Monday, October 26, 2009

You say tomato...

What's green, grows in the garden, and is either a dangerous though necessary infrastructure or a delicious vegetable depending on who you ask?

The tomato plant. Specifically, tomato leaves.

My grandmother taught me to garden and to compost, and a lot of what I know about cooking as well. So now and then I tell her about my more amusing container-gardening experiences, offering stories as partial payment for all the lessons then and now. A few weeks ago, she mentioned almost in passing that you can eat tomato leaves.

I'm sure you could have heard my response for a quarter-mile all around. Why didn't anyone tell me? All that produce, wasted. I'd always thought they were toxic, you see, nightshade and all that. But one of my favorite teachers in the art of surviving life vouches for their edibility, so I went searching for the full story.

Don't have it yet, but I have enough: yes, they are edible, and worth eating, though not everyone's sure or willing to say for the record that they're safe. Still, I found enough in academic journals and newspapers, reprinted family histories and even a few old recipes to decide it was safe enough for me. Within reason. Hey, my grandmother's fed me a lot of good food over the years... And besides, while I did see a whole lot of "tomato leaves will kill you" warnings, none of them were from what I consider really reputable sources, no scientific studies on animal or person.

Some newer publications say that tomato leaves have tomatine, not the solanine usually listed as a toxin, and more than one source points out the lack of verified cases of poisoning by tomato leaf, though there are many from related plants that do contain solanine. Upon first broadening my search beyond the scientific sites, two page views of the general-audience Aggie horticultural site gave me two different versions of a secondary-crop list of common garden vegetables, one of which has tomatoes listed only as a fruit, because "the leaves contain alkaloids," the other of which had only a line in the box where that caution had first been.


All right, I thought, let's assume tomato leaves are in fact edible without risk and move on. Citations? Recipes?

To judge by the scarcity of information it's not too common, but that's the same reasoning that once led historians to assume that no one ate salads in the Dark Ages--some things simply don't get written down. Which does not explain why the information wasn't passed hand to hand, as it were. If they are edible, why are they so overlooked even by subsistence-level famers in areas where the plants are native or at least easy to grow? But then, one could ask the same about carrot tops. Yes, you can eat those, too.

As far as adding tomato leaves to the menu, the general recommendation seems to be that they are a suitable food only for adults (an odd prohibition but not unique). Are they really safe? There's a NYT article about eating tomato leaves, that quoted a book on toxic plants as saying one would have to eat a whole pound before worrying over possible toxins, as if that's incomprehensible, though anyone who's ever watched a pile of spinach cook down to nothing knows better.

By now fairly certain a few wouldn't hurt me, I gave them a try. Raw, they are not for me, though that's more to do with texture than the taste, a bright, almost grassy green with a backbite rather like arugula. Maybe one baby leaf, minced, alone or mixed with chives to top a cold dish, but not torn up for a salad green. The large, dark bottom leaves are too tough to bother with. But that still leaves a whole lot of potential cooking greens sprawling through my garden. And they're pretty yummy.

Recipes are few and far between, but anecdotes can be found, so I turned up a few uses without too much effort. The older, less juicy fresh leaves can be used as a wrap for cheeses during curing. The dried leaves were sometimes used to extend other dried herbs, and as a substitute for parsely in seasoning mixes, I'd guess because drying the leaves took no extra effort when one hung whole tomato plants for ripening, an old trick once again coming into favor: harvest the plant, hang it roots-up away from light and with lots of air, and tomatoes will continue to ripen on the vine.

Medium-sized fresh leaves can be blanched for a few seconds and added to sauces and purees; they are cooked as your basic pot herb (I am so tired of the ubiquitous instruction to "cook as spinach," which I'm convinced is written by cooks who have never used the green in question). Those without my objection to the texture eat them raw when young and tender. Far and away the most frequently cited English-language use of tomato leaves I found was their addition to canned or otherwise bland tomato sauce to improve the flavor, removed before serving, often in combination with other herbs in a string bundle, sometimes alone. And a few regional uses from the NYT article linked above offer ideas I have not yet had the chance to try.

My last-season tomato plant has mostly given up on flowering for the year, but that doesn't mean I’m through with it. I've a few recent romas waiting for fate to find them, and there’s a recipe I'd like to try...after which, I'm calling my grandmother to ask for any of her old recipes that use tomato leaves. 'Cause I've got a lot of years of missed greens to make up for!


[image from Flowers VG]

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Poor dirt, rich harvest

I like the idea of subsurface fertilizers; it seems right to me, putting the plant food where the roots can grow down into it. That’s the appeal of planter-finished bokashi: after the bucket, layer the fermented matter into soil, et voila! Though this is not always the right solution for me--it requires being organized enough to gather relatively large volumes of soil, cured bokashi, and empty planters together for assembly; there’s that two-week resting period before planting; and it doesn’t use enough bokashi for my needs, not without many more planters than I have room to keep. Only one third of a planter’s volume can be bokashi with this method. And what does one do about the permanent planters, where soil and roots have been placed long since? So I compost much of my bokashi, or finish it in some other fashion. Still, where I can planter-finish it, I do, as that’s some impressively nutritious ready-to-sow soil once it’s ready! Even where the soil wasn’t much to speak of starting out.

Over the years I’ve been container gardening, I’ve bought soil of every quality from appalling to magnificent, but even the best eventually grows tired, separated from the soil web that would refresh it in its place of origin. Compost helps, of course, and vermicompost even more, but those natural amendments are not exactly cheap if one has to purchase them over and over (and over!) again.

I have no need to buy compost these days. And with Verne and Co. cheerfully digesting plantersful of precomposted leafy bokashi mix, I no longer have to carefully ration vermicompost so as to have enough for every plant in my garden. I don’t even necessarily have to apply the stuff, as free-range wriggles will find their way into outdoor planters where bokashi has been added and do their thing on-site. After a year of this, the garden is demonstrably healthier than before, with strong new growth and incredible yields. While it is still possible to tell the the very worst of my previous (clay) pot-soils, most of my planters now contain rich mixes comparable to the very best organic retail products I can afford, all dark and springy and largely differentiated by amendment for particular growing needs. It’s hard to believe how much of this stuff was barely able to support plant life a bare year ago, or to remember what a victory I considered a few paltry heads of lettuce in the days before bokashi...

So the other day, I hit a local store for the cheapest available bagged potting soil--$2.50 for 40 quarts--for another in my ongoing series of experiments. This is visibly poor soil, lots of sharp sand in a suspiciously dark and lumpy base (either non-local or amended with treated municipal sludge, or perhaps both). I’ll be planter-finishing this soil with bokashi in both indoor and outdoor settings, and growing leafy vegetables or herbs in it; suppose I’ll try a few lettuce seeds or something in the unamended soil by way of confirmation that this stuff is as poor as it seems, but otherwise, the comparison will be between this soil layered with bokashi and the potting mixes I already have, which have all been heavily inoculated with microbes and nearly saturated with plant-accessible nutrients by this point.

I expect the more amended soil to perform better, but honestly not by too much; microbes live quickly, after all, and the major difference I’ve seen in short-term performance between bokashi-only or vermicompost is in germination (long term observations are ongoing). There is a better than even chance that the produce will be slightly less healthful than that grown in my organically sourced soils, but I’m in a transitional sort of mood today, so am choosing not to worry about it much. It should still be far better than anything bought from a conventional grocery store, that’s been losing nutrients during shipping and display...and cheaper, too! Both in terms of resources used per calorie/serving, and to my budget; the planters (buckets) were all free, bokashi costs me at most $0.50 a bucket (one dollar a week figure for standard EM bokashi bran recipe and accessories), and one bag of this cheap potting soil should be enough for two and a half to three large planters. So call it $1.00 per planter, each planter about equivalent to one “square foot” garden sub-plot, usable for many, many years as bokashi and compost will serve to renew the organic materials plants remove from the soil. Leaving me only the cost of seeds or transplants, if I don’t propagate my own from gathered or gifted sources.

My elderly relatives used to talk about “poor dirt farmers,” but somehow, I don’t think this is what they meant. Then again.


Monday, October 19, 2009

No rest for the repulsive!

Autumn in Austin, so the weather's variable--not "four seasons in one day" variable, but a forty degree difference in temperature over 24 hours isn't impossible, and the passing cold fronts don't seem inclined to settle in for a lengthy visit. Not yet. But that chilly seasonally appropriate spell we had last week reminded me that my microherd's larger accomplices will need some protection from the winter weathers presumably to come.

First, the worms. Trey and Sexton are currently accompanied by a bucket wormery (too many experiments, too few planters) and I've got a stunted third tower going as well. The recent rains forced the wriggles up into the tops of all those units, but frequent draining of reservoirs and some more dried leaves should make them comfortable again. For now. Thin-sided plastic offers no insulation, and worms don't enjoy winter much more than I. While they can survive cold temperatures (even brief freezes), they won't be converting bokashi to vermicompost if they're chilled unto dormancy.

I could bring the worms indoors--but I won't. My current favorite vermicomposting technique involves dried leaves in equal volumes to the cured bokashi. Dried leaves may include insect eggs. Not a problem outside, but in? No, thanks. Also, I'm not comfortable with an indoor unit that allows for worm escapes, and a closed unit requires far too much extra airspace to be practical for my tiny apartment.

So Verne & Co. are staying outside. I will be doing a bit of early harvesting, combining the worms to a few trays so they can wriggle together for warmth, and adding a bunch of soil. Say, a layer an inch or two deep. Soil's a great insulator, even above-ground.

But that's not an option for Repulsive. A soil layer, I mean. In fact, that's about the only thing I've found that can stop an active colony of BSFL! It doesn't kill them, nor starve them out, but few mature grubs make their way out of a soil-covered grubbery, and fliers don't tend to retun to the area, I assume due to soil's odor-suppressive qualities. The immature grubs do continue to eat, and between that and the soil microbes--assuming healthy enough soil to have any--matter will eventually be converted to plant-accessible nutrients and humus or something on its way to being so, but if the goal is to maintain an active biological "garbage disposal" over the winter, a layer of soil is right out.

As, I think, is a layer of dried leaves. I did this last winter, because I just couldn't handle the sight of that squirming mass when I opened the bucket, but grub activity eventually slowed too much to keep up with feeding. It's possible I could have emptied the bucket at that point, sorted out the grubs from the decomposed leaf matter, and started again, but I'm not into close contact with armored maggots, and so simply observed and moved on.

Dried leaves do insulate, in sufficient quantity, but I think that insulation would have to be kept separate from the feeding materials to be workable here, and with my limited space, that presents problems of its own. A styrofoam bucket won't maintain its integrity for a full season, not with an active colony inside (yes, I have tried), and while leakage might not be a problem in some situations, it's a deal-breaker here: the liquid will attract scavengers, and styrofoam is no protection against tooth and claw. Also, it smells bad, would stain wood or concrete, and depending on the concentration, could eventually kill plants or soil.

What I'd really like is a mostly buried trash can with a funnel-top and securable lid, not quite bottomless but with heavy mesh or tons of tiny holes, sunk into well-draining soil away from the water-table. But that's not happening. I've got a bucket grubbery. In the winter months, crawl off of mature grubs is greatly reduced or even stopped, so I'll be pulling the Ramp of Death's exit tube and plugging the hole for warmth, then wrapping the bucket in something insulating.

Will that be enough to keep him warm and chomping? Time will tell. BSFL generate heat, so it's not as if I'm relying solely on ambient temperatures, and I've noticed that regular feeding, even of smaller quantities, seems to encourage feeding... Maybe I'll try feeding him hot meals. The next time anyone offers me any Cream of Wheat.

What, you didn't think I was planning to cook for the grubs, did you? I'd almost be more likely to cook them! And you know that's not ever happening.


image from CartoonStock, in honor of Andrew and all the other grub wranglers who may well reach this point with "food waste" before too long.

Friday, October 9, 2009

This wine's not for drinking

My next trip to the homebrew shop won't be for spigots, but for stoppers and bubblers. In part so I can do one or more small experiments related to the ongoing bokashi project, but mostly so I can make a large batch of soapberry wine.

Soapberry juice is an effective alternative to commercial soaps and cleansers, but isn't shelf-stable, though the dried fruits are; it's not much trouble to cook up a batch as needed, but since I had the fermented stuff, I decided to see if it might be good for anything. Could I use it in place of fresh? Were there other functions it might serve?

Alcoholic soap. Sounds odd, no? But while I wouldn't recommend using it in place of fresh for, say, hand-washing laundry--the smell's enough to get you buzzed! -G- --it has its place. As a simple end for soft-bodied garden pests on tender leafy crops, and washes off easily. A great fruitfly bait. In place of fresh if needed, though the sudsing level is even lower with the wine (suds aren't necessary, I know, but I do still expect them!).

Of course, the fresh can be used in place of the wine for most of that. But there's one thing the fresh can't do, that the fermented can, and that's reason enough for me: it can be used in place of that brand-name anti poison ivy soap I so foolishly forgot to restock. At least as effectively, based on my so-far-singular experience.

Considering my usual reaction to that evil plant's oil, I'd say that's reason enough for a toast. Though with some other fermented something, I think.