human Health
In this complex world of competing dietary studies which often offer contradictory results it can be difficult to know who to trust and which dietary practices will be best for your health and the health of the environment on which every living things depends.

If you have been feeling on the fence about whether to make the commitment to eating more organically-grown foods, we hope this post has helped you make that shift. Just remember that wise saying, "You can either pay your farmer now, or pay your doctor later." We think this is good advice.

Get to know your farmers! Chris and Llyn in the Sharing Gardens, your friendly, neighborhood "farm-acists".

Bella loves kale!
Other relevant LINKS:

Organic diet intervention significantly reduces urinary pesticide levels in U.S. children and adults - Science Direct 

What the pesticides in our urine tell us about organic food - The Guardian

The States in America That Use the Most (and Least) Glyphosate - Zero Hedge

What's in standard 'fast food'?

Monday, January 22, 2024

Grow Your Own 'Blue Corn'

Jim husks blue corn.
Part of becoming more self-sufficient has been to grow our own corn-meal. We chose an heirloom-variety of blue corn called Hooker's Blue because it's easy to grow, has high yields and makes delicious corn-meal that can be used as hot cereal, and in baked goods such as corn bread and pancake mix.

Our first corn crop was in the summer of 2015. We'd been given a small, shriveled ear at a seed-swap. The corn was already two years old and, since corn seed degrades faster than most, we weren't sure how viable it would be. In this case we pre-sprouted it and only planted seeds that germinated. Our young friend Serenity patiently and diligently planted the corn in cultivated soil -- 5" apart and 1" down, gently covering the seeds with soil as she went.

This is the cob-size we used to start our first crop of Hooker's Blue corn, which we grew out and re-planted as seed. Just two years later, our harvest is enough to feed Chris and I for a year with  enough surplus to share with the garden-families who help us (at least 10-gallons of shucked corn! This was from four, sixty-foot rows.)
We have a lot of blue-jays in our neighborhood, and some crows - both who love corn! One year we planted corn, saw the new seedlings sprout above-ground in the afternoon -- a whole long, row of them, came back the next morning and discovered that each and every one had been dug up and eaten! So, to prevent this happening again we covered our newly planted corn with 'floating row cover' (brand-name: "Reemay") a synthetic, white cloth that lets rain and sunlight reach the plants but protects them from light frosts and hungry garden-creatures! Reemay must be pinned in place, or held down with bricks or stones. It can be left on till seedlings start pushing at it from below at which point it's unlikely that birds/animals will dig up and eat your plants.

Covered row cloth protects young crops from mild frosts and animals that might eat the tender, new plants. Remove once plants are pushing up on bottom of cloth. (Pic credit)
The soil we planted in was fairly poor and newly tilled so once the seedlings were a few inches above-ground, we gave them a thorough soaking with compost-tea.

Compost tea is steeped in large batches and then poured generously on crops to fertilize them.
That first year, our harvest was moderate but plenty for a large seed-crop to plant in our second year. Since we had plenty of fresh seed, we used a different method for planting. We prepared the ground by spreading a light sprinkling of wood-ash LINK. Chris tilled this into the soil as deep as the tiller would go. He then scattered a combination of corn seed and kidney bean seeds (a 'bush' variety that we dried and shelled for use in soups and chili). He then set the tiller to a very shallow setting - about 2", and tilled both varieties of seed into the ground. We then marked the row with string so no-one would walk on it and waited for the seedlings to emerge.

The orange string (around bed to left of hose) is used to mark newly planted soil so no one walks on it by accident.
Corn is typically a heavy-feeder (it needs rich, fertile soil). If your soil is depleted, your corn-crop will benefit from additional feeding as it grows. This past year, about mid-season, after a thorough weeding, we added a thick layer of partially composted leaves and grass-clippings around the base of the corn and bean plants. Then, whenever we watered, the plants were fed.

Shucking corn and shelling beans are a favorite autumn activity at the Sharing Gardens.
Corn is pollinated primarily by wind so it is best if you plant either multiple rows, near to each other, or wide-beds (the width of the tiller - as we did). If you are growing a small crop, planting it in a solid square, or block works well too. Since the beans and corn are both left till dry on the plant, you do not need access to the plants in the center of the patch during the growing season. (Note: Hooker's Blue corn is also quite tasty as a sweet-corn if you harvest it once kernels are fully formed but still soft and yellow. Cook as you would regular sweet-corn).

Hooker's Blue corn, though not very tall at full height (typically 4 to 4 and 1/2 feet) yields large harvests -- one to two 4"-6" ears per stalk. Here, students are mulching an adjacent bed with wheat straw.

In this picture, corn has finished ripening, and is partially drying on the stalk. Christie harvests the ears to be husked and further dried in our greenhouse.
Because we use the corn to make corn-meal, we leave it on the plants, in the field, till it is quite hard and has turned dark purple (almost black). We check it every few days by pressing a fingernail into the kernels of corn. It's done when you can no longer dent it with your nail. Ears of corn are then harvested, husked and left to dry on racks in our greenhouses. The dryer it is, the easier it is to remove the kernels from the cob (shucking). If Fall weather starts getting too damp for the corn to dry properly, we bring it inside and put it on shelves above our wood stove to finish the process.

Christie and Chelsea remove husks and lay cobs onto a drying table to continue to dry. Corn is easiest to remove from the cobs if it is dried well.
Shucking can be done simply by twisting the cobs in your hands to break loose the kernels (you might want to wear gloves!). If you have a lot of shucking to do, here's a simple tool Chris made that really speeds up the process!

Home-made corn-shucker. The cob is twisted against protruding screws.
Close-up of corn-shucker. Long screws are driven in from four sides leaving an interior hole ~ one-inch in diameter so cob fits but corn is rubbed off; wood is added at ends to prevent splitting and the handle makes it easier to use.
A tub of dried corn-kernels.
Lastly, be sure to store your corn in a cool place, in air-tight containers. Because of corn's high oil content it can go rancid; this ruins the flavor and makes it unhealthy to eat. Be sure to set aside enough seed for next year's crop. To ensure best viability, we freeze our corn-seed in air-tight containers.

Grinding corn: Obviously, if you're growing your own corn for grinding, you're going to need a grain-mill! After carefully comparing reviews of different brands and models, we chose to invest in a top-of-the line Diamant grain-mill. This is considered an 'heirloom' appliance in that, with proper care it will last for generations. Ours came with a handle for hand-grinding, can be hooked up to a bicycle for larger, human-powered batches or hooked up to a small motor (which is what we did) so we can grind large batches with ease. If the price-tag is prohibitive, consider purchasing one with your neighbors and setting it up in a central location for all to share.

Mill hooked up to motor for faster grinding. It comes with a handle, for hand-grinding and we also have seen instructions for hooking it up to a stationary bicycle.
Close-up view of Diamant grain-mill. The 'can' on top has an open bottom and allows us to pour more grain in at a time. The knob at left adjusts the fineness of the grind.
Close-up of mounted engine.
Variety we like: Hooker's Blue corn
Obtained from Native Americans in the Pacific NW (Washington state, USA) in the 1950's. It is an Heirloom, non-hybrid variety that will "grow-true" year-after-year so you can save your own seed.
Description: 75-80 days - to maturity. The 4-4 1/2 foot stalks produce 5-7 inch ears of some of the finest tasting corn. Ears typically have 10-12 rows of kernels that dry blue-black upon maturing - 1 or 2 ears per plant.
Why we like it: Does well in a cooler, damper climate. Because of its short-stalk, it won't 'lodge' (fall over) as taller varieties sometimes do. Grinds into the sweetest cornmeal! Can be as much as 30% higher in protein than regular 'sweet-corn' LINK-nutritional facts.

Another variety we like: Golden Bantam corn. This variety is typically grown as a sweet-corn and eaten fresh but we discovered that it can be dried on the cob and processed in the same way as the Hooker's Blue and makes a delicious, sweet corn-meal! It tends to grow on shorter stalks so is less likely to blow over than some other varieties and produces corn with an old-fashioned, buttery, sweet-corn flavor. It's delicious even raw, right off the stalk! Bantam is also an Heirloom/open-pollinated variety so you can save your own seed.
Saving seed:  Corn is notorious for cross-pollinating so, on years you are saving seed, you need to grow only a single variety or have multiple varieties grown quite distant from each other. Since corn is primarily wind-pollinated, grow the variety you wish to save seed from upwind (of your area's prevailing winds) to further minimize crossing.

Favorite recipes: Hooker's Blue corn is deliciously sweet and nutty-flavored. Here are some ideas for using it in recipes.

Hot cereal: Stir ground corn into lightly salted water in a 3:1 ratio (three times as much water as corn). Gently heat the corn  and water together, stirring occasionally and simmer on low heat, in a covered pan for ~20 min.

Crumb-Free Whole Grain Corn Bread: We make a large batch of the dry-mix ahead of time so it's easy to just add milk, eggs and oil for a quick batch of corn bread or pancakes. Yum! LINK-Recipe

Whole Grain No-Knead Bread: We've adapted Jim Lahey's delicious no-knead bread-recipe to incorporate whole wheat flour and blue-corn meal. So tasty and nourishing! LINK-Recipe

Scarlet Runner Beans: Here is a post about "Growing Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans" - LINK. Beans and corn together give you all the essential amino-acids needed in one meal (a complete protein) and it's delicious too!

Beautiful scarlet runner bean blossoms!
Leave us your tips for growing, and links to recipes in the comments below! (But please don't include ad-links to our 100% ad-free site - thanks!)


Sunday, January 21, 2024

Grow your own Sorghum for grain and flour

Small-Scale Grain Production and Processing

For the past few years, the Sharing Gardens have been growing sorghum, amaranth and corn to process and use in baking, and breakfast cereals. This post is specifically about growing, processing and storing sorghum on a small-scale. (Image left: Kassaby sorghum ripening.) To read about growing blue corn, and for other relevant LINKS, see below.

Rook and Chris harvesting Ba Ye Ki sorghum.
Sorghum is a highly nutritious grain. We live in USDA zone 8B, with relatively mild winters and a long enough growing season to ripen the types of sorghum listed below. We mainly use the grain, ground for hot breakfast cereal but sorghum, when ground finely, can be used in recipes for baked goods as well. It contains no gluten so it is appropriate for those on gluten-free diets. 7 Surprising Benefits of Sorghum, Are There Health Benefits to Eating Sorghum?.

Though sorghum has no gluten, when mixed with wheat flour, it still makes wonderful baked goods. Here it is with a Whole Grain No-knead Bread recipe we've made.

Growing conditions needed:
Sorghum grows to various heights (up to 12 feet!). The plant, in early stages, looks very similar to corn. We have experimented with two varieties, Ba Ye Ki and Kassaby. (Ba Ye Qi Grain Sorghum, Ba Yi Qi Grain Sorghum (Milo) and Kassaby Sorghum - description). Ba Ye Ki is a very short-season grain so we're almost guaranteed a ripe harvest but it is also much less sweet than Kassaby - whose canes have been compared in flavor to sugar cane. Ba Ye Ki is shorter in height (6'-7') vs. Kassaby which can grow to 12'. Because of Kassaby's greater height and its higher sugar content, it also requires a longer growing season. Both can grow in moderately rich soil but do require regular, moderate irrigation to really thrive (though I'm sure that people who have experience at dry-land farming could achieve success with less, or no watering, we have not developed that capacity on our farm).
Ba-Ye-Qi Sorghum - Annapolis Seeds - Nova Scotia Canada
Ba Ye Ki sorghum: a shorter crop (5'-7') and shorter season grain. Not as sweet... (pic credit: https://annapolisseeds.com/products/ba-ye-qi-sorghum)

...as Kassaby sorghum: taller (9'-12'), longer season, sweeter. Stalks can be pressed for syrup (though we've never tried it). (Image credit: https://store.experimentalfarmnetwork.org/products/kassaby-sorghum)

Trellising: We have grown both varieties with, and without trellising. Kassaby - the taller variety has a sturdier stalk and seems to do fine without trellising. Ba Ye Ki, which produces grain faster, puts less energy into stalk formation and, in our experience, is prone to lodging. This can be mitigated somewhat by growing it in multiple rows or blocks of grain, with approximately 6" between plants in all directions. The plants will tend to hold each other up. 

If you only have space for a single row, the type of trellising shown above will work. Strong cable/wire is stretched taught between 10' T-posts. In the picture, we've attached bamboo uprights for pole beans to climb on.Sorghum doesn't need the bamboo uprights, it just needs to be attached to the trellis once it reaches the height where it starts to "lodge" or fall over.

Another trellising idea is to plant your grains inside a wire cage (6" between each plant, in each direction). The cage will keep them from lodging. This works for fava beans too!

Sorghum is largely self-pollinated (each plant can pollinate itself) but plants can also cross-pollinate through wind or insects transferring pollen between plants. Growing multiple plants in rows or blocks will aid in cross-pollination. Also, when laying out your garden plan, keep in mind the height of the variety you are growing so they don't block smaller plants of sunlight and water as they grow in height. (Though you can use their height to your advantage if you want to grow a shade-loving crop like lettuce, on the north or east side, to protect it from the most intense afternoon sun.)

Sorghum grows much like corn though it is "self-fertile" and relies less on wind than corn for full pollination. Kassaby sorghum is the tall, whiteish fronds to the left of Darlene while Golden Bantam corn is growing to her right.

Starting sorghum from seed: We have used two different methods for germinating sorghum seeds. The easiest method is to prepare the ground to be as weed-free as possible and scatter the seed lightly; gently covering the seed by raking or a very shallow tilling, so the seed is barely covered with soil. Later, once the sprouts have come up to 3" or 4", plants should be thinned to 6" apart. 

We've had good luck with direct-sowing our sorghum and shallowly tilling it under so it's just barely covered with soil. A good rule of thumb is to plant seeds twice the depth of the seed at its widest point.

The down-side to the scatter method is that some varieties need a long season to ripen (Kassaby variety needs 110 days, minimum) so, if you're having a cool, wet spring and can't direct sow till late in the spring, you may wish to germinate the seeds in small pots in a greenhouse or grow-tunnel and transplant them once the ground warms up/drys out. We use jumbo six-packs, or the shallow, plastic containers that our favorite tofu comes in (with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage). To germinate in pots: we fill the pots with soil, water them and then make a small indentation with our thumb so the seeds will settle in these depressions (six per tofu pack). We then place 2-3 seeds in each cell to maximize germination. Once the seedlings are about 3" high, we thin them to one per cell. 

If you try to grow them in a clusters of 2-3 plants, none of them will mature well as they compete for nutrients, water and sunlight. We have had success at teasing the individual sprouts apart at this stage and replanting them in their own cells. It just depends on if your supply of seed is limited so you need to make every seedling count and how much time you have to do this.

Sorghum plants started in 'jumbo six-packs'. We sow 2-3 seeds in each cell and then thin to a single stalk, otherwise the plants compete for nutrients and light when they're transplanted to the field. Singles are on the left; the plants on the right have yet to be thinned to one plant per cell.
Summer growth and maintenance: Irrigate the soil only as needed. Deeper, less frequent watering will encourage the roots to grow deep, pursuing the water-table and thus being more resilient to hot and dry periods and less likely to lodge (fall over) in the wind. Keep the bed as weed-free as possible till your plants are well-established. After that, they should be able to out-compete most weeds. 

When to harvest: It's important to let your sorghum ripen as much as possible before harvesting. The seeds will be sweeter, and easier to thresh (remove) from the plant, the riper they are. On the other hand, autumn rains, if they aren't followed by strong sunny periods can lead to mold forming in the seed-heads. We start checking our crops for ripeness in mid-September. The Ba Ye Ki will darken to a strong russet/red. The Kassaby will become notably whiter as it ripens.

We usually harvest the seed-heads over a span of several weeks. We use pruners to cut off ripe seed-heads with 8-10 inches of stalk still attached. This helps in the drying out process; the stalks draw moisture from the seed-heads as they dry. Having the long stalk also gives you something to hold onto for the threshing phase.

Kassaby, long-season sorghum (tall and sweet) while it's still ripening. Kernels become a pearly white when they are ripe.
Kassaby sorghum in baskets for drying (with one, red Ba Ye Qi seed-head on the right). We cut it with 8" - 10" stalks which helps it dry down (the stalk pulls out moisture from the kernels) and this gives us something to hold onto for combing the kernels off the stalk (see below).
Ba ye Ki sorghum, laid out in cardboard boxes in our greenhouse while days are still sunny, warm and humidity is low. These aren't as red as they should be for ideal ripeness. Our season was cut short that year by cold, heavy rains. The sorghum was still edible; just not as sweet and it was harder to thresh as well.

If we're having mostly sunny days with only moderate humidity, we lay the seed-heads on cardboard trays in our greenhouse to dry. If skies are overcast and the humidity is high, we put them in cardboard trays or baskets and bring them in the house. We heat our house with wood and have shelves all around the upper walls of our living room where our wood stove is, for the purpose of drying foods in the fall. Many fall mornings we'll start a small fire in the wood stove just to dry the air in our house and bring the temperature up slightly. Even if we have to open the windows later in the day (because outside temps have climbed) it's worth the few sticks of firewood to keep the drying process progressing.

As temperatures drop and humidity rises in the autumn, we bring our bean and grain crops inside and dry them in baskets and boxes on shelves above our wood stove. It's super important to make sure these crops are very dry. We've lost previous batches to mold that formed after we put the grains or beans into storage containers for the winter.

Threshing the sorghum: We've tried several methods over the years to remove the grain from the stalks but this year Chris came up with our best method yet! He attached a metal pet-grooming-brush/comb to a 2' x 4' board (see pic). This is placed in a deep plastic tote to catch the seed as it falls. The seed-head is combed through the tines of the comb which causes the seeds to release and fall into the tote below.

This year, Chris built two new tools for processing the sorghum. Sifter, on the left, and a pet-comb attached to a 2'x4', for teasing the grain off of the stalk (right).

Close-up of the tool we use to thresh the grain from the stalk. It's a pet-comb we found at a 2nd-hand store, bolted to a 2'x4' board.
Close-up of pulling the grain-heads across the comb. This is why we always cut the grain-heads leaving several inches of stalk for use as a handle.
Sifting: The next stage is to sift the seeds through a wire mesh with 1/4" sized holes. (This wire mesh is called "hardware cloth" in the USA). Chris made a framework that's the same size as the tote we're sifting into and solidly attached the mesh to its bottom edge. The grain is poured into the top and rubbed vigorously through the screen. The seeds fall through and (most) of the longer stems and chaff remain on the top of the screen.

After the grain is teased from the stalk, it is vigorously rubbed through a screen with 1/4" holes. This breaks up the clumps of grains into individual pieces and removes much of the chaff which remains on the screen.

There will still be some fiber that makes it through the screen so, on a day with a mildly steady wind (or standing in front of a box-fan) pour the grain back and forth from one container to an other. You will have to experiment to find the right height from which to drop the grain and, if using a fan, how far from the front of the fan to pour the grain. It's helpful if your containers are lightweight (so it's easy to pour them when full of grain) and with a wide surface area so that, as the grain falls straight down, it's not bouncing off the rim of the receiving container. The grain will fall straight into the container below and the chaff will be blown away by the wind. 
Repeatedly pour the grain back and forth between your two pans until you've achieved results you're satisfied with. There's no need for you to winnow out all the chaff. Just do the best you can. Any un-removed chaff will float in the cooking water if you cook it whole and can be scooped or poured off before you cook it or, if you're grinding cereal or flour, will be ground along with the seed and just provide some extra fiber to your diet!

We winnow the grain, separating the remainder of the chaff (or at least most of it) by pouring it from one container to the other multiple times on a mildly windy day (or in front of a fan). The heavier grain drops into the container below while the chaff blows away.
Drying: As our sorghum seed progresses through these phases of threshing, sifting and winnowing, we put it back into a warm, dry place between each step to keep it from absorbing more moisture. At the end of all these steps we put it into cardboard flats, or shallow pans (to give the maximum surface area) and keep it on our drying shelves until we are absolutely certain it is completely dry. Grains that are stored moist, can end up molding in your pantry and be ruined.

Here's a top view of sorghum heads drying in a basket.
Grinding: Though we've seen recipes for cooking sorghum while still whole (How To Cook Wholegrain Sorghum) we've always used ours in a ground form: either coarsely ground for cereal, or finely ground for flour to use in baked goods. It adds a sweet, almost nutty taste to our hot cereal mix. We use a Diamant grain mill that Chris hooked up to an old motor with a clothes-dryer belt. This greatly speeds up the process of grinding - though if we ever lost electricity for an extended period, we can easily convert it back to being hand-ground.

Chris hooked up our Diamant grain mill to an electric motor so we're able to efficiently grind enough grain for our own use as well as to share with our volunteers.

Course ground sorghum for use in hot cereal.
We hope this tutorial has been helpful and inspires you to begin growing sorghum yourself. Please post your questions and comments below so we can all benefit from them.
Seed Saving: Save the ripest, driest grains/seeds for future plantings. One seed-head has enough seeds  for most small-scale grain growers, with enough to share with other growers in your area!

Here is the post we wrote about growing and processing your own blue corn  for drying and grinding. These methods also work for growing/processing Golden Bantam and other varieties of corn. Grow Your Own 'Blue Corn' 

And here's a recipe we've developed to make a Crumb-Free, Whole-Grain Cornbread  (just substitute sorghum flour in a 1:1 ratio with the corn flour in the recipe).

Growing grains as a community makes the task of processing it much less daunting. Here, Jessie and Llyn are husking the corn in preparation for shucking and further drying.