Monday, September 1, 2014

CSA News, Week 16

The Whole is Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts


We often get asked by people at the market how our organic produce looks so good, when the plants in their garden either do not yield much fruit, or get nailed by some force of nature. There are countless numbers of factors that play into growing a healthy crop without the use of toxic chemicals, so here are a few principles to consider. The tricky part is that most of it happens underground and it takes several seasons to build the system.

Soil is much more than a mixture of sand, silt and clay. Structurally these various sized and shaped particles are naturally jumbled together forming little air gaps where the bigger sand pieces rest against the smaller silt and clay pieces. Clays, and there are many kinds, are flat and can stick together, eliminating air gaps and potential for rainwater to penetrate. Try to wet a magazine and see how long it takes to become completely soaked, and then how long it takes to dry out? So having a good mixture is important, and if you don’t there are ways to improve it. These particles are not only structural building blocks, but each has a varying capacity to hold nutrients needed for plant growth, like phosphorus, calcium, etc. This is referred to as the natural fertility of the soil, and the Central Bluegrass region is blessed with great soils with high natural fertility. Unless it got messed up when your home or subdivision was built where often the less healthy sub-soils were shoved into the back yard when digging a basement or foundation. If this has happened to you, all is not lost. It will just require a more diligent effort and more time for your soil to heal.

It is important that you never till or handle the soil when too wet. If you do, it has the effect of destroying the structure allowing air and water to penetrate, essentially making adobe bricks. Sometimes we wait for weeks until the conditions are right to work the soil to prepare for seeding, but it must be done to give the little seeds a chance with all those weed seeds lurking about waiting for an opportunity.

The soil is much more than structural building blocks with some naturally occurring minerals hanging around. The Soil Food Web is where the farming begins. Organic farmers are actually microbe farmers. Having a good mixture of the tens of thousands of species of bacteria and fungi that live in all those little nooks and crannies is the basis of life as we know it. As these microbes live, breathe, regenerate, and die, they release nutrients back into their tiny ecosystem. The bigger, albeit microscopic, creatures like flagellates and nematodes feed off of the microbes and subsequently release nutrients back into the system. As this miniature jungle of the food chain becomes more active, the more nutrients there will be available for our plants to thrive. Plant roots are not passive sponges absorbing whatever they bump into. Specific fungi actually dissolve the minerals attached to the soil particles and deliver them into the plant root in a symbiotic relationship.

When you introduce plant roots, they naturally push and wind their way through the small channels to secure the plant to the ground. Each season when the plant dies back, the dried up roots have effectively made new channels for air and water to go deeper into the soil, nourishing the soil food web. So if you do not have this healthy condition, there are several things you can do.

If you have the tools and/or equipment, incorporate compost or other decayed plant material into the top few inches of soil when the conditions are right. Compost is an inoculant of bacteria and fungi to invigorate the soil food web. The more diverse the plant material in the compost, the more species you will introduce. For example, a pile of chemically fertilized and treated grass clippings will not benefit you as much as a mixture of decayed leaves, clean clippings, old weeds, vegetable trimmings, etc. Mixing with the soil may also help form little pockets for air and water to be held for later use. It is entirely possible to achieve the same success with no tillage whatsoever. A thick layer of mulch that slowly decays will release the microbes into the soil over time. Other larger soil organisms and earth worms will move into this environment and begin the healing process. With this system, you can plant small transplants directly into the ground with very little disruption to the soil and scrunch the mulch back around the base of the plant. 

Now the above-the-ground part of farming starts. Make a habitat for beneficial insects to thrive like having rows or sections with flowering plants like sunflowers, or buckwheat, or flower beds with a diversity of plant material. The mulch will be great for beetles and spiders that eat insect eggs and larvae and the like. Uniform watering is a key component of success. Trickle irrigation systems are best as the water goes directly into the soil, without wetting the leaves and allowing airborne fungi to set up camp on your plants. Select varieties that are known to be resistant to some of these plant pathogens as well. We recommend that one-third of your available space be planted to legumes like clover, to allow for rotation of plants in a new location each year, breaking the insect and disease cycles.

So, when we are asked about why someone’s plants are not productive or pretty, there are too many potential factors for us to come to any conclusion. What we have seen is that at Elmwood Stock Farm, the longer we employ the numerous philosophies associated with organic farming, the more productive the plants can be and the prettier our produce gets.

In Your Share

Snap Beans
Daikon Radish
Fresh Herb
Bell Pepper
Kale Greens


Pan Fried Daikon Cakes, thanks to a CSA member for sharing this dish from Allrecipes.  She reports that she uses this recipe for any type of radish she gets in her CSA share or turnips and kohlrabi. 

½ C grated Daikon radish
1 tsp salt
1 clove garlic, minced
½ onion, chopped
1 egg, beaten
½ C Italian seasoned bread crumbs
½ tsp ground black pepper
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp chile-garlic sauce
1 ½ C oil for frying

Place the Daikon in a large bowl and sprinkle with the salt. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.  Drain Daikon. Stir in the garlic, onion, egg, bread crumbs, pepper, paprika, and chili garlic sauce. Mix well. Form into 8, small round patties. Pour oil into a large skillet. Heat over medium heat. Fry patties in the hot oil until firm and nicely brown, about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper towels. Enjoy alone or serve with ketchup, your favorite spice condiment, or the basil cream dressing (recipe below).

Basil Cream Dressing, use as a topping for fresh sliced tomatoes, or dab a little on fritters or veggie pancakes. 

1⁄2 cup Greek yogurt
1⁄2 cup packed fresh basil leaves
1⁄4 tsp salt
2 T crème fraîche

Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until creamy. Refrigerate to store.

Baked Eggs in Tomato Cups from Vegetarian Times. This is a recipe that allows you to enjoy the bounty of summer and the satisfying taste of organically produced eggs. 

8 large tomatoes
1/3 C grated Parmesan cheese
8 medium eggs
1 tsp dried herbs, such as oregano, chervil, basil or sage

Preheat oven to 425F. Slice tops off tomatoes and scoop out seeds and pulp. Place tomatoes in shallow baking dish, and sprinkle cavities with salt, pepper and pinches of cheese.  Crack one egg into each tomato. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, herbs and remaining cheese. Bake 20 minutes for soft yolks, 30 to 35 minutes for hard yolks. Serve immediately.

Warm Beans in Bacon Vinaigrette, thanks to a CSA member for sharing this Food and Wine dish, a cross between a salad and a side dish. It's served warm and loaded with the bright, fresh flavors of tomatoes and basil. Makes 6 to 8 servings. 

2 lb beans, trimmed
3 T extra-virgin olive oil
4 oz thickly sliced bacon, cut into matchstick size pieces
2 T sherry vinegar
10 oz cherry tomatoes, halved
1 small shallot, very finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1/3 C chopped basil
freshly ground pepper 

Cook the beans in a large pot of salted boiling water until crisp-tender, about 5-8 minutes. Drain the beans and cool them under cold running water. Drain well and pat dry; transfer the beans to a large bowl. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Add the bacon and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until golden, 7 to 8 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the vinegar, tomatoes, shallot, garlic and basil. Scrape the bacon vinaigrette over the beans, season with salt and pepper and toss to evenly coat. Serve warm. Cooked beans can be refrigerated for 2 days, but bring to room temperature before using.

Cream of Celery Soup with Bacon, thanks to a CSA member for sharing this delicious recipe, makes 7 cups

4 strips bacon
1 T butter
5 C (loosely packed) chopped celery, stalks and tops
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 T fresh thyme
1 medium baking potato, peeled and cubed
2 C vegetable or chicken stock
2 C whole milk
salt and pepper

Cook bacon in the bottom of a large stock pot or Dutch oven over low heat for about 15 or 20 minutes, until crisp (cooking time will depend on how thick your bacon is). Remove and set aside on paper towels.

Add butter to the pot, increase the heat slightly, and add celery, onion, garlic, and thyme. Season well with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes. Add the potato, stock, and milk to the pot and bring the mixture to a simmer. Cover and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to keep the milk from forming a film, until potato is very soft.

Purée the soup with an immersion blender or by transferring it to a food processor or blender. Season to taste with salt (we added at least 2 or 3 more tsp) and pepper (about 1 tsp). Serve with cooked bacon crumbled on top.