Monday, January 31, 2011

Spring Crops in the Greenhouse

The daikon are finished and the field cleaned. The greens, with the exception of a few rows of komatsuna and spinach, are finished and tidied as well. The kabu went much too fast, and the cabbage finished up only last week. The broccoli is still coming along, and in my own garden I've still got a nice selection of winter greens and vegetables. (I tend to plant my own after we finish the fields, and despite two salads a day nearly every day plus rounds of blanching and freezing my harvest is a bit slower.) We've prepped two fields for spring planting already, and within the next few weeks I'm sure I'll learn where the tomatoes, eggplants and beans will land this year.

The plum trees are decked with blossoms, and birds seem to be everywhere doing what birds (and bees, so I hear) do in the spring. And sure enough, it's spring in the greenhouse. The first planting of lettuce seedlings are well sprouted, and the second set is just starting to stretch its futaba (first leaves). (If you squint at the second photo you'll can perhaps see them.) The next round of broccoli is still gathering energy, although when I watered this morning I noticed some cells with tiny leaves pushing up. As much as I feel a bit hesitant to give up these bright cool days of winter, I can't help but feel a twinge of excitement as I see those sprouts.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rice in the Mail

One of the first things we did when we came to Japan was take a trip with One Life Japan. I'd connected with them while still in the States because their website was one of the few in offering information in English related to farming and gardening in Japan. I've since found a handful of others, but the blog of their adventures in rural Japan remains a favorite.

After years of living and working in Tokyo, Kevin and Tomoe transitioned to a country hamlet to farm organically and work on defining for themselves what it means to live sustainably. (You can follow along with their adventures here or go up for a working vacation that will knock your socks off.) On our first excursion we helped rethatch an old farmhouse and prepare their rice field for planting. I love rice, and always have. Standing in their then dry tambo was a thrill I can't even describe. I wanted to know everything and do everything. It was a fantastic and eye-opening trip, and got our own adventures in Japan off to a good and unforgettable beginning.

We returned a second time to help with the planting, and that again was an eye-opening experience. The fields by that time had been filled with water and sat patiently waiting in the spring sunshine for the seeds. The soil was surprisingly silty and silky smooth under my toes, and movement of any kind sent up a swirling gray-brown cloud of soil that instantly obscured the next step. Tiny frogs leaped about and all variety of critters swam along the surface of the field as we worked. We created a grid pattern using an old wooden rake, and then set the seedlings in by hand where the lines crossed. Kevin and Tomoe devised this method in order to ensure good spacing and relatively straight rows, two things their neighbors get using their automated planters. Opting to plant by hand is slower but more delightful, and it gives their touring guests something to do in-between biking and hiking the nearby mountains.

Sadly, we couldn't make it back that year to help with the weeding (an always monumental task, according to Kevin and Tomoe) or to help with the harvest (another monumental but more joyful task). Word had it, though, that the harvest was a good one, and that in exchange for my labor I'd receive a bag of rice. It was a generous offer, and I was darn excited at the prospect of eating something I'd grown, especially something so wonderful as rice. (The rice I grew this past season is now a lovely outdoor decoration, by the way.)

Now, more than a year has elapsed, and we've still not been able to meet with them again. Busy schedules on both sides and a new baby on theirs has kept us only in electronic contact. We keep in touch via our blogs and other electronic media, and wait for the chance to help with another project or simply sit down for a good chat. Kevin offers words of advice on this blog as he can, and I delightedly check on the charming growth of their daughter and the changing seasons on their farm via theirs. (They've got a ton of snow at the moment, so I mostly monitor how much shoveling they have to do.)

Much to my delight, though, a five kilogram bag of rice arrived in the mail a few weeks ago. With the harvest for this year in and rice still leftover from last year, they needed to make room. (I'm sending popcorn seeds in trade as Kevin says he's got enough fencing rigged up now to protect it from the marauding monkeys.) Just out of rice bought at a local farmstand, it was time to open the One Life bag. Measuring it out before setting it to soak took me right back to those mountain fields, and I suspect it will taste that much better for all those memories.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: The Alternative Kitchen Garden

Recently on Twitter, You Grow Girl asked for thoughts on getting your gardening mojo back. Seeing that took me back to my early gardening days when I was just starting to dig in the soil and see for myself what all the fuss was about. We'd recently moved into an old farmhouse in Michigan, and to me the yard looked like a blank slate. There was no vegetable garden, but I slipped one in along a fence line and planted the usual suspects: tomatoes, beans, basil, and peppers. I sat out next to the garden just watching the plants grow, the sun set, and the barn swallows come around while our cat napped in the tall grass near the edge. (We've never been big on mowing.) I took notes on everything and read every book my husband's uncle would lend me, and then some. It was great.

But, it all felt a bit standard. Tidy rows of vegetables with a few flowers and herbs were all very nice, but it seemed a little...boring. Maybe it was too tidy and orderly for my taste, but I got tired of that standard line-up in fairly short order. Then I checked out Sally Cunningham's Great Garden Companions from the library, and my world changed forever. I began planting not only in rows but in circles. I mixed herbs, flowers, and vegetables in the same area (gasp!), and my garden began bursting at the seams with blossoms, bounty, and lots of bees, birds, and butterflies. I was hooked. I drew up charts, made lists, kept a garden journal. When we moved to our own home a few years later with a bigger garden, fruit trees and chickens, I entered a kind of personal heaven. It was impossible to be bored.

The Alternative Kitchen Garden by Emma Cooper could well be a similar book producing similar results. For gardeners feeling like it's getting to be a bit of the "same old, same old" even as those seed catalogs come pouring in, this could put the heat back in your compost pile, so to speak. An A-Z guide of ideas for the garden and home, The Alternative Kitchen Garden informs and inspires. Like any good gardening book should do, it had me jotting down notes about things to research (trefoil as a green manure), things to purchase (borage is the newest perennial to be added with comfrey to follow in short order), and things to do (interplant chamomile to improve soil). In short, it gave me a boost after a difficult growing season when I needed it to start planning for the season ahead.

Cooper is based in the UK, which means that most of her advice is geared toward those gardening there, but I still found plenty to pique my interest. The book is now, of course, littered with notes not just for this review, but for my garden, too. I daresay, as well, that the next time we venture to that other island I'll be visiting some of the places she mentions in the book - the RISC Roof Garden springs to mind as does Garden Organic's demonstration gardens in Ryton - and I've already begun trying to persuade friends there to join the latter's seed library.

What I really liked best about the book, though, is Cooper's way of telling what's happening inside the plant or under the surface of the soil. As an organic gardener and farm-assistant, I'm curious to know these things. I don't rely on chemical pesticides or fertilizers at all, and so I need to know how to best create an environment that my plants can grow in. It means feeding the soil, inviting wildlife, and monitoring for pests and disease. Advice such as "Build your wildlife from the ground up." (pg. 37) reminds me that my garden is really a whole swirling mass of living beings of which the vegetables are perhaps just the most conspicuous. I need the whole suite of companions to make it really amazing.

Cooper's explanations are delivered in a chatty manner that could (but does not) detract from the quality of the information offered. Stories of her own misadventures, discoveries, and successes form the foundation of the information here, which gives it a 'truthiness' that is appealing. Clearly, she's an expert in her field, but like me she's continuing to learn and her willingness to share the resulting knowledge makes this book feel like a useful reference as well as an "over the fence conversation." Chapters with titles such as Happiness and Years could come off as syrupy and sentimental, but instead strike a chord with gardeners everywhere: "Seeing the sparrows swooping onto the patio to feed among my containers makes me smile,and so does the blackbird - although he digs through the soil and makes more of a mess!" (pg. 121)

While sometimes limited by the amount of space available (two pages for each letter of the alphabet) the book offers a goodly amount of information without being overwhelming. The chapter on tubers, for example, contains a nice bit of technical language that kept me on my toes, but also glued to the page. I had no idea tubers were "plant storage organs...that keep plants alive when they're dormant and allow them to burst into life and grow leaves" that are really "modified plant stems." (pg. 296) It sounds logical now, but who would have thought? Similarly, while I had a basic knowledge of why hardening off plants helps ensure their success I did not know exactly what was happening inside the plant. And the chapter on xanthopyll offered paragraph after paragraph of solid information on sources of leaf discoloration with some good advice for amelioration, too.

I also quite liked the creative connections Cooper makes to things that at first glance might be considered non-gardening (hence the title, I suppose) such as Zero Waste, Freecycle, Footprints, Climate Change, and Osteopath. Some, like Freecycle, are good ways to cheaply find supplies, meet neighbors and reduce the carbon footprint of the garden itself. Climate Change advises gardeners to " your own seeds so that your vegetables adapt to your local conditions" as well as to "...make your garden wildlife friendly so that you have a robust garden ecosystem that has the best chance of adapting to changing conditions." (pg. 53) Others, such as Osteopath, offer advice to ensure the ability to continue gardening in a healthy manner.

Perhaps the only downside to The Alternative Kitchen Garden is the self-imposed brevity of the explanations. A good chunk of one of the allotted two pages is taken up by a photograph, which while lovely (U is perhaps my favorite) might be better smaller to allow more room for writing. There were moments (xanthophyll and mulch, for example) where things felt a bit rushed or awkwardly stretched (marigolds, perhaps) to accommodate the space. These were rare moments, though, and didn't detract from my overall enjoyment and learning.

As a gardener, I like a challenge. (I wouldn't be out there in all weather if I didn't.) New vocabulary, new ideas, new techniques, etc., is what I'm hoping for when I open a gardening book and often what I need now and again, too. Offering these things to gardeners at all stages of experience, in a variety of sizes, types, and locations is the challenge of a broad-themed book like this one, but one that The Alternative Kitchen Garden meets admirably.

by Emma Cooper
376 pages

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Good Time for Drying Daikon

While out walking one evening, I spotted these strips of daikon drying at nearby farm. Daikon season is slowly but surely coming to a close (ours at the farm are all gone and the field is cleaned up in preparation for its next incarnation), and drying is one of the surefire ways to preserve the vegetable for later use. We've used these ourselves in miso and cut into smaller bits in our rice, too.

This farm is just north of us, and despite being surrounded by city on almost every side (a nashi orchard and chestnut grove are near neighbors) it manages to retain some of its traditional rhythms like this one. Winter is a great time for this as the air is so incredibly dry (hence the daily views of Mount Fuji), and so even thick fruits like kaki can be preserved in this way.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Garden Dreams for 2011

Little by little the days become longer and longer, and even though my winter crops are still in the ground and still being harvested I'm beginning to turn a new season over in my mind. I'm thinking about some new things to grow, some new techniques to try, and things I hope to remember to do again.

Things to Grow
  • Scarlet Runner Beans - I spotted their lovely red blooms and lanky vines last summer in Hokkaido. After we came down from the mountains, we spent some time roaming the byways and bike paths of Asahikawa and Higashikawa. Full of market stands and everyday gardens I took loads and loads of photos, and bought almost as many loads of fruit and vegetables that our friends at Square One graciously ate with us. To be perfectly honest, I've no idea how they taste, but for those beautiful flowers I'm willing to give them a go. I also suspect they might make an interesting green curtain option.
  • Black Beans - Some things are a little tricky to get here in Japan, and most of the time I don't mind one way or the other. There's so much good food to eat here and so many interesting vegetables, that I don't miss much. But black beans are one of the things I crave. I've never grown dried beans before, and the idea of storing food for later as well as saving seeds appeals to me. I may also try my hand at growing a traditional variety of Japanese beans like those I met in Takayama.
  • More Flowers and Herbs - Last year my garden felt way too utilitarian. I'm not the wildest woman to walk the earth, but I'm not the most regimented, either. And this last garden, while tidy and relatively productive, didn't do much for me. I found I wasn't overly inspired to visit, to walk among the plants and check on the action. It was dull, and that's exactly what a garden should not be. Plus, I felt a real absence of pollinators and predators, which I hope to remedy.

New Techniques
  • Organic Mulch - This year I truly hope to not use plastic mulch. It just feels wrong to me, and it seems rather wasteful. I can't deny it's effectiveness in the garden, though. Weeds and drought surely would have done in my garden without some kind of mulch, and if this coming summer is anything like this last one the plants and I will both want a good amount of cover. I'm hoping to use old tatami mats that are biodegradable and locally available.
  • Homemade Compost - The bin is in place and despite daily additions remains at the same height. I'm looking forward to turning it over in spring and scooping out whatever lovely bits are there for addition to the garden. I know it won't be much, but it's better than nothing. Along with the aforementioned mulch, I can't much longer bear the thought of hauling all those plastic bags of chicken and horse manure from the big box store down the road. (My bike can't take much more of that, either.) I'm eyeballing a site for a second one, although I'll lose some growing space in my lasagna bed if I do it.
  • Seed-saving - I've done a tiny bit of this in the past, but it seems more than logical to me that I should learn how to do this well and with a wide variety of plants that I like to grow. Seeds are incredibly expensive here, and the plants I like usually have seeds sourced elsewhere. I am also a firm believer in the importance of open-pollinated varieties.
  • Permaculture - While the garden is not on land that I own and I have no idea what will become of it if I ever have to leave Tokyo, I do want to incorporate some elements of permaculture. (I'm also toying with the idea of doing this in some way on our balconies, if that's possible.) It seems sensible to order my garden in some ways along the lines of natural systems to make it more sustainable, especially in light of the long hot summer that may well be coming. It also makes sense to me since I live in a very urban area. A little bit of sustainable nature means the wildlife in my neck of the woods will have a pleasant place to spend some time, have a snack, and perhaps eat an aphid or two. It also sounds quite challenging, and that's something that appeals as well.
Things to do Again
This section was surprisingly difficult to write. I couldn't think of much that I wanted to repeat from this last year's season in the garden. I loved being at the farm through heat and rain and sun, but my own garden left me feeling lackluster it seems except for...
  • Popcorn - There is no doubt in my mind that I will grow this again. I saved back the prettiest cob of the Dakota Black, and I've got another variety in mind to plant with it. I've no idea how they'll turn out, but its bound to be fun.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Osaka Farmer's Market Serves Up More than Just Vegetables

We left behind the snowmen and morning markets of lovely Takayama to head south to Osaka to visit some good friends for a few days. Knowing my desire to meet vegetables and their farmers, they mentioned a small weekly market sponsored by a local non-profit. (Full disclosure: My friend works there.) My calendar was marked on the spot, and Wednesday morning found us at Osaka's Kamishingo station.

Suisen Fukushikai provides child and adult daycare services for everyone in the community as well as the intellectually disabled. Started in 1956, the organization grew from a single building serving 40 children and their families to a multi-sight, multi-service group that offers vocational training, transportation services, elder care, and nutrition education. Concerns about food safety and nutrition, Suisen Fukushikai purchased farmland in nearby Tanba and began working with area farmers to grow the food they serve as well as provide outdoor opportunities for clients and their families.

The weekly market became a natural off-shoot of these activities. Community and client volunteers staff the tables, and neighbors get to have a weekly supply of reasonably priced, fresh organic vegetables a few steps away under the portico of the organization's main building. Started six years ago, folks living in the area descend promptly to gather up the organic vegetables, beans, rice, and homemade pickles.

"The market has become more popular over time because people know we just dug them yesterday to bring them here. Everything is fresh and has less chemicals," said one of the volunteers.

Shoppers find the best the season has to offer each week as it comes fresh from the field. Those not wishing to rush down at 9am when the market officially opens arrange to pick up a bag of assorted vegetables later in the day for a mere 500 yen. A recipe or two is often tucked inside, and the one offered that week was nanakusagayu, a New Year's dish to settle the stomach after a week of feasting. I was a bit envious as I looked at the long onions, chingensai (pak choi), mizuna, and daikon poking their heads out of the bags waiting for owners to arrive. I didn't need any groceries, but they were lovely specimens.

The market also featured breads, sandwiches, and pastries from Suisen Fukushikai's other little sideline: bakeries. Also started as a way to give clients meaningful work, the bakeries provide for the more than 15 daycare locations and sell to area restaurants, too. Starting with organic flour and fresh, whole ingredients they produce a scrumptious array of breads, sandwiches, and pastries. A bit picked over by the time we arrived, it was still difficult to choose from the selection of beautiful items.

About to embark on one of our urban hikes, we picked up a little road food and other irresistible items. For lunch, we grabbed a chicken-pesto-cucumber sandwich each and a sweet green bean bun to share. Homemade kikuna pickles (kabu greens) were our side dish, and I couldn't resist the akamai. (It reminded me of the KOOGA students I'd been reunited with at the UN University Market back in fall.) Next time, we'll head out the door a bit earlier.

Planning to go
The market officially opens at 9am, and I'd suggest getting there then if you're seriously shopping for produce. If you're not a serious shopper, I'd still arrive no later than 10am to get an idea of the selection, and pick up a package of their beautiful beans or akamai (red rice) to jazz up home meals or as a gift. Prices are very reasonable, and proceeds support the farmers as well as the organizations work.
  • Every Wednesday
  • 9am to Afternoon
  • Osaka'sKamishingo Station - Go to the North exit and turn left. Suisen Fukushikai's market will be a three minute walk on the right.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Plum Blossoms and Tiny Daffodils

One of the traditional "three friends of winter", the plum blossom usually doesn't arrive until some time in February. Until then, plum blossoms are usually depicted using pink and white bits of paper or even colored mochi on bare branches.

This year, though, what seems like somewhat unseasonably warm winter weather encouraged a plum tree at the farm to begin blossoming. The daffodils that line the wall behind the greenhouse are also standing tall these days, and just before New Year's C-Chan cut a few of each for me. The daffodils are now in the compost pile, but the plum branches continue to bloom on our windowsill.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Strange Fruit in Neighbor's Yard

Our neighbor has this beautiful massive fruit growing in his front garden. A landscaper by trade, he also happens to be our landlord. Whenever I see him out trimming behind our building or in the neighborhood I pepper him with questions to practice Japanese, but also to learn whatever possible about the plants and trees around us.

I'd noticed the fruit pictured at left growing on his garden wall trailing just beneath a very nice rose, and asked about it. The stem is about as thick as my thumb with what look like rather viscious spines. The leaves look like what I consider the usual citrus: slightly oval, thick and a bit waxy, and dark green. It turns out, of course, that he doesn't know.

I suspect, based on my observations and his description of it, that it is a pumelo. The skin is very thick and it apparently has loads of seeds. The taste of the fruit, though, is where his description varies from the standard for pumelo. He says it's intensely sour, whereas everything I've come across so far says that the pumelo is sweeter than grapefruit. He's not offered me one yet, and while the idea has crossed my mind, I don't quite feel right simply snipping one off the vine in the dead of night. Thoughts?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Takayama's Morning Markets

While there are plenty of opportunities to sample local fare throughout Takayama's charming Edo-era streets, it still tastes best at a local farmer's market stall. A bitterly cold morning found us crunching our way along snow-dusted roads in this mountain village northwest of Tokyo to check out the area's two morning markets. Despite temperatures well below freezing, vendors set up early to greet us with a great assortment of pickled vegetables, homemade misos, dried beans, apples sweet and sour and somewhere in between, as well as a few things I'd never imagined I could ever want to eat or cook with.

Jinya Mae Morning Market
Only a small handful of vendors braved the cold in front of Takayama Jinya, an Edo-period government building now a museum. Perfectly positioned to attract tourists moving between the museum and Takayama's famous old town area, the market must be just electric in warmer weather.

While the number of vendors was few, the selection of what they brought with them was quite good. One stall showed off a beautiful assortment of pickled daikon, kabu, mushrooms, and even some sansai. Kakabu and Funasuka, a local variety of kabu and radish, respectively, were wonderfully delicious, and I'm still not sure why I didn't bring some home with me. (I did manage to get my hands on some seed at Kosaka Seeds, though, along with two pickle recipes!)

Kunnocho's table offered a nice selection of their apples along with small jars of homemade applesauce. The two varieties on hand - Senofuji and Kountouku - had samples available, and subsequently one of each landed in my bag. Senofuji's dusty red skin covered a pleasantly crunchy inside with apple flavor that wasn't too tart or too dull. Kountouku's bright red skin matched the tart burst of flavor that made me wish I could take enough home for pie (if I had an oven) or for jam.

The table just next door offered zenmai (a dried mountain vegetable), yogoma (perilla seed), and about fifteen different varieties of dried beans: green (two kinds), murasaki hanamame (a big purple and black broad bean) sat next to its white counterpart, two kinds of green beans, two varieties of adzuki, kuromame (black soy beans) as well as the white variety, and three or four other kinds that reminded of pinto beans in their appearance. Each neatly measured and tied bag came with a card bearing the farms name and contact information as well as a recipe. Falling for it's pretty red and white appearance, I chose a bag of toramame for a souvenir.

Bundled against the cold, Furusei-san offered an assortment of misos. Crafted from beans they grow themselves, her misos were a rich red-brown color and slightly sweet on the tongue. The real show-stopper, though were her ginger, togarashi (hot pepper), and garlic flavored misos. Rich and intense in flavor, I came away with a full set since I simply could not decide which I liked best.

Miyagawa Morning Market
This market runs a narrow lane just next to the river. Stalls on one side and shops on the other gave shoppers ample opportunity to sample and talk while perusing wares on a bright cold morning. A similar selection of pickles and miso were available, but in addition there were yew wood-carvings and textiles along with food carts serving hot grilled mochi, steamed buns, and hot cups of tasty coffee. We also got to sample lots of Hoshigaki (dried kaki) that are a dream for a sweet tooth like me. Sugary and chewy, I could chomp my way through an entire box of these without batting an eyelash. Luckily, we didn't buy a box and my companions didn't allow me to loiter too long at any one stall.

The most surprising item at this market though, were the dried, flat leaves of magnolia. We spotted them for sale at stalls and even pre-packaged in some of the shops, but couldn't quite figure out how they might be used until we spotted a sample at a nearby shop. There on a small grill rested a leaf with miso smeared over the center. Thin, tender strips of Hida beef (another item Takayama is famous for) would normally be piled on top to slowly absorb the flavor of the leaf and the miso to make for what must be a mouth-watering dish. Similar in shape and size to the chestnut, the Japanese magnolia leaves look like they would cook up a nice sized portion, too. Another item I wish I would have snagged for a winter evening meal!

Planning to Go
The markets open at about 7am in winter, and we arrived close to 8:30am at the first one. It was plenty early for these cold days, although as the weather gradually warms I'd recommend coming closer to the start time to beat out the heaviest traffic and get the best selection. They also close up at 12pm sharp, so don't loiter anywhere else in town if you're hoping to visit. Takayama's tourist offices provide excellent maps of the city with markets, landmarks, and suggested walking courses clearly marked.