Saturday, October 30, 2010

Tokyo Farmer's Markets Reminder

I'm addicted, I admit it. I love farmer's markets, and one of my greatest joys here in Tokyo (and Japan, in general) is searching out local foods and markets large and small wherever I am. This weekend, despite typhoon weather, there are at least two big markets happening in Tokyo: the Earth Day Market in Yoyogi Park (a joy in the rain as well as full sun), and the UN University Market. (I wrote this piece last weekend about the UN University Market for Summer Tomato to give folks an idea of what's on offer in the fall, too.)

The vendors will be swamped (literally and figuratively), but still present and cheerful as ever. Undoubtedly, good stuff will be available for the munching, cooking, and exploring. If rain, though, isn't your thing, the Earth Day Market sponsors smaller markets around the city and the UN University Market hosts a nifty Night Market once a month. One of the more rockin' vegetable adventures a locavore could ask for, it features live music, candlelit tables all a few minutes walk from Shibuya.

Sunday, October 31st
10am to 4pm (Rain/typhoon or shine!)

Saturday, October 30th and Sunday, October 31st
10am to 4pm

Friday, November 19th
4pm to 8pm (Check their calendar to be sure, though!)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tochi Time! Or, Chestnut Harvest

Not only are kaki in full season, but chestnuts as well are gracing our table these days. The small and beautiful orchard at the farm is near to bursting with fruit these days. (These are the short rather than the tall variety of Japanese food lore.) The spiky balls litter the ground next to the kabu field, and as we plant the new seeds we occasionally hear one drop.

Last week I was lucky enough to bring home a bundle of these to make a big batch of chestnut rice. Getting them out of their spiky case can be a bit of a challenge. Too sharp for bare hands even with my rubberized garden gloves I have to move with care. The best way, as Taskashi-san taught me last fall, is to use my feet. (I'll make a video of this, I swear.) Placing the ball between my feet with the open end facing up, I simply peel back the sides and the shiny nut emerges. Or you can just pick them up off the ground.

I also had enough to share with friends, and the look of surprise and pleasure on their faces to see this fall favorite was like a double reward. I've not yet learned how to make some of the lovely desserts or other dishes found everywhere at this time of the year, but someday!

Takashi-san's Chestnut Rice Recipe
1. Soak chestnuts for twenty-four hours.
2. Peel off the dark brown outer layer and the thinner inner layer to get at the golden surface of the nut.
3. Cut into thin slices.
4. Place on top of the rice in the cooker or your pot.
5. Cook and serve the rice as you normally would, and enjoy the soft sweet taste of chestnuts accompanying your favorite meal!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Garden Visitor

Well, really this little butterfly is visiting my nira blooms, but I was more than glad to see it the other day. The swallowtail caterpillars still come in droves to eat the parsley, which feels somewhat miraculous to me. They seem to have the knack of eating away only until there's just enough of the plant left to survive. Then for a time there are no caterpillars, and the plant recovers. After a couple weeks, the caterpillars return to a fresh supply of leaves. Brilliant management, if you ask me.

I've also added a few more flowers to the west wall bed, too, which I hope to write about shortly. One of them, a lovely, tall lavender aster-like flower whose name escapes me at the moment was so abuzz with bees at the nursery that I simply had to bring it home. I'll take all the pollinators I can get!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kaki Season in Full Swing

Kaki (persimmon) in Japan come in a couple different varieties. There's the short, fat, almost square looking kind with brown interior, and another that is a bit longer but about as stout. Both are wonderfully sweet, and trees around the city are full of them. My first thought when I see them this time of year are that someone hung Jack-O-Lantern's in the trees, but a closer inspection, of course, reveals these yummy orbs.

Taken at the farm earlier this week, these fruit are on a tree at the end of the lane between the fields that I'd written about earlier this year. I was literally walking my bike out at the end of the workday when I nearly hit my head on one of the low hanging fruit. Seemed like a reminder to snap a photo and have a snack!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

White Lycoris Rather than Red

While out roaming Nihonbashi in September with some visitors, I snapped this photo of what looks to me like a white version of Red Lycoris. As pretty as their counterparts, the white lycoris seems to have similar growth habits - flowering in the fall followed by leaves later - as the red. While not as common as the red the white certainly is a lovely bloom and a refreshing surprise this time of year.

For more photos and stories about this hike and the great gardens we found, check out Everyday Gardens. Miracle of miracles, it's running again!)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Popcorn Harvest: Final Stages

The popcorn harvest is finally complete. Saturday night we had some friends in and they graciously assisted with the last steps: shucking the cobs and eating some of the first kernels.

Shucking was pretty easy as I'd let the cobs dry for a good two months on the baskets I'd used for the umeboshi. Our technique is to insert a kitchen knife between the rows and gently "lift" the kernels out. Once the first few break free, the remaining rows easily follow suit. I've used my hands in the past, but found the skin tears to the point of bleeding. I don't recommend it.

The shucked kernels filled a two-liter jar about three-quarters of the way, which wasn't too bad for a first year go-round. I saved back the best looking cob for seeds for next year, although Tom Thumb and a Strawberry variety wait patiently in the wings. I'll, of course, be planting the corn where the squash were this year in an effort to distract the nematodes. The empty cobs are also an excellent addition to the compost bin, too!

Popping and eating were our next steps. My technique (taught to me by an old Peace Corps friend) is to pour a layer of olive oil on the bottom of a pot, put in three kernels, put on the lid, and turn on the gas. When all three kernels have popped, I pour in enough kernels to layer the bottom of the pan. Put the lid back on, and give it a good series of regular shakes to shift the kernels to the bottom and keep the popped corn from burning. As you hear the popping slow, keep shaking until you think just about everything has popped. It takes some practice, but you'll develop an ear for the corn. There will always be some kernels that don't pop either because they simply don't want to or because they needed a bit more time.

Pour into a big bowl immediately, and sprinkle on some salt and/or soy sauce. We also used to throw on some nutritional yeast, but haven't found a store of it here in Tokyo yet. Munch away!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sleepy Boar

I can't say I ever thought I would find a wild boar adorable, but this guy is just huggable. Part of a larger screen on display at the Tokyo National Museum the boar snoozes happily amongst a lovely patch of bush clover. I couldn't help but laugh out loud when I first saw it, and utterly charmed I sat down for a good fifteen minutes just to watch him nap. (My feet were also killing me, so it seemed a good opportunity.)

Writing this now makes me happy all over again, and reminds me of how wonderful art in all its forms can be. Created in 19th century Edo by Mochizuki Gyokusen, this screen is being viewed and enjoyed by me (and tons of other folks visiting the museum from all over the world) now in the 21st century. I'm waxing a bit trite here, but it is amazing to think that there are things so poignant for the story they tell in words or pictures that time and space become irrelevant.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Gardening at the Museum

One of the great benefits of having so many visitors is that we get to visit so many fantastic places in Tokyo. Our most recent visitors, two old and dear friends, hankered after a trip to the Tokyo National Museum after visiting the Tokyo-Edo Museum. Their timing was perfect as torrential rains pounded down outside, so we strolled about soaking up some Japanese history and culture.

Despite being indoors, there was plenty of nature present in the assorted objects on display. The tea bowl pictured at the top of this post caught my eye for the large praying mantis displayed on the side. A welcome guest in any garden, the praying mantis makes short work of garden pests by simply eating them. Boldly looking out from the side, this little guy makes for a serious cup of tea, if you ask me.

As the days gradually get cooler and the slant of light changes Japan happily moves toward fall. Famous for its seven flowers of fall, this large bowl (or plate, your choice) showcases one of them - bush clover - simply and to full advantage. It is perhaps also evidence of the historical significance of these blooms.

Melons are truly one of my favorite things in the world, and this bowl was too lovely to just pass by. While the melons do remind me a bit more of squash (another favorite thing of mine in this world), the vibrant colors started my mouth watering.

Planning to go
Rain or shine, the Tokyo National Museum is well worth a visit. One of a number of museums in Ueno Park, schedule a full day to peruse the collection and surrounding gardens at ease. A few minute's walk from the station, and you'll be surrounded with any number of delightful objects telling the story of Japan (and other parts of Asia) in no time.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Scrumptious Daikon Seedlings

The first planting of the farmer's daikon needs to be thinned or "mabiki shiteimas." We planted two seeds in each hole - sort of a safe bet for germination - allowing us to later choose the strongest of the two to keep growing. (I'll be doing the same thing in Daikon Alley shortly.) The beauty of this system is that the extracted seedlings are wonderfully tasty. (I farm and garden with mostly with my stomach, of course!) At this stage, the young leaves are incredibly tender and their spicy flavor makes for a wonderful salad...or quick snack in the field between rows. Thankfully, the field is massive, so there are plenty of seedlings to go around. We all take some home, and put out a few bags at the stall each day, too. They're gone in a flash!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Squash Roots Resemble Knobby Spine

After harvesting the last of the squash and in preparation for the winter crops, I tidied up the beds. As I pulled out the squash roots, I was more than a bit shocked to see that they resembled a knobby spine. I'd seen this sort of thing before on the edamame and other legumes, but not elsewhere. The farmers were also quite shocked when I showed the roots to them, and said there was a problem in the soil.

Coincidentally, I've been reading up on soil. After all the conversations with Tomoe-san during our WWOOFing experience and talking with the farmers about preparing for planting, I decided I need to do a bit of studying. The book currently absorbing my attention is Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. So far it's pleasantly scientific - good information without being overwhelming - and very readable. I'm starting to see my garden in a new light. (I'm planning to write a review once I finish it.)

The problem, as far as I have been able to determine so far, is that nematodes attached themselves to the roots. Now, before I go further I want to clarify that not all nematodes are bad. The little fellows don't just chomp on roots, but eat bacteria, fungi, and other critters. Some varieties also transport bacteria and fungus while eating a microscopic handful in exchange and depositing the remains in the garden. Decomposing organic matter, mineralization of the soil, along with transporting bacteria and fungi to other parts of the garden are all in a days work. As they work along in collaboration with everyone else living in the soil, they tend to make it a better place.

Except when they decide to snack on plant roots. It's understandable, but not always appreciated. This branch of the nematode family is perhaps the most unwelcome for gardener's and farmers. A little research tells me that one of the most effective ways to get rid of them is to plant a grass crop, i.e. corn, the following year. The corn works as a trap crop (odd to think of that being underground rather than above!), and the little critters feast away. Marigolds in large numbers, it seems, also work as a trap crop above and below ground.

My plan for this portion of the garden at the moment is to plant my winter greens. My fingers are crossed that the little root chomping buggers will be hibernating or burrowing deep to escape the chill of the winter rains. Come summer I'll put in another round of popcorn (the aforementioned grass crop), and top it all up with healthy doses of compost from the bin. Perhaps I'll use this as an excuse to plant a row of marigolds merrily dancing down the center of the popcorn rows, too!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Post War Gardening in Tokyo

Last month after getting chased out of the Japan Alps by a typhoon, we took one of our visitors to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. One of our favorites, the museum is incredibly informative and interesting without being overwhelming. It also affords a glimpse into the complex history and development of Tokyo as a city, which is utterly fascinating.

We stopped by a small special exhibit showcasing photographs taken by foreign soldiers just after World War Two ended. (Unfortunately, this particular exhibit is now over.) Running from the very earliest days to the end of the occupation, the pictures documented the daily life of citizens living and rebuilding a city devastated by war. Simple yet powerful images of people shopping, cooking, celebrating festivals, and taking the train illustrate how much has changed since those days of black markets and bombed out buildings.

The above picture, taken in 1945 near Shinbashi, shows a woman plowing a field to prepare it for planting. Heart-breaking and uplifting all at once, the image put a lump in my throat. Who knows what she and her family endured those days, like so many other families around the world at that time? Yet, on that clear day she thought about planting seeds. The garden, I am sure, would prove pivotal to their survival - food to eat, to trade, and to share - and perhaps gave the family some pleasure in new life and a new beginning. Or at the very least distracted them momentarily from the sorrow and difficulty of those times. Much like a garden has always done, I suppose.

Recommended Reading
While I have not read Defiant Gardens: Making Gardens in Wartime by Kenneth I. Helphand, (2006), I would dearly love to do so. Listen to this interview with the author and read this excerpt to hear of other gardens, large and small, tended by gardeners in prison camps, on bases, and in war zones.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Life in Daikon Alley

Just as I am always amazed watching the compost bin do its thing, I am just as flabbergasted and thrilled each and every time a seed I plant sprouts. I stopped at the garden on Sunday to drop off some compost before heading to the park for the afternoon, and was utterly thrilled to see daikon, beet, haksai (Chinese cabbage), and radish sprouts!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Flowers in the Park

Just west of us in Tokyo is Koganei Park. Full of bike trails, huge green spaces, small forests, a public pool, tennis courts, a grass sledding hill, a large dog park, and more it is incredibly popular and busy on weekends. Sunday was such an utterly perfect fall day - lots of sun with a light breeze and cool temperatures - that we picked up some sushi and headed over to see what was happening.

As we made our way through the thick crowd of kids, dogs, and adults out enjoying the day we passed by one of the seasonal flowerbeds. Also utterly massive, the flowers change throughout the year to reflect the season. Cosmos are the flower of the moment, and so the bed is a veritable sea of delicate green leaves splashed with bits of white, fuchsia, pink, and everything in between. Cosmos make for a lovely cut flower, but they're also a favorite of beneficial insects. All that greenery makes a cozy place to hang out and wait for snacks to come by. I joined the throng of camera-toting adorers to take a few pictures of one of my favorite flowers, too.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Compost Bin and Lasagna Garden Update

I always think it is just so cool to watch a compost bin in action. When we first built this bin it was full to overflowing with popcorn stalks and weeds. I watered it almost daily to lend an assist to the decomposition process, and in the past couple weeks nature has also helped out. Regardless of the water, though, the height of the bin has dropped considerably. I shouldn't be surprised. After all, this is what is meant to happen; however, it still amazes me each time. (An old high school friend recently remarked on what an exciting life I lead, and I think I'm just giving him more evidence of that with this post!)

Even as I write this, the level has dropped again. After harvesting the squash and tossing in the vine remains, the top was taller than the cement wall behind. Yesterday when I dropped off our latest bucket of coffee grounds, nashi bits, eggshells, and salad skeletons it was lower still. (The aforementioned popcorn stalks are visible at the bottom of the bin in the photo above.) I can just imagine all the little nematodes, microbes, and other critters fattening up and pooping out the stuff my garden so ardently desires. It makes me pathetically happy.

The same holds true for the lasagna bed, too. The bed seems to be coalescing now into an organic mass, and the thick layer of newspaper below seems to be doing its job of holding down the weeds. I do want to bring in a couple more bags of composted manure to top it off some, and help hold the grass in place as winter approaches. I don't want to lose any of those precious greens bits, although I do worry a bit about too much nitrogen. My aphid experiences this summer make me a bit more cautious than before. Then the decision about what to plant comes - another favorite!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sorghum Does Double Duty

Every year the farmers plant sorghum around their eggplants. It's always tricky in the spring to not tromp the new seedlings emerging in a tidy line. Like the eggplants themselves, the sorghum steadily grows in the rich soil of their fields. As it gets taller it thickens into a lush fence standing finally at about eight or nine feet in height.

The sorghum serves a dual purpose. It provides a wind barrier for the eggplants inside the ring of tall grass. High winds - not at all unusual here in Tokyo - can break branches and desicate the plants as well as cause leaves to rub on the fruit leaving a blemish that makes it unattractive to the average shopper. The sorghum plants also act as a trap crop. A pesky little bug that adores eggplant almost as much as the Japanese themselves happens to like sorghum more. A quick examination of the grassy leaves can reveal a tiny population happily snacking away and ignoring the plants inside the barrier. Now, if I could only convince the farmers to harvest the grain...

Friday, October 1, 2010

Daikon Alley

After we finished preparing the fields on Wednesday I planted the first of my winter vegetables. A certain urgency prevailed as the forecast for Thursday included lots of rain, and it looked like the following days would be wet as well. Summer's heat and drought creeping into the early weeks of fall delayed planting in general, and my travels to Hokkaido, Hakuba, and parts between also meant little time in the garden. (Except to drop off the compost, of course!)

The optimal planting time for daikon, hakusai (Chinese cabbage), broccoli, and cabbage was also coming to an end or had just passed. The shortening days mean less light and heat for seeds to germinate and establish before the chilly days of winter arrive. Leafy crops like komatsuna, karashina, and mizuna will get planted around the middle of October. Takashi-san advised waiting to plant those out as the bugs that like to snack on them are still around and would prove pesky.

The planting process is simple. Place two seeds in each hole, press down about two centimeters with thumb, and cover with dirt. Pat firmly in place with the back of your fingers to ensure soil contact with the seeds, and to shape the top of the hole like a bowl. This way it holds moisture without washing the seeds away. (Thanks to the farmers for that handy tip!) When the seeds sprout and get to be about six centimeters in height (give or take), thin each hole to one. Eat the seedling leaves in salad or miso: mottainai.

I am using the black plastic mulch for winter. It keeps the soil warm and retains moisture between rainfalls. Since I'm planting more than one kind of crop in each bed I had to punch my own holes in the plastic using the handy tool pictured at the top of this post. The farmers use a plastic mulch that comes pre-punched depending on the crop in question. Daikon, broccoli, cabbage, and chinese cabbage require about 40 centimeters (18 inches) between each plant. Leafy greens, on the other hand, require about 10 centimeters (6 inches) only.

The west bed of the main garden (not the wall bed) is almost all daikon. The farmer's most generously gave me some seed for the big fatties they grow and seeds for some cute little round ones. I also planted out some red daikon seeds I'd purchased up in Hokkaido. I threw in some Chinese cabbage at the end of the row interspersed with regular radishes. If all goes well we'll be mixing up a good batch of kimchi again and serving up piping hot bowls of oden over the winter.