Author Archives: Ken Hansen

Beans Think Onions Stink

If bean plants could talk, they’d ask the onions to leave the premises immediately. This is for real, people! They’d pinch their noses and shout thusly: “Hey! You wid da face! You’re pudding a big hurt od by doze! Gid oudda here awreddy! Can’t lib here wid dis stinking!!”

This of course makes the onions cry. After all, they can’t help the fact that they were born with a natural fragrance that bean plants find offensive. Not to worry, the cabbage family and several other vegetables are happy to have onions in the neighborhood.

Forgive me while I indulge in this good stink / bad stink talk. I can’t help but think about it because in these parts, garden planting time is very near and I get to thinking out loud about what goes where in the dirt. Companion planting, or the practice of putting plants that benefit each other, is a cool thing for us organic-type gardeners. If plants can be happy together, they are much healthier. Having healthy plants means better yields and fewer problems with bugs and diseases.

Onions exude chemicals that prevent beans, peas, and other legumes from making nitrogen in the soil with their toes. If you’ve ever yanked a bean plant out of the dirt, you might have noticed the rhizomes (little round bumps) on the roots. Well, the beans do NOT have tumors. The rhizomes are where the action is: bean-friendly bacteria live there and make nitrogen for the bean plants and anyone else who happens to be nearby. That is, unless the onions are in town. Then they will be stunted and just sit there twiddling their toes.

However, cabbage and its relatives (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc.) love those onions, because they help keep the cabbage butterflies away, and also keep the aphid population down. Both of those bugs love their cabbage, but, like beans, most bugs also hate onion breath. For an experiment, I’ve been planting onion sets near my tomato plants over the last few years. The result: I haven’t seen any tomato worms!! And when other gardeners are complaining of their tomatoes getting wilt, mine are pretty happy.

Other examples of companion planting: corn says thank you to the beans and peas for being there and doing the cool nitrogen toe jam thing. Corn likes the nitrogen produced by the legumes. In return, the beans and peas give the corn a high five for wind protection and shade. Corn plants also make nice poles upon which peas and runner beans can climb. Between the corn rows, squash, pumpkins, and even cucumbers get the shade they like, and they in turn shade the corn’s roots and keep them cool. Everybody happy.

On the other hand, you have marigolds. OK, maybe you don’t. Those can go near anything. All the vegetable clans love marigolds; they attract bees and they even stimulate plant growth. My kinda friends!

Grandmas and Grandpas used to know lots of this stuff, and Native Peoples were (probably still are) very much in tune with companion planting. Unfortunately, however, farm and garden chemical companies would love for you to forget all about that. Those fancy commercials showing folks winning cool prizes for big veggies do tend to get one’s attention. These same chemical companies are conveniently quiet about the nasty stuff flowing into our lakes and streams when herbicides and pesticides are washed out of our dirt during a good rain. And of course God only knows what effects these chemicals have on our health.

But fear not, organically grown produce is finally becoming more mainstream. People are “discovering” accounts of when early European settlers found Native People growing pumpkins with their corn. It was no accident.

It takes some research, along with some trial and error, to learn which plants grow well together. Now that we have the interwebs, going to a place like Google and doing a search on companion planting will give you plenty of stuff to read.

Bringin’ In The Greens

Here we are in mid November and there’s still some harvesting to be done.  Been getting some cold nights; several overnight lows in the 20s.  We know from experience that although some greens can take the cold, it’s best to harvest as much as possible before the severe cold arrives.

We love Swiss Chard because it’s so easy to grow.  Though more closely related to beets, the flavor is much like spinach but the leaves are much more robust.  They’ll produce delicious leaves all through summer and almost till the snow flies.  However, the leaves won’t do very well when the temperature stays below freezing.  That’s why we thought we’d better get with the program and pick the Swiss Chard today.  I knew the harvest would be pretty good so I lined my contractor sized wheelbarrow with an old bed sheet and started picking.  I got about 14 pounds.

To harvest, I carefully peel away the stem from the base of the plant.  Takes practice to do this without damaging the roots.  If I sense there’s too much resistance, I simply cut the stem as close the plant as I can.  Any dead or dying leaves or stems are removed first and tossed in the compost.  I leave a few leaves in the middle just in case we get warm enough weather to have more growth.  Also, after I’m done trimming the plants down; I mulch them around the stem with leaves to protect the root system.  I’ll leave the small center leaves exposed until the real cold comes; again just in case it’s warm enough to get another fresh harvest.  If the plant covered completely before the snow flies, they will winter over and make new growth in the spring.

If allowed to grow the 2nd season they will go to seed.  This year’s harvest came from seed I saved from two years ago.  I found out the hard way that when Swiss chard is allowed to seed, it needs LOTS of room!!

After picking I bring them inside, and blanch them in boiling water for about 15 – 20 seconds; after which they are dumped into a cold water bath.  For the boiling water we use a large Revere Ware pot; inside of which is a large stainless steel colander we got from IKEA.  I chop up a large handful of greens and toss them into the colander, then take a wooden spoon and stir them into the boiling water for a few seconds.

After blanching I drain water from the colander back into the pot, then toss the greens into a large enamel pot full of cold water.  The pot’s almost as big as our kitchen sink.  Final stage is to scoop the greens out of the cold water bath; drain, and put in gallon freezer bags.  It’s important to keep the water cold so we end up dumping it a couple times after the water warms up.  Then we fill the pot with cold water again and carry on.

Today’s harvest yielded 6 gallon bags of Swiss chard for the freezer.  We’ll continue to eat fresh leaves until the weather changes; after that it’s time to raid the freezer.

Dunno about you but we think Swiss Chard leaves are simply beautiful. Click on the thumbnail pictures below for better views.




Greens For Lunch

Fall is harvest time here in West Michigan; and we sure do love it.  Right now the focus at our house is on the greens:  Swiss chard, wild cabbage (ancestor to kale, collards, etc.) and turnips.  The lower fall temperatures remove the bitterness that’s present during the summer.  And my how the greens are thriving these days!!

Nice thing about all of these is they can withstand temperatures that have already killed much of the garden.  They all survive the autumn frosts just fine; and can even be harvested in the dead of winter if protected properly.

Here’s a picture of some I picked today.  One of the wild cabbage leaves was pretty big!!  I put my Pyrex bowl, cutting board and chef’s knife in the photo for size comparison. Click the photo for a better view.

Greens with leftover chicken and broccoli

Of course, I’m also killing two stones with one bird:  I wanted to share how I make my lunch for work.  My “standard” cooking receptacle is a 4 cup Pyrex bowl with a vented lid; perfect for cooking in the microwave.  Tomorrow’s lunch will be very simple, yet very delicious:

1   small leftover broiled chicken breast (about 4 ounces), cut up into chunks

1/2 of a medium sized yellow onion

Chopped greens, enough to fill the bowl to the top.

And yes we eat the stems too!!  I sprinkle a little Kikkoman Gluten Free Soy Sauce to “kick it up a notch,” as Emeril might say.  Keep refrigerated until it’s time to eat, then nuke it for 3 minutes.  Mix the contents after cooking to toss the flavors all about.  MMmmmmm good!!


Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

Every year we carve Jack O’ Lanterns, and that of course yields plenty of seeds. Over the years, I’ve kept some for planting, but most were roasted. This year I posted a picture of the finished product on BookFace, and a friend of mine asked for the recipe. Well I’m sorry to say that I don’t really have a recipe; although they come out pretty darned good most of the time. We like our roasted pumpkin (or whatever other squash) seeds a little salty and spicy; and sometimes I get a bit exuberant with the condiments.

In other words, some batches come out better than others.

Anyway, here’s my basic process. First of all, I try to reduce the amount of squash guts that cling to the seeds when I gather what will go into the colander for washing. After the pumpkin is opened, I cup my fingers and press them against the inside wall of the pumpkin. I start at the bottom and pull my hand up the inside, which scoops the seeds but leaves a lot of the squash guts behind. Takes a little practice, but saves work when washing.

OK!! Without further ado, here’s how I roast the seeds:

  1. Wash and drain your pumpkin seeds
  2. Coat the inside of a large, shallow baking pan with olive oil. We use an old enamel coated broiling pan we’ve had for many moons. It measures 12 in. wide by 18 in. long and 1 in. deep.
  3. Pour the seeds into the pan and spread evenly.
  4. Now it’s time for the seasoning: sprinkle with Kikkoman Gluten Free soy sauce (the only one I’ve found with no garbage in it), garlic powder, chili powder, and a very light sprinkling of salt.
  5. Place in the center rack of your oven and turn the heat on (I do NOT preheat) to 350 F
  6. Allow the oven to come to temperature (about 6 minutes) and turn the heat off.
  7. Leave the seeds in the heated oven for about 20 minutes with the heat still off.
  8. After about 20 minutes, take the pan out with your pot holder or oven mitt with one hand and stir the seeds about with a butter knife with the other hand.
  9. Spread the seeds evenly again and place back in the oven.
  10. Turn on the heat again for a minute or two, and then off again.
  11. Repeat steps 8 thru 10 until the seeds are crunchy enough for your liking.

Often for the last step I’ll turn run the oven at 275 for about 3 minutes and leave the seeds in the oven overnight (or for a few hours). This really draws the moisture out and makes them delectable when eaten whole, husks and all.

Obviously the seasoning quantity will vary depending on your preference. And of course you can add other spices not listed here. Be adventurous! Enjoy!

Here’s a picture of our finished product… minus a few handfuls that were devoured before the photo was taken. Punkin seeds roasted

Diggin’ Them Crazy Taters

The potato vines are long dead, but I marked where they lived so I could remember where to dig.  Last several years I’ve been planting Adirondack Red and Adirondack Blue potatoes.  They are truly beautiful tubers both inside and out; and packed with more anti-oxidants than potatoes with white innards.  And of course, nothing beats the flavor of freshly dug potatoes.  These came out of the garden yesterday; I diced them up peels and all and fried them in butter.

Adirondack red & blueAlso made a scramble with chopped Swiss chard, onions, mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes; then topped it with cheese.  Onions, mushrooms, and peppers were store-bought; all the other veggies were picked this morning from the garden.   Well OK, all except the potatoes, that picking was yesterday.

Scramble supplies

A Beautiful Weekend For Saving Seeds

The weather has been simply awesome here in West Michigan this weekend.  Made it easy to spend more time in the garden; in spite of the fact that the grandsons were here for the weekend.  They did “help” me with some seed saving; Ollie actually processed a few pak choi pods with me while Gabe used the spent stalks for a light sabre.  Pretty good considering Ollie is 6 and Gabe is 2.

pak choi seed saving1   pak choi seed saving2   pak choi seed saving3

We rolled the pods between our fingers into a colander that sits on a 2 1/2 quart Revere Ware pot; then shuffle the colander to and fro over the pot till all the seeds have fallen through.  Then it’s time to discard the chaff and start again till all the pods have been emptied. out.  I’ll run the seeds through the colander a couple more times to get the big chunks out.  Doesn’t hurt anything to have a little “pod dust” in the final product, which I poured into a smaller ceramic bowl.  That will sit on top of the fridge for a few days to let the seeds dry a bit more.  Final step is to put them in a paper envelope and then into the fridge they go until spring planting time.

Greens And Roots

Aturnip and some wild cabbage will make a very nice addition to my stir fry.

A turnip and some wild cabbage will make a very nice addition to my stir fry.

Here we are in October already!!  Summers in Michigan sure seem to whiz by quickly.  But I take heart that there are still several more warm days ahead.  By warm, of course, I mean above 50 degrees.  Even with climate change we’re not gonna see 70s or above any time soon.  All my friends know I love to garden, and at work I’ve been asked more than once:  “So Ken, your garden pretty much done now?”  “No,” I reply, “there’s still lots of food in there.”

I go on to explain that although the tomatoes are pretty much done, there are still lots of greens to be had.  I rattle off names like Swiss chard and wild cabbage and I get some puzzled looks.  Many have heard of Swiss chard, although not very many folks eat it from what I can see.  And when I try to explain that wild cabbage is an ancestor to broccoli, collards, and other members of the cabbage family, I often get that “deer in the headlights” look.  Swiss chard and wild cabbage both thrive in cool weather; and will actively grow right up till Jack Frost starts blowing his wintry breath on the ground.

Turnips are another of my favorite cool weather crops.  They do really well when planted from seed in late July.   I often dice up the large roots and throw them into a stir-fry.  After cooking they are often mistaken for diced potatoes by unsuspecting guests.  The greens, normally strongly flavored (almost bitter) in summer, are mellowed out nicely by the cool temperatures.   I also use those in stir fry dishes, as well as soups.

So yes, the garden is still going even in autumn.