Terrific Broth

The life of two scientists, creating a small home, in big mountains

Category: From Farm to Table Page 1 of 3

Home Stay + First Week in the Garden

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One silver lining of staying at home, is that I finally got to watch the garden waking up this Spring. Spring has come slowly but steadily, with alternating sunshine and snow/rain showers. And our trees and perennials seem to be loving it.

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One pleasant surprise: all my helleborus came back! They were planted last summer and did not look so hot last season. A couple of them died back to the ground. But a couple weeks ago, all nine of nine helleborus sprouted new shoots, and looked strong and healthy.

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I’ve not seen any buds, but I am just happy that they are putting down their roots.

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The 2020 Spring garden to-do

With the warm weather I managed to spend a few hours every day in the garden. This might be the year that I actually stay on top of the Spring garden tasks! Who knows? Maybe I can actually sit down and enjoy the garden in Summer… I started with a long to-do list, including planting more trees and climbing vines, hardscaping the backyard, expanding the berry garden, and finally whipping the vegetable garden into shape. With the lock-down it looked like I would be trekking along just fine.

One big thing I checked off the list this week, was to prepare the vegetable garden for Spring planting.

1. Reducing the size of the vegetable garden

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We started with five 4′ x 16′ beds in 2018 and added two more last year. However, after last summer of growing, I realized that adding the two new beds were a bad decision.

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For example, the bed I added in front of the original field was too close to our patio, leaving a narrow path in between. We started having problem backing the trailer into the backyard. As of the bed behind the original field, it was way too close to two of the fruit trees.

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Honestly, we we could get away with just five beds. So I decided to reverse these two beds back to lawn and mulched space, respectively.

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I have pushed the boundary of the veggie bed back last Fall. So this week I started by removing soil from the first bed. As you could see here, the soil here was higher than the lawn space in front of it. And this is all rich soil from last year’s vegetable gardening:

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I scraped the soil to match the lawn space then reseeded grass.

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Our nights are still rather cold, so I covered the newly seeded lawn with Harvest guard after watering them in:

 

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It might not be obvious, but this 4′ x 16′ space generated six wheelbarrows of soil. I did not want to ever put soil into trash, especially good soil thanks to the compost we mixed in last Fall.  So I transferred all six barrows into my newly built patio planters.

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I also leveled the last vegetable bed by moving the soil here to the planters. Here was what the space looked like before:

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As you can see, the original boundary was right next to the trunks of the fruit trees.

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It was a mess where this last bed met the fence too.

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From the picture below you can see how much taller the soil on the last bed was above the mulched space behind. This space could really use some retaining system.

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I pulled up the old lumber that held back the soil here and scrapped 8 inches of top soil off this space. All the top soil went to the patio planters as well.

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It took another 6 trips of wheelbarrow to level this bed. After that I stacked the lumber back (they are pressure treated) to create a retaining wall. They are not anchored into the ground, but it looked like they do not need to be.

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Then the space is covered by mulch. The young fruit trees will benefit from not having grass growing on top of their roots, since frequent watering required by lawn space does not promote healthy root structures for trees.

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When I mulch, I always start by sheet mulching with cardboard, then follow with a thick layer of wood chips. Sheet mulching really works in terms of suppressing weeds. Just remember to remove any tape and staples. This approach also encourages the proliferation of earthworms and other beneficial insects, which build healthy soil.

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The before:

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The much cleaner after:

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By pushing the retaining blocks uphill, the messy corner next to the fence is now much cleaner as well

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And the other bird killed by this stone? All the patio planters were filled almost to the top:

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2. Moving compost bins

After mulching the area I moved our compost bins here. It just makes more sense to have them next to where most of the green waste will be generated.

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I like how the composted bins filled the void between the two fruit trees. It brings more symmetry to the veggie garden area.

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3. Planting strawberries

With the patio planter most filled with soil, I topped them off with some garden soil I had on hand:

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Then I planted strawberries! We grew these seascape strawberries last summer for the first time, and they were such a hit. They are so sweet and lovely that I purchased another batch this Spring. The only problem was that the rabbits loved them just as much. Even our dogs could not keep the bunnies out of the yard. So I transplanted last year’s strawberry plants into the big patio planter:

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Then planted the new batch into the two smaller planters. Take that, bunnies!

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The new strawberry plants came as bare-root, so it will take a while for them to leaf out. But trust me, they are all snuggled up in there and will start producing as soon as the weather warms up.

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We also ordered some garden trellises this Spring. I tried them in the planters and loved the look. It will be nice to grow flowering vines up these trellises this summer.

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I put in some screws inside the planter to store the most frequently used gardening tools. It is nice to have them close yet out of weather.

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4. Planting asparagus

Besides the strawberries, we also welcomed asparagus to our vegetable garden. Slav loves asparagus and it is one of the few keto-friendly vegetables. I also liked the idea of having more perennial vegetables.

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We had one asparagus from last year as a trial plant. I gave it zero attention, and it thrived in our native soil. For the new asparagus, I followed the instruction and planted the bare-root plants deep into trenches.

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We will not be harvest from these new plants this year, and probably only lightly next Spring. But these asparagus will produce for us for decades and only getting stronger and more productive. Cannot wait!

5. The 2020 veggie garden plans

Last I used scrape lumber to separate the paths from garden beds. I have been using wood chip mulch on the entire garden, including both in the gardening beds and on the paths in between. But this year, I will use compost as mulch in the veggie beds and keep the mulch only on the paths.

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The first bed houses the strawberries we planted two years ago, which have naturalized in this garden bed. They produce smaller strawberries than the seascape variety, but also very sweet and tasty.

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Last Fall I created a chive border for this bed by dividing one chive – just one! The little seedlings all survived and started shooting up fast. We do not eat lots of chives, but I hope that they can attract more pollinators to the vegetable garden.

The second bed is occupied by asparagus. The third and fourth bed are reserved for tomato, pepper, cucumber, and beans:

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I planted garlic in the fifth and now the last veggie bed last fall, using the cloves from my own harvest last year! They have come up looking healthy. 🙂

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We usually harvest garlic here around July 4th. So this bed will be available for planting warm season vegetables after. I’d like to try squashes and melons. Wish me luck!

6. Winter sowing

That brings us to seed starting! I’ve never done that before – for things I cannot get transplants, I always just directly sow into the garden. But this year I want to try things that scares me. And today is for sowing seeds. I’ve heard good things about winter sowing. It sounds super easy and it was. I was able to sow creeping thyme, cutting flowers, cold weather greens including lettuces, spinach, and cabbage, and even some warm weather plants such as beans in an hour.

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Are you preparing a vegetable garden? Have you been working in the garden during lock-down? I am thankful for the hope and relaxation gardening provides this Spring. Be good and be well. We will get through this.

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A Quick Green Onion Stir Fry

I have to give myself a pat on the back because I finally finished the new employee training today! As a scientific researcher, especially one who does animal research, there are tons of training I have to receive when I start working in a new institute. Even through I have been handling mice/rats for 15 years, done thousands of surgeries, and received similar training from institutes I worked for in the past. During the last three work days, I had to sit through dozens of online classes and go through quizzes!

Starting tomorrow, I will be taking bus to work, which hopefully will make my day much easier. What I will be taking is an express bus that have no stop between the park-and-ride next to my home and my work, and it will be running on the highway I used to drive to work. So it will take exactly the same time as driving!

I manage to start cooking again this week. I am the veggie cook in the family. So when I cook dinner, we eat mostly vegetables. I think it is important! Besides, we enrolled veggie and mushroom share from a local CSA so there has been much veggie every week. We HAVE to cook 2~3 different veggies every meal to not waste any.

For example, this week, we got a few turnips, four zucchini, four cucumber, half a dozen green pepper, two boxes cherry tomato, two heads of different cabbage, two eggplants, a dozen medium-size potato, some chard, and garlic and green onions. We have been cooking 2~3 different kinds of veggies every night! If you have not tried CSA program, you really should check it out, see if there is any near you. And here are why we love it:

  1. The veggies are more tasty: No matter what we get, leafy greens, or root vegetables, they are in season and properly ripen. The ones we buy from grocery stores are often picked prematurely, so they do not taste nearly as good. my veggies even make my car smell good! Once you taste a locally grown, picked at the right time, CSA cabbage, trust me, you will never want to eat store cabbage again!
  2. The veggies are fresh: The veggies we get are picked on the same day, so even being ripen, they last the entire week without looking sad.
  3. These veggies are grown organically. Regardless if the CSA farm is certified organic (ours is not because the paperwork is too much), the growing practice is usually very organic.
  4. The farms you get CSA veggies from are usually small and family owned. The farm we get our mushrooms from has been there for five generations! We would like to support local economy and small business owners like these farms.
  5. They are cheaper than grocery store veggies! Our veggies shares are for family of four (we prefer eating a lot so we got a double share) is 600 for the entire summer, that means for 20 weeks from June to October, we barely need to go to grocery store for veggies. Now we just go to Costco once a week for milk, cheese, meat and fruit, which cut down our grocery bill a lot. When we did vegetable shopping in grocery stores, we definitely pay more than 30 bucks per week, and we do not get nearly as much.
  6. Buying local cut down food waste in long-distance transportation. So you are not only cutting down your own grocery bill, but also save for the society.
  7. Getting CSA veggie is a great way of socializing with people in your local community! We talk to other CSA members and the farm owners all the time. And every time we get some valuable information about our community, food culture, events, and gardening pointers. Slav even helped out to write grants for some farms back in NC. He did it for free to help out because that particular CSA has a really good cause and we made some really good friends there.
  8. And more importantly, getting CSA shares force us to eat a lot more veggie than we otherwise would! We purposely ordered a double share so we eat more veggies, and it has worked so well for us. We are not vegetarian by any means – when we cook cabbage, potato and green peppers on grill, you bet there is a sausage link or two next to them. But we eat primarily vegetables, and I think it made us healthier.
  9. Last but not the least, CSA subscription forces us to try new recipes. Because you might get something you do not normally buy from the store. At the beginning of the season we got so much turnips, so we tried stew, cold salad, and grilled turnip, and they were so good! This week we got more than enough green onion, so I came up with this:

A green onion + mushroom stir-fry

1. Gathering green onion and mushroom (I got several kinds from our CSA mushroom share so I just throw all of them together regardless strains). Green onion really shrinks after cooking so you want to use lots of them. I also have a few pieces of BBQ pork left from Chinese take-out (they always give toooo much meat), so I decided to throw them in there too.

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Speaking of adding meat in stir-fries, it was the main way my family consumed meat when I grew up. We rarely eat a whole chicken or a big piece of ham cooked by themselves. A little bit meat in stir-dries, such as a little bit ground pork, a couple slices of sausage or shredded leftover rotisserie chicken – can add so much flavor and make the whole dish richer, yet the veggies still dominates the taste of the dish.

2. Cutting everything to bite size:

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3. Hot pan, cold oil, throwing green onions in and frying for a minute:

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4. Adding the mushrooms:

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and cooking a couple minutes until the mushroom softens. You can see how much the green onion has shrank:

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5. Throwing in the cooked meat and turn off the heat. Notice that I have not added any salt at this point. If the cooked meat is plain (which is never the case nowadays, everything is soooo salty!), add a bit salt to taste. The BBQ pork I used was salty and so I did not add any spice to the dish.

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It should go really well with some steamed rice. Enjoy!

Agrilicious

After moving to US from China, what I miss the most is the Chinese fresh markets. They look like Farmer’s Markets here in US, but imagine that having it everyday in both early morning and late afternoon, always in walking distance, with breakfast carts, and offering every fresh produce that you would need to cook an authentic meal.

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Chinese are used to getting fresh ingredients daily. When I was a child, my parents would stop at the fresh market on their way home, pick up a couple different kind of veggies and a strip of meat, and cook all into a dinner. They would also pick up a handful of eggs and a couple bags of milk for breakfast next morning. Because things are cooked and eaten the same day, many Chinese family have only a small fridge under the kitchen counter – there is neither fresh produce nor much leftovers to store. This practice does not only guarantee the freshness of the food, but also encourage the exercise of portion control and eliminate food waste.

Vegetables at Beijing fresh markets

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Meat and eggs

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Fish and seafood product

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One thing the fresh markets in China differs from American farmer’s markets, is that the produce sold in Chinese fresh market are mostly productions from industry-scale farms and factories. It is not guaranteed organic.

I do not think anything organic can grow to this size…

Size matters

The sellers at the booth are also not farmers, but distributors. Farmers near Beijing sell their produce to government-owned distribution centers outside of the city. At the distribution centers, goods are inspected, cleaned, processed if necessary, then picked up by fresh market sellers in bulk before dawn. The goods are then transported inside Beijing to all the fresh markets and sold in retail value. The price and the quality of the goods are controlled by the government, as part of the “Vegetable Basket Project”, which ensure low price for general public.

Fresh fruit at Beijing fresh markets

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Chinese fresh market offers not only meat, fish and fresh produce like vegetable and eggs, but also tofu, dry spices, ready-to-cook noodles, and Chinese versions of bread (ManTou, DaBing, and HuaJuan). So they are really the one-stop shop for all the food you need for a dinner. There are also many of them in Beijing – almost one in every a few city blocks. They are conveniently located near major traffic stops, such as subway stations, light rail stations, or outside of big apartment complexes. So people can easily pick up their food on the way home without making detours or driving.

Tofu stand – how many different kind of tofu do you eat?

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More tofu

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Cooking wine

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Spice – ginger, garlic, and onions and leek

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Dy spice heaven

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If you do not feel like cooking, fresh markets also offer ready-to-eat or ready-to-boil items. Cold cuts and smoked meat, hand-made noodles, frozen dumplings, steamed buns, and endless snacks.

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Pickles

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Hand-made noodles

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Dry goods, nuts

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Sunflower seeds in every flavor

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Mornings are the most popular time for Beijing fresh markets. Not only elderly and retirees choose to stop by to get food for the day, people who work 9-5 also stop by for a quick breakfast. Fresh market offers breakfast food carts, basically eliminated the needs for cooking breakfast at home if you have a commute. However, most of the people who have the leisure to slowly browse the markets, are still elder people. Walking to the market, having a sit-down breakfast, taking time to decide what to eat that day, poking fruits and veggies to make sure they are juicy to the liking, filling their small shopping carts, and walking slowly back to their apartments with the price, are the first exercise during the day.

Small shopping carts are necessity

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I miss the fresh markets dearly when I live in US. I miss the one-stop-for-all convenience, I miss the hot tofu soup and buns for breakfast, and I miss the people, the bargaining, and the noise. For the most, I miss the luxury of getting fresh produce everyday, which seems too time-consuming in my adopted culture. I wish that there were a small market I could walk to everyday, instead of driving 15 minutes one way. I wish that I do not have to do meal planning and end up eating half-rotten spinach for the second part of the week…Well, a girl can dream.

How often do you do grocery shopping? Do you eat fresh veggie everyday? Do you use meal-plan? Or you are lucky to live across the street to a supermarket where you shop a little bit everyday?

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