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Growing Saffron

Renee headshot

saffron flowers
Photo by Getty Images/FotoCuisinette

I love to try growing new things. I love to grow the tried-and-true things, too. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I always learn something new. Recently, I started thinking about what new plant I could try that would work well for my climate and soil. I thought: "what grows well in a Mediterranean climate?" From my days of living on the south coast of Spain, I immediately thought of saffron. It's a wonderful spice that the Spaniards add to paella and other dishes.

paella
Photo by Getty Images/Beli99

So, I just ordered eight saffron crocus bulbs from Amazon and I can't wait until they get here. I learned about saffron in researching what would grow well around here.

Saffron comes from the stamens in the flower of the saffron crocus. There are only three stamens, so you know it takes a lot to make enough to flavor a dish. This is why it is so expensive. That and the fact that it has to be harvested by hand. Saffron is known as "red gold," but surprisingly enough growing it is very simple. If you have the right climate and soil you can do it. You can also grow it in a pot, but I'm going to grow it outdoors because I live in the perfect climate and I've gotten my soil so it is perfect, too. 

In my locale you plant it from June to mid-September. It will flower throughout October the year after it is planted, so this is a long-term project for me .

You do not grow saffron from seed. You grow it from little bulbs also known as corms. The corms of the saffron crocus like a well-drained soil. So I'm careful to add a lot of compost to my heavy clay. I already have enough sand. My pH is correct (6 to 8). Also my saffron bed is in a sunny place, so when fall comes around next year it will be right for the flowering stage.

I will spread my fertilizer on the surface after I've planted and I will loosen the soil with my broadfork after pulling all the weeds and spreading a layer of straw mulch. I will put the corms into the ground at a depth of about 4 inches and I will space them about 4 inches apart. I do not plan to water in September unless we don't get any rain at all and, if so, I will only water them once.

What I am looking forward to is when my corms mature. I will get 40 corms from my eight if everything goes right. You eventually get five corms from one corm. We'll see how it goes.

I have a chicken-wire-protected garden area. I used the smallest chicken wire possible to keep little varmints out. I've been told that mice and voles are particularly fond of corms. If I see any evidence of tunneling I will encourage them to go elsewhere by mashing the tunnels. Rabbits are not a problem. They are stopped by my secure fence.

Next year I hope to harvest and then I will carefully extract the three red filaments from the pistil with some tweezers.

I will dry them by putting the pistils in well ventilated food dryer, or in the oven on very low with the door slightly open, or in the shade on a hot day. My climate supports drying outdoors. For example, I've had great success drying herbs, tomatoes and figs outdoors.

This is ongoing so I will report from time to time on the status. What unusual plants are you growing?

Dudley Do-wrong in the Garden

 Renee headshot

 

Dear readers, It's been a while since I've posted. I've missed you! I can only say that putting up a brand new homestead from (nearly) scratch is a lot of work. Especially if you have a day job like I do. However, things have simmered down and now I hope to post on a regular basis. I have so many things I would like to share with you! Peace and love, Renee

We've finally been here more than a year so with the benefit of hindsight I can offer a what I've learned. What did I do right and what did I do wrong? As the growing season changes from summer to winter, I reflect on what mistakes I've made and what I've learned. Since this is a share and share alike endeavor, I'll give you some of my insights and hopefully you'll share some of yours and we'll all get brilliant!

garden
Notice that this is an oasis of green in an otherwise brown landscape.

What I did wrong

Plant the wrong plant in the wrong place. I planted my Walla Walla onions where they did not get enough water. I had the mistaken idea that they would do just fine on one section of  drip line. Oh no. They wanted a lot more water than they got. What happened? My onions grew some but not very much. What I was expecting? Great big giant onions sweet-as-pie. What did I get? A bunch of medium to dinky onions not at all sweet-as -pie. Usable. Disappointing.

Plant too far apart. I could have maximized my yield by planting a lot more and closer together. I wound up with a lot of extra space between my zucchini, herbs and peppers. I thought the zucchini was going to sprawl all over the place and it didn't.

Improper planting. I did not plant my onions deep enough. The combination of this and not enough water and next thing you know the tops fell over, the bulbs were stunted, and the plants themselves struggled. Plant a little deeper next time.

Plant at the wrong time of year. This was something that occurred right after we arrived in March 2016. It was already too late to plant in May. Only three little carrots came up.  Oh, brave souls. The force is strong in those ones! It just got too hot too soon for the rest of them to make it. That sun! 93,000 million miles away and so hot!

Improper watering. You would think that here in the Central Valley you can't water too much. Guess what? You are right! Trick question! What you can do is not water enough! And don't let Bermuda grass have its way as it will steal water from the important plants. I got lazy and now I regret it. My lovely California pepper tree looks like it's had it. I'm taking steps and hoping that it will rebound once the weather gets cooler.

Improperly timed watering. When it's hot it's easy to get your timing off and next thing you know everything is wilted. Luckily, I did not get distracted to the point that my plants were not able to come back. (except for maybe the pepper tree). Everything else did come back but it was by the skin of my teeth. Plus, I had to do battle with white flies on stressed plants. I think a timer will be a good addition.

What I did right

Prepare the soil prior to planting. I have learned so much about this I could burst a blood vessel. Wherever I've lived in California I've found horrible soil. Yes, I know California is supposed to be the veggie capital of America, but let me tell you something: It's not the capital everywhere in California. Just in special places. Like the Salinas Valley for example. Wherever I've lived it's been cattle country or graded-over housing tracts where they've scraped off anything that might have even slightly been good soil. So I've learned that I really have to amend, amend, amend. Recently we made a trip into the Sierra and made off with some nicely decomposed granite. I'm really curious to see if this is a good addition to my soil with a lot of organic matter added to balance it out.

Install a sun screen. When the weather gets very hot, a simple sunshade really helps with water retention and sun protection. As soon as I had a forecast of triple digits we put it right up.

Mulch. I mulched like a son of a gun. There must have been 5 inches or more of old straw and cow hay that I piled over a layer of corrugate and then let it overwinter. Boy, did I get a great crop of earthworms and toads! Yahoo! When those little guys are there, you know something is right.

Fertilize. I added fish emulsion to my watering can and my little crape myrtles, dogwoods and red bud trees are doing great!

Do a soil test. This is how I knew that I needed calcium and organic matter. Last year I sent away samples to a place in Ohio and it was well worth it. I also did a simple 24-hour sedimentation test, so I found out how much sand and clay I had. Know your soil! It's the basis of everything. Without good soil you might as well forget the whole thing and go buy your veggies at the farmers' market. Otherwise you can be doing a lot of work for little return.

Pick the Right Vegetables. I picked vegetables that can handle our conditions. Know your conditions and then pick the plants that can handle those conditions. Otherwise you may be fighting a losing battle.

Here are my "must-haves" in the order of importance:

1. Good soil.

2. The right amount of water perfectly timed.

3. Plant the right things at the right time.

Growing is a life-long learning process. I've suffered my share of disappointment and I've learned from all of it. The journey is the goal.

My Dowsing Experiment

Renee headshot 

The two wires I held loosely in my hands quivered. As I walked slowly forward, they began to sway back and forth. In a flash they crossed and stayed crossed. I stopped and backed up a few steps. They uncrossed. A few steps forward and again they crossed. A palpable sense of energy was there, but was it?

I had to get to the bottom of it if I could.

Here's how it started: Our new friends Frank and Sharon came over for dinner. It was a lovely night, mild and clear. We had lemonade, grilled rib eye, baked potatoes, and green salad. To finish, we had homemade apple pie that I made from scratch and vanilla ice cream that I didn't. It was one of those wonderful traditional American meals and it was good. After dinner and before the pie, we sat out back under the covered patio and talked. Marty and Frank are horsemen and go nonstop talking about horses and the "good ol' days."  Sharon and I, well, we just like to talk. After a bit, I brought out my cork "magic" trick, which nobody ever understands even when I show them. I admit, it's pretty hard to understand. You have to be good spatially. How did the corks get from in between my thumb and forefingers into my opposite thumb and middle finger? You have to be there to see it.

corks

Then Frank said to Marty, "Do you have some wire?" Marty said yes. We all trooped out to the barn and got a couple lengths of baling wire about 16 inches long each. Frank bent each one into an "L" shape.

IMG_9109

Then we went out by the hot walker where Marty had been wondering where to dig to find the waterline that had been lost to history (A hot walker is a contraption that is used to walk horses that have been worked and are sweaty and need to cool down.).

hotwalker

Frank loosely held the two wires in his hands and started to circumnavigate the hot walker. As he approached the section where the spigot was, I'll be darned if those two wires he had in his hand did not slowly start to move and cross! Then he backed away and they uncrossed! I was flabbergasted.

I have never seen anyone dowse first hand. I asked if I could do it. He gave me the wires and I went to a different area in the yard. Nothing happened. Then I went to the front yard where I know there's the septic tank. As I approached the area where I know the tank is, the wires started to move toward each other. When I was right on top of it, they were completely crossed. I backed off, they uncrossed. I went back, they crossed.

cross

Holey moley. Can someone tell me how this works? I would have said hogwash before.

So we decided to do an experiment. This time I would hold the wires same as before, but this time I promised to keep my eyes shut as Marty steered me here and there so I wouldn't know where I was. Here's my report on what happened: Eyes shut, I was steered to the area of the septic tank. Folks, the wires did not cross. So I opened my eyes and backed up a few steps. Then I went back again with my eyes open. This time they crossed. I absolutely did not make the wires move.

So what's the answer, folks? It seems that some subconscious effort is getting the wires to move when the operator wants them to.

Here's my video of our experiment: https://youtu.be/k0Y_FnlYCIM

I went looking for the history of dowsing. Here is an excerpt from an essay written by Lloyd Youngblood of the American Society of Dowsers: "The ancient art of dowsing has been practiced throughout millennia and although what it was called has changed in different cultures and eras, the techniques have not. In the Atlas Mts. of North Africa, pre-historic paintings have shown what appears to be a painting of a dowser, holding a forked branch in his hand, surrounded by a group of tribesmen. These wall murals were found to be a least 8000 years old."

From E.S. Cumbie's book The Psychometric Pendulum and the Pendulum Board:  "In ancient times, the priesthood felt that the layman did not have the belief, knowledge or training to contact the cosmic mind for enlightenment. So the poor people were forced to rely upon the priests to gain the guidance they sought from a higher source and the priests used dowsing devices to make this contact.”

It still seems to be practiced this way today.

Why is it called dowsing? According to Christopher Bird, author of the book The Divining Hand, no one is certain of the origin of the verb "dowse." It made its first appearance in 1650 in an essay written by the English Philosopher John Locke. In his essay, Locke wrote that by the use of the dowsing rod, one could discover water. Locke appropriated his phrase from the English west country language — where in Cornish "Dewsys" meant “Goddess,” and “Rhod” meant tree branch — from which he coined the phrase "Dowsing Rod (OK, it's a "Goddess Rod")."

So how does dowsing work? Countless theories abound, even today, yet, I am not absolutely certain that any one, or even a combination of such theories, discloses the whole story.

Yes, I agree with Mr. Bird. It's hard to explain but it seems that somehow the holder of the dowsing rods, unbeknownst to them, is influencing the rods on a very, very subtle level. That is what my experiment showed me. What do you think?

The First Day of Spring

Renee headshotHow do you know it's the first day of spring in orchard country?

If you said, "Look at the calendar and see what's written there," you would, unfortunately, be wrong. You might also say something like, "Well, it's the first day of spring when the bees are buzzing and the trees start to bloom." You'd be pretty close, but no cigar!

Around here, the first day of spring is when your house is dive-bombed by a crop duster.

crop duster 1
Here comes the villain

It is always on Sunday — just when you've decided to sleep in before you finally admit you need to drag yourself out of bed to feed the livestock and then be on time for church. Are you kidding? On this first day of spring, there's absolutely no sleeping in.

Why does it have to be Sunday? Think of all the lovely days of the week that are perfectly suitable for the First Day flyover. There's the wonderful Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. There's even Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. But, NO. It's got to be Sunday for some reason. I can just see the pilot maniacally laughing as he does his low flyover on the way to the almond orchards.

"Ha ha! Just try to sleep in! Ha ha! It's the Red Baron in his biplane and I have the controls!" The house rattles. The horses, sheep, chickens, and ducks scatter! You go out the back door and glare and the pilot just tips his wings in acknowledgement and comes back again in two minutes. I can think of a number of ways to exact revenge — none of them safe. I guess I'd rather be dive-bombed than crashed into. However, a giant slingshot loaded with cow manure comes to mind. Ready! Aim! Fire!

crop duster 4
Take that! You scoundrel!

The true solution for the First Day of Spring is to get out of bed early, ahead of the villain, and head for the local cafe for ham and eggs over-easy with a big cup of joe. See you there!

Funny Name, Great Flavor!

Renee headshotMy mother frequently made a simple macaroni dish during my childhood. She called it "slumgullion," and we kids gobbled it up like there was no tomorrow.

I don't know where my mom got this recipe, and unfortunately she's gone, so I went to the internet and looked to see what I could find about this delectable dish. It turns out that there's a few cultures that have recipe using the name "slumgullion," which, frankly, does not sound very appealing. And, as it also turns out, it was not very appealing long ago because sometimes it was made from fish offal. It was described as “the watery refuse, mixed with blood and oil, which drains from blubber," and that sure ain't appetizing, is it? In the Gold Rush of 1849, slumgullion was the name for the muddy deposits at a mining sluice. And, finally, it came to mean a watery stew.

Back in the day, there was no firm recipe; they just used what they had. Meat was scarce, so sometimes sparrows or pigeons went into the stew. Onions and salt were added, presumably to kill the odor of the not-so-great cooking meat. Vegetables would round it out, and if they had flour, they thickened it. Slumgullion falls into the category of a clean-out-the-refrigerator type of meal. My mom made it this way. How do you make it?

My Mother's Slumgullion

8 servings

Ingredients

• 1 (16 ounce) package elbow macaroni
• 1 pound lean ground beef
• 1 large onion, chopped
• 2 teaspoons minced garlic
• salt and pepper to taste
• 1 (14.5 ounce) can stewed tomatoes

Instructions

pasta

1. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for 8 to 10 minutes according to package directions; drain and place in large saucepan.

meat

2. Meanwhile, in a large skillet, brown beef over medium heat; just before beef is browned, stir in onion.

mix

3. Add beef mixture to pasta and stir in garlic, salt, pepper and stewed tomatoes. Mix it all up and cook over low heat, 10 to 15 minutes, or until heated through. I don't know how, but the stewed tomatoes make a kind of sauce over the whole thing so it's moist and delicious.

done

Celery, mushrooms, and other meats such as leftover steak and cooked chicken are also good to add if you have them. I like to sprinkle bread crumbs or Parmesan cheese on it.

It's super easy and quite tasty. Anyway, we kids thought it was the best thing since sliced bread!

Easy, Homemade, Fire Starters

Renee headshotMy husband, dear one that he is, comes down most decidedly on the side of practicality in almost every situation. For example, for years he has been using lighter fluid to start our woodstove fires. It's cheap and readily available. In our drafty, old, mobile home when we lived on the ranch, I didn't mind so much when the house reeked of jet fuel in the mornings. It burned away quickly, and then we were about our business. He didn't like using newspaper to get the fire started because, well, first you have to have newspaper and there's no way I'm subscribing just to get stuff to start a fire. Besides, paper tends to make a LOT of ash, and who wants to clean more than you have to? So there. We were subjected to jet fuel in the morning.

Here in our new home, with its brand-new windows and no leaks as far as I can discern, the jet-fuel smell lingers just a tad longer than I care for. So, what to do? I decided I would make my own "fatwood" or fire starters. Looking at the expensive fatwood package in the store, I saw that it is nothing more than resinous wood. To have fatwood, we would have to make a trip up to the mountains. Someday we will. Fire starters are easy to make right now instead. The fire starters are only paraffin and wood particles. Luckily, I have paraffin leftover from candle-making. Paraffin is not exactly cheap, but I won't be using that much. A little goes a long way.

I proceeded full steam ahead.

The next question was what to mix in with the paraffin to make what is essentially a hot candle. I looked around. First, we went to the lumber yard. No luck there. All their sawdust was mixed up; I needed straight wood-saw dust, not sawdust with OSB or treated wood mixed in. Remember, I was trying to be pristine and healthful here and not go back to noxious, poisonous fumes.

When we got home, I remembered that we had cedar shavings for the dog kennel. Voila! Let's try 'er and see what happens. After a little experimentation, I found a recipe that works like a charm.

Homemade Fire Starters

7 finished

For 12 small fire starters, enough for 6 fires, you will need:

• 5 ounces paraffin
• no-stick pot with spouts
• small muffin tin with 12 slots
• foil
• a couple cups of cedar shavings
• double boiler (or 2 pots, one slightly larger than the other so they nest)

1. Take your paraffin and put it in the smaller pot, or in the top of your double boiler. I got my small pot from a secondhand store, and it is dedicated to making candles and cosmetics. The best kind of pot is one that you can pour from either side.

2 melt

2. With water in your large pot or the bottom of your double boiler, put your small pot in the slightly larger pot so that it's resting on the sides just above the water. Bring it to the boil. Boil until all the paraffin is melted. Keep an eye on the paraffin and the water level. Two things: don't let the pot boil dry, and remember that the paraffin is flammable. That's why we use a double boiler rather than direct flame; we don't want it to get too hot and burst into flame!

(Important safety tip: if you ever have a fire like this, do NOT throw water on it. I repeat, DO NOT throw water on it. The way to put it out is to smother it with a pot lid. Throwing water on it will cause an explosion!)

4 line

3. While the paraffin is melting, line your muffin tins with foil. Try to make it so there is no way that the paraffin can leak out. It's not a big disaster if it does, but you will have a much easier time peeling away the foil if the paraffin stays inside of it. A single piece of foil is good. I cut rounds and then carefully lined the muffin trays.

5 stuff

4. Stuff as many cedar shavings into the trays as you can. Push them down. Cram them in.

6 pour

5. When your paraffin is melted, pour a little bit of paraffin in each pile of cedar shavings. Just enough to get the shavings wet. You don't want a big old cake of paraffin; little bit of paraffin goes a long way.

6. Then, just let them set on the counter. If you want to speed things up, put the whole she-bang in the freezer.

8 stove

When you go to use them, just put a little platform made from a couple of sticks of kindling in your hearth or stove. Then, put a couple of the "pucks" on top of the little platform. Pile a few more sticks of kindling on the pucks. Light the puck with a match or lighter wand and pile up more kindling. The kindling will light because the pucks will burn for a while. Long enough to catch the kindling on fire. Then you're on your way!

Happy Yuletide!

Homemade Baked Beans

Renee headshotsunny beach

We went to Santa Maria the other day. It's nice to be able to go to the coast, even when it's not hot. There's something about that great, big, huge ocean that soothes the soul. While we were there, I had to get some poquito beans. Now that we don't live up north next to Anna and Ed, I have no way of getting them except by mail order, which I'm not going to do. It's not that much of an emergency. Anna and Ed used to be our reliable suppliers, and we miss those two dearly.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I have to wait until there's a reason to make the journey and get some poquito beans where we're already going. So when we made plans to go to the area where they grow the beans, and where they got their fame as a side dish to the well-known Santa-Maria-style barbecue, I thought, "Well, let's get some beans while we're there!"

We drove around and then had a nice hike to the beach. On the way back, it was time to hunt up a grocery store that sold the beans. I felt that a local store would be more likely to have them than a big chain store. The first place we went to was the local Spencer's. I went directly to the dried bean section and was immediately disappointed. I'm not accepting this, I said, so found a clerk and asked, "Where are your poquito beans?" Sure enough, they did have them. They were just in the produce section and in bulk. I bought three pounds, and now I'm going to make baked beans.

Poquito beans are so nice because they don't turn to mush. They hold their shape. Below is my personalized recipe. My husband likes canned Campbell's baked beans, so I try to make them taste like that.

done

Serves 6

Ingredients:

• 1 lb. dried poquito beans
• 1/2 lb. thick-cut bacon, chopped
• 1/2 large onion, chopped
• 1/4 cup tomato paste or 1/2 cup tomato sauce
• 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
• 1/4 cup molasses
• 1 teaspoon dry mustard
• 1 teaspoon black pepper
• 2 teaspoon salt
Optional: reserved soaking water with chicken bouillon

Instructions:

1. Cover your beans with cold water and soak them overnight.

soak

2. When you're ready to start, preheat your oven to 250 degrees F.

3. Put a 3-quart or larger, oven-safe pot over medium heat. (I use an enamel-coated iron pot like a Creuset. Mine is a Creuset knock-off that I found at a garage sale. It's a Martha Stewart brand, and it works fine and is a cute red. To make it work in the oven, I removed the original plastic knob and put on a metal knob. I used a drawer pull from the hardware store and fastened it with a locking nut.) A small, iron, Dutch oven would work, too.

 bacon

4. Add the chopped, uncooked bacon and onion. Cook about 10 minutes, until the onions are nice and soft.

ingredients

5. Now stir in the tomato, brown sugar, and molasses. Here's a hint: If you coat your measuring cup lightly with oil, the molasses will pour out cleanly, without sticking.

6. Drain the beans and save the liquid. We'll use that in a minute. Now, add the beans to the pot. Then add enough of the saved liquid to cover the beans. I add a teaspoon of Better Than Bouillon chicken bouillon to the liquid for added flavor. Vegetable bouillon would be great, too, and would make it vegan or vegetarian.

 simmer

7. Increase the heat to high and allow the beans to boil. Now add the mustard, black pepper, and salt. Stir and cover the pot with a lid. Place the whole shebang in the oven and bake until the beans are soft. Check them after an hour passes to see how they're doing, and then on an hourly basis until they are the texture you like. I like them on the crunchy side, but you may like them softer.

This is going to be our dinner tonight with good sourdough bread and a glass of beer. Simple, nourishing, homemade food.