Thursday, October 28, 2010

True Confessions.

Today, after leaving a meeting with the Executive Director of Greenville Organic Foods Organization (GOFO), I raced home to prepare for Kristen and Michael's “Fall Harvest” celebrations tomorrow. (We can't call them parties, and heaven forbid we actually call them Halloween parties.) 

I love school parties.

After taking a quick look at my happily growing, all natural organic garden, I went to the computer to make a few notes about my meeting with GOFO, reminders and suggestions to help the teachers who are in charge of the organic school gardens. The gardens are part of GOFO's Grow Healthy Kids program.

It's an excellent program. Grow Healthy Kids encourages students to connect to their food sources through a 12-lesson classroom curriculum and hands-on gardening activities. The semester culminates in a harvest celebration—eating the foods grown in the garden. I'm writing a document that we hope will help the teachers and volunteers recognize pests and control them—organically--before much damage occurs. I'm also providing some guidelines about when to harvest. Since we're dealing with cool weather crops, many people aren't as familiar about when and what to harvest. Whole plants? Outer leaves? How big should the radishes grow?

So, since I knew I had four dozen cupcakes to bake, plus treat bags to fill, crafts to prepare, and games to gather, I decided to start with the baking.

That's when it hit me.

I pulled my lovely brown, free-range, organic eggs from happy chickens from the refrigerator.

And this from the pantry.

I know, I know. I'm ashamed.

It gets worse.

When I was in college, one of my girlfriends and I would eat icing straight from the tub with a spoon. Who needed cake underneath? It was particularly good when refrigerated.

And here's the topper...

So, while the Greenville schools are growing beautiful, healthy, organic lettuce and brassicas for a true Harvest Celebration in November, my kids and their friends will be eating sugar-laden, gooey, not-even-made-from-scratch cupcakes.

But at least the eggs were organic. Does that count?

I'm such a hypocrite.

(I fear I may lose my sustainably grown certification due to this...)

Happy “Harvest Celebration,” friends!

Monday, October 25, 2010

Rainy days and Mondays...

It's Monday. It's a rainy, gloomy Monday. The sky is gray, the yard is Carolina mud red, and soon, my pups and carpet will sport that lovely orangish-brownish tinge. I had such plans for today. I was going to plant my large kitchen garden, incorporating tulips, daffodils, and Dutch iris bulbs throughout the edibles so that I'd have an endless supply of my favorite spring flowers. Instead, I'm fighting the urge to curl up on the couch with my blanket and take a nap.

Honestly, the only thing keeping me from the nap is the chance that Peter might come home for lunch. I think he has a meeting, but I'm not going to chance it.

Rather than endure potential ridicule from my hubby (which would be well-deserved), I'm contemplating a clean-up. Truly, our house is bursting with junk. We're starting a remodeling project soon, but first we need to purge. Add into the equation that I'm room mom for both Kristen and Michael's fall parties on Friday, and I'm overwhelmed with plastic pumpkins, construction paper, and bags of candy. Really, what was I thinking? I need a clone.

OK. The house is too overwhelming. I don't know about you, but whenever I spend hours de-cluttering, the kids manage to re-clutter it within about 20 seconds. I don't think I have the patience for wasted work today.

Instead, I thought I'd share one of the few spots that is (currently) perfectly organized.

The potager.

C'est joli, n'est-ce pas?

A potager, for those of you who avoid pretentious gardening terms, is simply an organized kitchen garden. Pronounced “puh ta zhay,” the potager design precedent is from the Gardens of the French Renaissance and Baroque Garden eras. Often flowers, both edible and non-edible, as well as herbs are interplanted with vegetables and fruit to enhance the garden's beauty. (Plus, the flowers attract beneficial insects.) The potager is aesthetically pleasing but also functional. From formal knot gardens to cozy cottage gardens, potagers vary in size, shape, and design.

I'm addicted to garden magazines, particularly ones that showcase gorgeous, perfectly constructed edible gardens. The most recent edition of Mother Earth News is a perfect example of gardens that make me weep with their perfection. I buy gardening magazines obsessively, determined that our kitchen gardens will be lush, perfect. 

But it's not always easy to achieve my goals. 

Did you see the movie It's Complicated? I watched the scene which showed Meryl Streep's impeccable kitchen garden at least a dozen times, taking notes on what the set designers were growing in that gorgeous potager...until I realized that they had tomatoes and cabbage growing at the same time.  Later, I read that the tomatoes were actually wired to the vines to ensure the perfect garden specimens. 

Ah, Hollywood. How you torment me.

Our potager originated from my desire to design a formal vegetable garden close to the house, while attempting to hide the backyard damage caused by our dogs. Sun is scarce in our yard, which makes growing grass a challenge. Add into the equation two puppies...

...who use the backyard as their personal race track/agility course, and suddenly—there's no vegetation in site. So, last autumn, I persuaded Peter to build a potager in the midst of the mud—but where there's a patch of sun. He loves when I have brainstorms, really, he does. I'm sure of it, no matter how often he rolls his eyes. It challenges him to take my fantastical, seemingly simplistic (to me) ideas and turn them into reality. Honestly, how long could it take to whip together the basis for a kitchen garden?

Well. With my Swiss husband, precision isn't good enough. Perfection is the standard.

I must admit, I've learned a thing or two from him about planning. First, he drew a design, measured and marked off the shape of the garden.

Next, he enclosed the area with easy-to-install fencing that we found at Lowe's. The fence serves an obvious purpose...keeping Sophie and Chloe from racing through the garden. It also provides support for vertical growing. In the spring, peas climbed the fence, while this summer it supported tomato plants and beans.

After enclosing the space, he began outlining the beds with stone. We then filled each quadrant with compost and soil. 

Finally, he installed a stone base for the large container and filled the paths with pebbles.

Now, it was my turn.

My first step was to decide what my family would eat, because I wanted to involve the kids in growing food and eating from the garden. Unfortunately, our children are vegephobes. I know my parents are enjoying a good chuckle over this while they drink their Bloody Marys in the great beyond, as I was the worst, pickiest eater. My childhood vegetable repertoire consisted of plain Iceberg lettuce (no dressing), corn, and potatoes.

My children follow in my footsteps. Sorry.

So, to encourage the kids, I planted a border of strawberries in the potager, which was a hit. Obviously, the strawberries are a permanent garden fixture. Various lettuce and spinach plants were added, as well as radishes and a border of violas. 

The first season was OK. It didn't meet my expectations for a lush, bountiful, beautiful kitchen garden, but we did have an excellent harvest of strawberries and lettuce.

This fall, I became a little more thoughtful in my approach. I even made a plan.

It's highly professional, don't you think?

First, I cleaned up the remaining tomato plants and most of the peppers from the summer garden. I honestly don't have a good photo of the summer potager, because it quickly became overrun with tomatoes and, frankly, was just unattractive. So much for my desire for an organized, aesthetically pleasing garden space. It produced well, though. I also pulled up the basil and froze it for future pesto.

For our 2010 fall planting, I started with some transplants—red and green romaine lettuce, bibb lettuce, cauliflower, brussel sprouts, pak choy and chives. Yellow violas provide an edible flower border inside the fence.

Once the transplants were in place, I selected several varieties of heirloom lettuce, spinach, and radishes to direct sow:

Sanguine Ameliore
Lollo Bionda
Amish Deer Tongue
Lollo Rossa
Brune d'Hiver

Merlo Nero Spinach
Bloomsdale Long Standing Spinach

French Breakfast Radish
Cherry Belle Radish

(You can see the seedlings emerging in the rows between the transplants.)

Also, I started some additional seeds under lights to transplant out later:
Violette Italia Cauliflower (purple)
Giant of Naples Cauliflower
Romanesco Italia Broccoli
Calabrese Green Sprouting Broccoli

Added to the center container of Greek oregano, persimmon, and lemon thyme were several lettuces and violas.

I must admit—I'm pretty happy with the potager so far this fall. I planted a little later than I planned, but the plants are growing well, and the seedlings are looking good. I'm hoping to get out tomorrow and thin the seedlings.


What's that? In the back corner.

I didn't plant those.

ACK. Those are definitely NOT spinach seedlings.

So much for my little bit of organization...the weeds are taking over. Just like the clutter in the house.


(Still, I'd rather pull weeds any day than clean the house...)

The rain is gone. I suppose I'd better tackle those weed seedlings so at least something in my life is organized.

So much for that's time to fight weeds. Wish me luck. Please?
Are you growing any cool season crops? What and where are you planting? And--have you had the first frost in your zone yet?

I hope these babies make it through the winter...

Happy gardening!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

About an apple.

It began with an apple. 

Years ago, when our oldest son, Tyler, was nine years old, we invited one of his neighborhood friends to join us on our annual apple orchard outing. Will is two years younger than Ty, and it just breaks my heart when I see this tall, muscular GUY next door shooting baskets. He's the youngest of Ty's neighborhood gang and always fought to keep up with the older boys. Soon he, too, will be off to college.

Sorry. A sentimental Mom-moment distracted me.

Anyway, we were out among the trees, and Peter picked a few apples. He handed one to each boy, then took a bite of his.

Will looked appalled.

“You can't do that,” he said, horrified.

“Don't worry, honey, we'll pay for everything when we get back.” What an honest boy, I thought.

“No,” he said, eyes wide. “You can't eat that.”

“Why not?”

Will looked at me like I was from another planet.

“It's not from Publix.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
It's fall, and I'm thinking about apples. And remembering Will's innocence.

I'm also hoping that our kids always know the origins of their food, whether or not they actually eat it. (That would be asking too much, with the exception of apples. Oh, and strawberries.)

With the arrival of fall, I know I'm not alone in my apple preoccupation. My Facebook page is filled with pictures of friends' families hunting Granny Smiths, Golden Delicious, Jonagolds.

This year, we branched out and tried a different orchard, one in North Carolina. Normally, we visit a local orchard that's ten minues from our house—but truthfully, we've always gone for the experience rather than the apples. The apples at our local orchard are tasteless, even a little mealy. This year, I wanted a good variety of flavorful apples, even if it meant forsaking our (very) local orchard.

I'm glad we did.

Sky Top Orchard is exactly that—a lush, rolling, mountain-top orchard with stunning views. Located in Flat Rock, North Carolina, we visited early in the season, but the parking area was packed. With 40 acres to roam, though, the only places we really bumped into other visitors (besides the parking lot) was in the apple cider donut line.

Can you believe that I never tasted an apple cider donut before this fall? It's was pure sugar and grease and deliciousness. Heaven.

I'm not an apple expert. I've gone apple picking every year for probably the past 18 years...and I still don't remember which varieties are tart (besides Granny Smith), which are good for cooking, which are best fresh. During our apple hunting, I was certain Peter searched for a variety of apple that didn't exist (“Jonathan” versus “Jonagold”—the one I was familiar with). I started to tell him in my know-it-all wife voice that his search was futile...until we found his variety already pre-picked.

I just hate when he's right.

After a lovely family outing, I decided it was time to increase my knowledge of apple varieties. I started doing some research and found a great article on Saveur. It's my go-to guide now.

Do we honestly think I stopped there?

I'm now completely smitten with heirloom apples.

(Poor Peter, I haven't told him about my newest obsession. He'll be reading it here.)

“Jonathan” is an heirloom variety. In fact, it's among the 129 varieties listed in Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste.

Do you know about the Ark of Taste? Here's a quote from Slow Food's website:

“The Ark is an international catalog of foods that are threatened by industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage. In an effort to cultivate consumer demand—key to agricultural conservation—only the best tasting endangered foods make it onto the Ark.

“Since 1996, more than 800 products from over 50 countries have been added to the international Ark of Taste. The US Ark of Taste profiles over 200 rare regional foods, and is a tool that helps farmers, ranchers, fishers, chefs, retail grocers, educators and consumers celebrate our country's diverse biological, cultural and culinary heritage.”

The apple is an American icon. However, of the approximate 14,000 varieties that evolved from the seeds brought into North America by English settlers, today only 11 varieties comprise 90 percent of all apples consumed in the U.S. Those 11 varieties that dominate the produce aisles are grown in large commercial orchards, easily packed and shipped to far away locales. The perfect, glossy globes attract consumers—but flavor is sacrificed for shipablility and presentation.

One of the goals of Slow Food is to make consumers aware of varieties that are dying out due to mass production. It's Economics 101. By experiencing the unique, richer flavor of heirloom varieties, consumers will begin requesting heirlooms, and farmers will find a market to continue producing tasty, regional fruits. Sounds simplistic, doesn't it?

Of course, it's a much larger challenge.

So, in my own small effort to support heirloom varieties, I'm researching nurseries and varieties and figuring out how to tell Peter that we need a small orchard near the river.

I'm sure he'll be delighted. Stay tuned...

Until then, I'm taking an inventory of the apples waiting in the refrigerator. Not only did we bring home dozens of apples from our family's Sky Top outing, Michael and I also brought home apples from his kindergarten field trip. 

It was a little sad. The kids picked apples—out of bins. So now, there's a generation of kids who think apples come from bins on farms. Hmm. Somehow, I don't think that was the point of the field trip.

Still, we are—literally—bursting with apples.

Fortunately, my family likes apples. They especially like apple desserts. Rather than my standard apple pie, I decided to try something new. I found a recipe on the blog, Orangette, for an excellent “Apple Tart Cake.” The author of the blog, Molly Wizenberg, stated that the tart is even better the second day. She's right. If you've never visited Orangette, please do. You'll be delighted.

So, before I get back to researching which heirloom apple trees would best fit my family's needs—some for eating fresh, some for cooking—I'm heading to the kitchen to make another Apple Tart Cake. You really want to try this recipe—it's easy, delicious, uses pantry staples, and has a rustic appeal. (My cake is not as pretty as the one on the Orangette blog, but it was tasty.)

You can use any variety of good, tart apples. What are your favorite varieties for cooking or fresh eating? I'd love to know.

So, head to the kitchen, pull out those apples from your orchard visit, and start peeling. You'll be so glad you did.

Apple Tart Cake
Adapted from Orangette, originally posted January 19, 2009

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
5 Tbsp. cold unsalted butter, cut into a few pieces
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 large Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and sliced very thinly

For topping:
3 Tbsp. granulated sugar
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350°. Butter and flour a 9-inch springform pan.

Combine the sugar, flour, and baking powder in a bowl. (I used my KitchenAid mixer, which worked fine, but the original recipe calls for use of a food processor.) Add the butter. Mix until no large lumps remain. Add the vanilla and the egg. Blend well. Mixture will be crumbly. Dump mixture into the prepared springform pan, using your fingers to gently press it along the bottom of the pan. If the dough sticks to your fingers, like it did with mine, just put a tad of flour on your fingertips. Make a slight, gentle, upward curve at the edges to form a low rim. Arrange the apple slices over the base in a tight circular pattern. Really overlap them. I didn't  overlap the apples the first time I made it for fear they wouldn't cook well. My mistake. Place  the pan on the middle rack in the oven, and bake for 45 minutes.

While the cake/tart is baking, prepare the topping. Combine the ingredients in a small bowl, and whisk to blend well. After the cake has baked for 45 minutes, remove it from the oven, and pour the topping evenly over it. Bake for another 25 minutes or so, until the topping looks set. Transfer the pan to a wire rack, and cool for 20 minutes. Then run a thin knife around the edge to release any areas that may have stuck, and remove the sides of the pan. Cool completely before serving.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Christmas in October.

It's October, but it feels like Christmas.

Look what arrived.

Nope. It's not the kids' Halloween costumes. That was a different box.

These are my treats.



Specifically, it's my “seed garlic.”

I'm ridiculously excited!

I know what you're thinking. “Garlic? You can buy garlic at Publix. Bi-Lo. All grocery stores sell garlic.”

True. But until you grow your own've never really tasted garlic.

Last year was my inaugural attempt to grow this pantry staple. I mean, honestly—I usually pay 99 cents for a three-pack of basic, white garlic bulbs. It seemed a waste of time and effort to cultivate my own organic garlic.

But you know my gardening obsession. I had to try it.

Oh. It was so worth it.

I know you're skeptical, and I understand. Truly. Though garlic dates back thousands of years, cures 22 ailments, according to an Egyptian papyrus dating from 1500 B.C., and was found in King Tut's tomb, garlic was shunned in America until the twentieth century, due to its pungent, lingering aroma. In 17th century England, it was known that garlic was “...not for ladies, nor for those gentlemen who wanted to court them.” 

It's a good thing that Peter and I both like garlic.

Many herbalists believe garlic can cure the common cold, fight high cholesterol, serve as a natural antibiotic, and even repel mosquitos.

Plus, we all know the mythology involved with garlic—vampires, be gone.

(Well, unless you look like Edward Cullen.)

Garlic, and its culinary uses, arrived with the influx of immigrants into the United States. It wasn't until our new citizens arrived that garlic became a common, well-loved fixture in the kitchen, permeating the American culture with its flavor...and scent.

I'm so glad it did.

Honestly, could you imagine Shrimp Scampi without garlic?

The beauty of garlic is that it's incredibly easy to grow. I promise. In the fall, when your garden looks tired, and you're pulling up the last of your gangly tomato plants, you can keep your garden productive with very little effort. It's also a great crop to grow if you've never gardened. You dig a hole, place a clove in the hole, cover it up, add some mulch on top, water occasionally during dry spells, and viola! By June, you'll be harvesting fresh, flavorful garlic that is so much better than the grocery store variety.

Speaking of you know how many kinds of garlic are available?

Neither did I. But I do now...

First, there are a couple distinctions. Softneck garlics, which can be known as Artichoke, Italian, or Silverskin, are the most commonly grown garlics in the world. These are the garlics that you traditionally see braided and hanging in rustic farmhouse kitchens. Orphio, or hardneck garlic, derives from wild garlic. Orphio forms a circle of cloves around a single, woody stalk, while softneck varieties form cloves in a spiral layer. Hardneck varieties traditionally perform better in cold climates.

Then, there's elephant garlic. Just to confuse things further--it's not a true garlic but a type of leek, with a mild flavor.

Who knew? I'm overwhelmed with options.

So, as is my habit when I can't make a garden-related decision, I bought a little bit of a lot. Here's what's awaiting planting:

Italian Braiding
Inchellium Red
Bianco Piacentina (white)
Viola Francese (purple/white)

German Extra Hardy (purple striped)
Rosso di Sulmona (red)

Elephant Garlic

OK. Maybe it wasn't such a little bit. Peter rolled his eyes when he saw the boxes.

Among some of my gardening friends, I've heard that seed garlic is selling out quickly this year. So, if you want to try growing your own garlic, here are two sources I use:

Now, the fun begins!

Prep the garlic.

Prepping the garlic is very easy but a little messy. You're simply separating (or “popping”) the cloves. Each clove will grow into an individual bulb. If you are OCD about your varieties, like I am, only prep one variety at a time so they don't get mixed. I like to separate the cloves over a big bowl to catch the papery skins, then put the cloves for each variety in a labelled paper bag. DON'T PEEL THE CLOVES. If some of the skin comes off, you can still plant the clove—but it can bruise easily, so handle gently.

I considered farming out this task to the kids...until my thumbs started hurting after the second bag of garlic. I turned on some mindless TV and continued popping the cloves.

By the you ever find yourself watching kid TV when there are no kids in the room?  I'm a little disturbed by this new habit of mine.

Although “Phineas and Ferb” is brilliant, you have to admit.

Prepare the bed.

A raised bed for garlic is great—but honestly, I just plant it in my larger kitchen garden, which doesn't have raised beds. I like to keep the rows about three feet wide so that it's easy to plant and harvest without stepping in the bed and compacting the soil. Add organic matter, like well-composted horse manure, and make certain the soil is well tilled. In South Carolina, I use a lot of compost to prepare our soil for planting—red clay is my nemesis.

Within a day or two of popping the cloves, you'll want to get them in the soil. For best production, garlic needs to be planted in the fall to give it enough time to make sizable bulbs.

It's mid-October, so for me, that's my cue to plant garlic and pansies. Seeds from Italy recommends that northerners plant garlic after the first frost but 20-30 days before the ground freezes so that the garlic clove can begin to make roots. All garlic needs a period below 40 degrees to make bulbs.

I'm planting a lot of garlic, so my method of choice is to dig long trenches, about three inches deep, placing one clove of garlic root-side down approximately every six inches. In each bed, though, I'm going to plant several rows of garlic, staggering the placement of the cloves to provide ample growing room. Cover with soil and water well.

Oreo thinks it's really amusing to jump on my lap while I'm trying to work. Ignoring her isn't an option--she'll start kneading my leg with her claws if I don't fawn over her. Between kids and animals, it's amazing I ever get any work done.

After planting, it's important to add three to six inches of mulch to your bed. Shredded leaves and dry grass clippings are free and work wonderfully. I'm using straw, only because I have other plans for my leaves, which involves making a new front garden bed...but that's a different story for another day...

Mulch serves various purposes, depending on your climate. In the north, mulch will keep the ground moist and warm throughout the fall. In the south, it keeps the soil moist and cool. The mulch helps protect the garlic by minimizing the freezing and thawing that occurs in unprotected gardens, which can damage the garlic. Mulch also minimizes weeds.

And truly...who likes pulling weeds?

Well, OK. I do. On bad days when I'm annoyed, I kind of like yanking those nasty weeds out.

It's cheaper than therapy.

Hibernate. Read recipes for garlic-laden Italian dishes and dream of scrumptious summer dinners. If you're having a really dry winter, make sure to water the garlic bed occasionally.

In early spring, look for little shoots peeking through the mulch. As the shoots emerge and the weather warms, remove the mulch from the bed. Water during dry periods, and let the garlic continue to grow. For hardneck varieties, you will see the main shoot curl as it grows. These are known as scapes. Cut them off to make bigger bulbs, but don't throw them away—they are delicious braised in a bit of olive oil.

When the lower leaves of the garlic plant begin to turn brown, it's time to harvest—which is typically in June in mild climates, July in colder areas. Carefully dig up the garlic bulbs, leaving the stalks attached, and store in a well-vented location for several weeks to allow the garlic to cure. Do not put the bulbs in direct sunlight.

After curing, remove the stem (unless you plan to braid the garlic) and the outer papery layer of skin to ensure clean bulbs. Really, those garlic braids look so much better when there's not red clay attached to the bulbs. Store in a cool, dry location—and save a few of your largest bulbs for next year's planting!

And there, my friends, you have it. A plethora of pungent, flavorful garlic, plus enough left over so that you won't need to purchase starter garlic again.

Isn't garlic grand?

Just remember...make sure you share the wealth with your significant other...because eating garlic alone can make for a very lonely night.

Why don't you make this super easy, looks-way-more-fancy-than-it-is dinner for your honeypot tonight? (Honeypot is my new favorite word.) It's my go-to dinner, based on a recipe from my dad (who used the term "honeypot" in a letter to my mom) when I need a super quick meal that feels special.

Shrimp Scampi

1 lb. jumbo shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick)
5-6 medium cloves garlic, pressed
1 tbsp. sea salt
1 cup white wine

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.

Clean shrimp and pat dry. Arrange shrimp in a single layer in a casserole dish. Do not let them overlap.

In a small saucepan, melt butter. Add garlic, sea salt, and wine, stirring until warm. Remove from heat, and pour butter mixture over the shrimp in the casserole dish. Place dish in oven, and bake for 5-7 minutes, or until all shrimp is thoroughly cooked. DO NOT OVERCOOK or shrimp will be tough.

Serve shrimp and garlic butter sauce over pasta, with a light grating of parmesan cheese on top.

Serves two very hungry adults, one 9-year-old who will eat three shrimp, and one 5-year-old, who will eat only plain pasta with cheese.

Or serves four adults with normal appetites.

Mint, anyone?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tales from an organic farm...

I blame Laura Ingalls Wilder. From second through fifth grade, I was obsessed with Little House on the Prairie. Seriously obsessed. I read the book series at least a dozen times. I waited for Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert to appear on TV each week, Pa crying dramatically while Half-Pint saved the family farm and outwitted resident meanie, Nellie Oleson. I wore a dress and bonnet, created by my amazing Aunt Georgianna, who lived on a farm. Every summer, I'd visit her for two weeks. We shared a June 16 birthday. 

You think I'm kidding about my obsession?

Still—life happened. I grew up, discovered boys, went to college, and didn't think twice about farming. I worked in publishing, then PR and advertising, only getting my hands dirty when I planted some pansies on the weekend. Who knew that one day my Laura Ingalls obsession would resurface, and I'd make my living from seeds and soil? When I was taking authors to wine-laden dinners and staying at the Ritz-Carlton, I never dreamed I'd be digging in dirt.

So, I was surprised when I received a note from a distant family member recently, commenting on my business:

“I wanted to tell you how impressed I was to hear of your entrepreneurial endeavors.  Your choice didn't totally surprise me---I still remember the influence of Laura Ingalls in your young life---even down to your wardrobe!”
--Cousin Brenda

Well. I wish I had gone to Brenda for career counseling a long time ago.


When the opportunity arose to spend a day working on an organic farm, I jumped at the chance. What a fabulous way to bond with my daughter! What an amazing learning experience! Her first question:

“Will there be animals there?”

I told her, quite honestly, that I had no idea. I imagined there might be some chickens, but I couldn't promise her a barnyard filled with animals. Our purpose was to work on the farm, learn more about organic growing, eat an organic lunch, and help as needed.

Although a little worried about the organic, vegetarian lunch, Kristen agreed to go for the slight chance she might meet some new animal buddies.

Here's the thing about my girl: she loves nature. She loves animals.

She did not love Little House on the Prairie.

My saddest mothering moment occurred when I presented her with the series...and the books languished in her room. I mean—this girl is a reader. She flies through 700-page action-adventure books in a day or two. But poor Laura Ingalls Wilder...she was relegated to the bottom of the towering pile of to-be-read books, outranked by Harry Potter and The Guardians of Ga'Hoole. And, when Kristen finally read the most famous book of the series, instead of finding her in a blissed-out state of imagination, dreaming of bonnets and blind sisters, she blasely said, “It was alright.”


Who was this alien child? Was she switched at birth?

I suppose this should have been a heads-up about our mother/daughter farm-day experience.

Organized by Greenville Organic Foods Organization (GOFO), a fantastic organization dedicated to promoting healthy growing and eating in the Upstate, the work day at Bio-Way Farm served as an opportunity for foodies, greenies, and wanna-be farmers to learn more about organic growing practices--while benefiting our host farmer with some free labor.

And we did labor. Whew.

GOFO organized the outing to Bio-Way Farm as part of its mission to educate the public about the benefits of eating organic foods, while raising awareness of sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation. To achieve these lofty goals, the Executive Director and founder, Viviane Trama, provides numerous outreach programs, such as the Grow Healthy Kids initiative, which organizes and supports organic school gardens, as well as educational opportunities to learn first-hand about the benefits of organic practices through “farm days.”

Located in Laurens County, South Carolina, Bio-Way Farm is a 120-acre certified organic farm that embraces permaculture principles--designing ecological human habitats and food production systems. Permaculture started with the belief that for people to feed themselves sustainably, we need to move away from reliance on industrialized agriculture, which is powered by fossil fuels and promotes monocultures of crops. Instead, permaculture stresses the value of working with the Earth in mutually beneficial relationships. For instance, rather than clear an overgrown field with traditional gas-powered machinery, install a herd of goats who will eat the brush and foliage, while also fertilizing the ground for future crops. Agriculturalists traditionally exploit soil, plants and animals, which leads to diseases, soil erosion, pollution from fertilizers, and even illnesses from factory farms, as witnessed in our recent egg recall. Permaculturalists practice agriculture by looking forward, maintaining the health of the land—and our food systems.

Apparently, I'm not the only person excited about sustainability. When Kristen and I arrived at the farm, there was already quite a crowd...19 in all. Kristen was the youngest, but there were two teenagers attending to earn school credit—but I'm pretty confident they had a good time regardless of why they signed up.

Viviane greeted our crew, outlining the day's events and introducing Chris Sermons, our host at Bio-Way Farms. Chris, his father and step-mother founded Bio-Way, planting 2000 asparagus crowns in 2004. In addition to fields of asparagus, they grow many varieties of seasonal produce, as well as fruit and berry crops. With 20 acres devoted to growing produce, the family strives to preserve biodiversity within its 100 acres of hardwood forest. They work to control exotic invasive plants while reintroducing native plants, which helps to restore wildlife habitats.

Surprisingly, the farm is worked by Chris. Just Chris.  And occasional volunteers. And sometimes, friends. Twenty acres, one full-time farmer.

I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

But their asparagus? Oh. My. Next spring, you definitely want to find them at the Greenville Farmer's Market or through Upstate Locally Grown. Even my kids ate their asparagus when I bought it last spring...without too many bad faces.

(OK. I lied. They made bad faces. But they complain about every vegetable I put in front of them. If anyone can tell me how to change this annoying phenomena, please let me know.)

Our goal for the farm day was to learn about sustainable growing while helping Chris get some work done. Win-win.

We were down to 18 workers. Kristen took off with the dog after about 15 minutes. No chickens, but the dog would do.

So much for my dreams of working the land with my girl.

Instead, I met an amazing assortment of farm hands: a retired dairy farmer married to a city girl; greenies who wanted to learn more about gardening; a young woman whose progressive employer has an organic garden for its employees; an herbalist with an adorable vegetarian son; a young man who thought farming might be his calling (but, quite honestly, I think he changed his mind after he realized the amount of work); and lovely, pleasant people just interested in better understanding sustainability.

After an attempt to divide us into work groups, which quickly dissipated into chaos, we headed to the field. Our tasks:

preparing beds for seeding...

transplanting cool weather crops...

ditch digging (guess who did this?)...

building a compost bed...

and harvesting.

Have you ever seen a Jerusalem artichoke? Stay tuned for a recipe using these funky tubers.

I can honestly say that working in a field with strangers makes you instant friends. (Except for the farmer wanna-be who was still raking the same three feet of earth after I had dug an entire trench down the field. Really, he needs to rethink his career path.)

After rounding up my girl from the swing, we cleaned up a bit and headed inside for a gourmet organic lunch, prepared by Chef Heather Kalka.

Oh. My.

Have you noticed that I'm fixated with food recently? Maybe it's because we're in the midst of harvest season. Or maybe it's because there's just so much good food and I have no willpower.

Anyway, I'm not a vegetarian, but if I had Chef Heather to cook for me—I could be. Amazingly delicious, healthy treats—delicious eggplant spread, scrumptious gnocchi, adorable blueberry tarts...mmmm.

Kristen ate--


Yes. Just bread. And water.

It was a jailbird diet.


After lunch, Kristen disappeared with the dog—and newly found cat—while we toured the farm. Chris showed us the acres of asparagus, a recently constructed greenhouse, the irrigation system, and my favorite—his experimental woodland garden. 

The woodland garden was fascinating, particularly since our property is forested. Kiwis, blueberries, pawpaws, was amazing to see what Chris grows in the forest, with only dappled sunlight.  

My next venture? Mushrooms. And blueberry bushes throughout our forest.

As Chris wrapped up the tour in the area devoted to a native plants nursery, I heard a strange squeak and saw Kristen racing toward the black cat, Rosemary. As we watched, my darling daughter pried a baby field mouse out of the cat's mouth.

The rest of my farmer buddies now understood I was telling the truth about my daughter.

And her animal obsession.

Well, perhaps she's not going to be a farmer.

But maybe she's more like Half-Pint than I thought.

Sunchoke Gratin


    * 1 pound sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes)
    * Salt
    * An oven-to-table baking dish
    * Butter for smearing and dotting the baking dish
    * Black pepper, ground fresh from the mill
    * 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Peel the sunchokes and drop them in salted, boiling water. Cook until tender. Drain and cool. Cut into 1/2-inch slices.

Smear the bottom of a baking dish with butter, then place the sunchoke slices in it, arranging them so they overlap slightly. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and the grated Parmesan, dot with butter and place the dish on the uppermost rack of the preheated oven. Bake until a light golden crust begins to form on top. Allow to settle for a few minutes out of the oven before serving.

Yield: 4 servings