A Balmy Evening in the Garden

The gardeners in the Community Teaching Garden have been hard at work this summer growing and harvesting herbs and flowers to make tinctures, glycerites, and balms. This week in class, they gathered together to make lip balm and a skin-soothing balm out of herbs and flowers cultivated this season. Like making tinctures and glycerites, creating your own balms is easy, cost-effective and fun!

Completed Balms
Lip Balm fresh from your pals in the Community Teaching Garden!

Early in the season, we identified herbs and flowers in and around our garden that have medicinal and skin-soothing properties, and created oil infusions of calendula, plantain, comfrey, yarrow, lavender, and chamomile. If you’re not sure which herbs are beneficial for topical use or skin irritation, this resource is a great place to start. After identifying the herbs and flowers we wanted to use, students dried the herbs, added the dried herbs to a base oil (olive oil, sweet almond oil, coconut oil or jojoba oil all work well!), and let them sunbathe on their sunny windowsills for 4-6 weeks to create a solar infusion.

Solar Infusions of Rose and Calendula
Rose and calendula infuse in sweet almond oil on a CTG student’s windowsill. 

Once our infused oils were ready, we gathered together the ingredients needed to create our balms. The two primary ingredients needed are infused oil and beeswax, but other ingredients like vitamin E oil or castor oil can add extra moisture and sheen to your lips or skin. You can add a few drops of your favorite essential oil to your balm just before pouring it into a tin or lip gloss tube for additional healing properties or to add a fun fragrance.

Beeswax and Lavendar
Beeswax and lavender, a sweet and fragrant pair!

We used a base proportion of one part beeswax for every three parts oil, and melted them together in a pyrex on a double boiler. For our lip balm, which we wanted to be a bit firmer, we used three parts oil to one and a half parts beeswax. Make sure to stir your balm regularly as the beeswax is melting, and to have your containers for the balm ready. To check the consistency of your balm, dip a spoon into the boiling oil and wax mixture and withdraw it. It should harden quickly and give a good sense of it’s thickness.  You can thicken your balm by adding additional beeswax or loosen it by adding additional oil. Once it has reached your desired consistency, quickly and carefully add your essential oils and place it in your tins and tubes.

Making these simple balms is a great way to enjoy and share your harvest! For more detailed instructions, check out these lip balms from Mountain Rose Herbs and this “owie cream” from the Hippy Homemaker.

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Autumn Creeping In and Herbal Preparations

The days are getting shorter, bright leaves are showing their true colors, and there’s a cool, crisp feeling to the mornings these days. Ready or not, Autumn is on her way! In the gardens, our most massive and unwieldy plants spread about their wide and lazy pathways, our squashes and tomatillos, sunflowers and tomatoes are huge and ripe and seemingly unaware of the eager gardeners scrambling about to complete their work before the increasingly early sunset. As an Autumn mood has begun to set in, the students in the Community Teaching Garden are focusing on what they would most like to learn, make, and do in the quickly fleeting last weeks of garden time. It’s a great time to take an intentional eye to your garden and ask what tasks you would like to complete before seasons end. For us, many of our upcoming classes are focused on processing herbs and flowers that we have been drying or preparing in oil or glyercite over the past few weeks.

Echinacea

Last week, CTG students in the advanced course at the Tommy Thompson Community Gardens started an herbal tincture of echinacea. Using a simple folk method to create our tincture, we gathered echinacea from around the garden, chopped the petals and the edges of the cones, placed the plant material in a large mason jar, then submerged the herbs in vodka. A student volunteered to take the tincture home, store it in a cool, dry place, and give it a hearty shake one time per day. After four to six weeks, we will strain the tincture, bottle it, and distribute it among our peers.

Creating your own tinctures at home is simple, cost-effective, and fun. For more detailed information on creating herbal tinctures, here is a guide to some common herbs and how to best harvest them, as well  step by step instructions to making tinctures.

Wishing you happy harvests and good health!

 

Pickle Night with the Community Teaching Garden!

Last week, students from the beginner and advanced Community Teaching Garden courses joined forces to learn about pickle making. Guided by Vermont Community Garden Network’s Executive Director, Jess Hyman, students learned some basic principals of pickle making, then worked together to process 48 pints of pickles using fresh vegetables from their gardens including cucumbers, beets, beans, and squash. This cooking adventure was made possible by the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, who very kindly offered us use of their well-equipped kitchen for the evening!

Proud Picklers!
The Proud Picklers of the Community Teaching Gardens!

Before getting to work, we sampled some delicious pickles, relishes, and ketchups that Jess brought from her pantry. Jess gave an overview of pickling basics, then discussed some of the benefits of pickling, including maintaining a high nutrient content in your preserved foods and reducing food waste. Most student questions centered around food safety, and students were reassured that by taking some simple steps to sterilize their equipment and properly seal their jars, they could happily enjoy their pickles long into the future. If you are interested in pickling, but concerned about safety, there are extensive online resources available to get you started including this illustrated guide to water bath canning and the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.

After our lesson, we got to work creating making a sweet and a sour pickle brine, washing, cleaning, and chopping our vegetables. Students then packed their jars with their desired vegetables and used herbs and spices to re-create some of their favorite pickles like dilly beans or bread and butter cucumbers, or to invent their own creative pickles. Some students canned their pickles for later consumption, while others made refrigerator pickles to be eaten in a shorter period of time.

A favorite recipe from past pickle nights is Jess’ Zucchini Relish, which we did not make on pickle night, but did relish in tasting! We hope this recipe will serve you well as you harvest your zucchinis this season.

Jess’ Zucchini Relish (Adapted from Wendy Quarry)

Ingredients:

  • 10 cups finely chopped zucchini (pulse chunks in food processor)
  • 4 cups finely chopped onion
  • 2 finely chopped red or green peppers
  • 5 Tbs pickling salt

Mix together and let stand overnight. Drain, rinse in cold water, and drain again. It’s okay to skip this step, but your relish will not be as crisp. 

Put vegetables in a non-reactive pot with:

  • 2 1/2 cups white vinegar
  • 4 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 Tbs each nutmeg, dry mustard, turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 2 tsp celery salt

Bring to a boil and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally.

Fill sterilized jars and process for storage using the following steps:

  1. After filling jars, use a (sterilized) chopstick or knife to remove air bubbles,
  2. Wipe rim with damp paper towel.
  3. Put lid on and ring “finger tight.”
  4. Return jars to water and simmer for 15 minutes, making sure there is at least 1 inch of water over the jars.
  5. Remove the jars and gently place on towel to cool. Listen for “pop” and do not disturb for 12 hours.
  6. Check for seal and refrigerate any jar that has not sealed.

Enjoy!

 

Times of Abundance: Sharing and Preserving Your Harvest

After a slow start to a season marked with cold, rain, and flooding, the Community Teaching Gardens have taken off, and are now in states of utter abundance. You may be surprised to find a large harvest that seems to sneak out of nowhere, seemingly overnight, a bushel of beans, a clump of cucumbers, or a zucchini the size of a baseball bat. Among these curiosities, the plants that seemed to be lagging behind the others may surge, and you may find yourself with a larger harvest that you had plans for. In times of abundance, there are many ways to preserve and share!

Recent Student Harvests
Recent student harvests from the Community Teaching Garden at the Tommy Thompson Community Garden.

One of our favorite ways to share the harvest is to incorporate garden-grown items into potluck treats. At our most recent monthly potluck, several participants noted that they thought they had nothing to make, only to take a closer look at their garden and discover lots of hidden treasures. Despite common harvests of kale, cabbage, cukes and more, ingredients were incorporated in distinct and unique ways, truly demonstrating a diversity in approaches and preparations.

Some methods of preservation work better for certain fruits and vegetables than for others. High Mowing Organic Seeds has created useful guide to how to best preserve commonly grown fruits and vegetables by picking, fermenting, freezing or drying them.

Finally, the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf is happy to accept donations of your homegrown vegetables. Conveniently located at 228 North Winooski Avenue, the food shelf is open from 9:00-4:00 Monday through Friday.

We hope you are enjoying this period of abundance! If you have a favorite pickle, preserve or ferment you’d like to share with us, we’d love to hear from you!

 

Sauerkraut Night!

If you’ve visited the Community Teaching Garden at the Ethan Allen Homestead recently, you may have noticed an exceptionally good looking cabbage patch. Last week, these delightful cabbages were ready to harvest on what is always one of the most enjoyable nights of the season– Sauerkraut Night! One of the highlights of the Community Teaching Garden program is harvesting and processing food on-site in the idyllic twilight hours of the evening. Despite rain, cold, and vicious mosquitoes for this cooking adventure, the CTG students’ spirits were undampened and they produced enough sauerkraut for each student to take home two or three pints!

For many, this was their first foray into fermenting. Thankfully, it is a fairly straightforward process, and one that has been honed through various cultures over thousands of years. For our purposes, we followed a simple recipe: 1 medium cabbage and one tablespoon of salt. Students chose red, green, or mixed cabbage, and after washing the cabbage and removing any bad spots, cut it into thin ribbons. They then set to work massaging the cabbage with the salt. As they massaged the cabbage, it began to release its juices. Some students added other hard vegetables like carrots, while others added caraway seeds. After their cabbage was nice and juicy, students packed it into wide-mouth pint jars and compressed it below a cabbage leaf to help keep the kraut submerged in liquid.

Students were encouraged to top their sauerkraut off with a small bag of stones, a pickle pebble, or a bag of brine to to ensure the cabbage remained submerged while fermenting. By tasting their kraut every day, they could determine the level of fermentation that suited their tastes. In warm weather, a week or two is recommended! Moving the kraut to the fridge will slow the fermentation process, but not stop it completely. If more brine is needed, a simple ratio of four cups water to one tablespoon of salt does the trick.

Following these simple steps can lead to delicious results! But if you are looking for a more detailed recipe, Sandor Katz’s sauerkraut is a great place to start. Enjoy!

 

A Visit to Queen City Acres

This week, students from the Community Teaching Garden visited one of the sites for Queen City Acres in Burlington’s New North End. Nestled behind a home on a quiet cul-de-sac, one would not expect to find such a dense and productive growing space. It was there we met Ethan Thompson, the urban homesteader behind Queen City Acres.

QCA ET
Ethan Thompson of Queen City Acres. 

For the CTG students, this was a great opportunity to learn more about some of skills, practices, and tools that can be helpful when transitioning to growing on a larger scale or using a production model. Our plots at the Ethan Allen Homestead and Tommy Thompson Community Gardens tend to measure around four by twenty feet. Ethan’s growing space in the New North End is about one tenth of an acre. While it is densely planted, it is spacious enough that his plants appear happy and healthy and clearly produce a high yield.

QCA Lower and Lean Tomato Structure
Ethan explains the principals of a tomahook system and lower and lean planting to students.

Many of the CTG students were particularly interested in the scaffolding Ethan uses to grow his tomatoes, implementing a lower and lean technique (see above). He also had an interesting collection of tools which make managing his homestead with just a small, dedicated crew of weekly volunteers a feasible venture. Among the tools that were new to students were the tilther, the jang seeder, the flame weeder, and the Quick-Cut Greens Harvester. Both the tilther and the greens harvester are powered by a cordless drill, and it was fun to see a common tool repurposed to power garden equipment.

QCA Tools
A Quick-Cut Greens Harvester

Thank you again to Ethan for taking the time to show us around, and for making our visits to your homestead both educational and fun!

To learn more about Queen City Acres, check out their website, Facebook page, or stop by  one of their weekly pop-up markets at MetroRock Station in Essex (Thursdays 6-9) or Scout & Co. in the Old North End (Fridays 4-7).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preserving the Harvest: Medicinal Herbs and Flowers

It is hard to believe the middle of July is upon us! After a cool, rainy start to the season, we have had abundant sunshine in past weeks, which has led our gardens to take off! We are now harvesting our first cucumbers, zucchinis, and summer squash, as well as herbs, greens, and flowers. While there are some staples we get to enjoy all season, the students in the Community Teaching Garden have not forgotten to savor those foods we have just a fleeting moment to enjoy. For many, that means preserving the harvest just as quickly as these seasonal treats come and go. This spring and early summer, we have already enjoyed lemon balm, rhubarb, and strawberry jams, candied angelica, pickled fiddleheads, kimchi, and a variety of pestos, all made with ingredients from the garden. We look forward to preparing and sharing more of our harvest as the season progresses!

 

In order to make the most of our harvest, the students in the Community Teaching Garden advanced course have begun to focus their attention on the herbs and flowers they would like to process throughout the season. Specifically, we have begun to collect and dry calendula, lavender, mint, and lemon balm to include in teas, salves, and balms. Additional herbs we hope to incorporate in our preparations include skullcap, chamomile, yarrow, and bee balm. A simple approach to drying herbs and flowers is to hang them in a shady, dry spot with some airflow (see below). Alternatively, it is quite simple and inexpensive to build drying screens at home. Either way, it is important to make sure that herbs are completely dry before storing them in order to prevent rot.

Herbs drying
Mint dries in a student’s home.

We will also be using fresh herbs and flowers to make tinctures, butters, and honeys, and we look forward to sharing our recipes with you!