Alpine Lady

Honoring the natural world through prose, poetry, music, sounds, photographs and musings.


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Growing Bella Broccoli

My recollections of helping tend the family vegetable gardens while growing up on a small rural farm in North Idaho don’t involve the planting of broccoli. We grew more conventional foods: cabbage, carrots, lettuces, parsnips, peas, beans, corn, tomatoes, etc. However, when Michael and I moved to Interior Alaska near Fairbanks and grew food in the Salcha area beginning in 1973, broccoli became a favored food to grow along with other cool weather crops. Broccoli was ideally suited for the Land of the Midnight Sun with its abundance of daylight in mid-summer and growing season of less than 100 days. All members of the brassica family did particularly well.

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Willow, my side companion,  is making sure the rabbits stay out of the garden. This garden, hand-hewn out of blowdown amid a willow grove,  gave us lots of veggies. Without electricity, we ate our fresh bounty as it came on!

Having no electricity for grow lights, we sprouted seeds near the spring equinox on wet paper towels, poking the sprouted seeds directly into six-packs of seedling mix, placing them on white, plastic foam meat trays and sticking them on windowsills. Due to the low level of light, they grew spindly but we transplanted them into larger containers until the ground was warm enough to set outside. Eventually when the greenhouse was built, we moved the seedlings out there and kept them warm with a wood stove at night. Hardening them off for a few days before their final set out sometime in late May, we kept the plants under row cover until all danger of frost was past. Each plant stem was wrapped with a two-inch band of newspaper to prevent damage by cut worms at set out. Our soils were silt-based and required a great deal of organic matter to sustain the prolonged growth so were periodically side dressed with compost and fertilized with fish emulsion throughout the growing season. I often wondered if a bear got a whiff of the fish emulsion, what might happen to the garden. Harvest was completed by the end of August when the first real killing frost could occur.  And I do mean killing!

Cuppa broccoli, anyone? The sight of fireweed still excites me. Such a lovely and graceful plant and can cover acres of land.

Cuppa broccoli, anyone? The sight of fireweed still excites me. Such a lovely and graceful plant and can cover acres of land.

After we left Alaska, we learned new growing techniques. Peter Chan’s “Better Vegetable Gardens the Chinese Way” and his raised-bed system presented us with an idea of how to grow in heavy clay soils and also presented us with the idea of paper tubes to start the seedlings. Alan Chadwick’s biodynamic/French Intensive double-dug beds and ideas from John Jeavons’ Biointensive methods from his Ecology Action of the Mid-peninsula book, ” How to Grow More Vegetables, than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine,” also provided us with more ideas. Actually we visited John Jeavons’ gardens in Willits, CA , back in 1983. Also we traveled across country and visited Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion, ME, that same year. All were quite inspirational, to say the least.

When we moved back to North Idaho in the mid-80’s, we continued our practice of sprouting seeds around the new moon closest to the spring equinox and then transplanted them at the appropriate moon phase into plastic six-packs until they went into individual newspaper tubes. Although gardening was and remains a meditative act for me, the actually making of these tubes solidified that feeling each spring season as their construction takes awareness, appreciation and patience. Newspapers were cut into double strips and wrapped around the appropriate-sized shampoo bottle. The strips were secured with a line of liquid glue prior to setting them out in flats or in deep, wall-paper paste trays. A potting mixture slightly richer than the seedling starter had been sifted together and several tablespoons added into the tube and gently pressed down. The seedling was extracted carefully from its growing medium, the bottom two seed leaves snipped off and then the seedlings were placed into the tubes and soil added. I found they could be planted fairly deep at this point and would not get as spindly.

Michael had built shelves set up with grow lights that could be adjusted by altering the length of chains. If one variety was shorter than another, they could be accommodated with this method. The filled flats were placed under the grow lights, water added carefully around the sides but not directly on the soil thereby absorbed directly into the root zone eliminating soil compaction.

An effective lighting system to start healthy young plants.

An effective lighting system to start healthy young plants.

The young starts were rotated often to encourage straight growth, the lights moved to be within one to two inches above their tops until the plants were large enough and it was warm enough to harden them off on the front porch for a few days before setting them under the apple tree.

The young plants were set out on the front porch to harden off for a few days.

The young plants were set out on the front porch to harden off for a few days.

From their stint under the apple tree, they’d eventually go into Michael’s double-dug beds already enriched with worm compost and leaf mulch. I marked the center line and then dug a hole with my bulb planter on each side, spaced about a foot apart, adding crushed egg shells, nutritional yeast, a cup of compost and mixed well before adding a cup of fish emulsion, and covering with a scoop of top soil. Other amendments might be added as well.

The holes were dug with a bulb planter and filled with mixed medium before plants were situated.

The holes were dug with a bulb planter and filled with mixed medium before plants were situated.

Then when it came time for removing the plants carefully from the tubes, I found myself marveling at the healthy root structures started in this manner. Snipping off the bottom two leaves,  I’d individually wrap each stem with a two-inch square of newspaper to prevent cut worm damage and the plants buried half-way down that square. Mike would lay the soaker hose at the center and we’d let the water drip until the starts were well watered. We erected a row cover with heavy wires and remay and kept the plants covered until growing strong on their own.

Setting out the young broccoli plants.

Setting out the young broccoli plants.

Daily inspection for insect damage and handpicking off any caterpillars or washing off aphids was a must. At one time, I used the “organic pesticide” Bacillus thuringiensis or BT to control the white cabbage looper moth that flit from plant to plant laying its minuscule eggs. I stopped using BT when I noticed the beneficial wasps that came to attack the cabbage looper caterpillar were exhibiting signs of nerve damage. For me it was an up-close personal look at how beneficial insects react to even allowable insecticides. The daily examination became an even more meditative experience and gave me an eye into what other insect activity took place and how we could adjust the light, irrigating, air circulation, and nutritional additions to assist in the plants’ healthy growth, a relatively easy thing to do with 20-30 plants. The bird traffic in and around the plants increased as well after I stopped using the BT.

Plants were inspected daily for insect eggs and damage so the infestation did not get out of control.

Plants were inspected daily for insect eggs and damage so the infestation did not get out of control. Keeping a journal of our yearly gardening activities was a must and saved a lot of guesswork.

As the plants grew, they received fish emulsion and side feedings of compost and Michael removed their bottom leaves for improved air circulation. Good soakings with the soaker hose and overhead waterings done early in the mornings whenever needed gave them a refreshing shower to last through the heat of the day. Our soils in Idaho were clay-based and ate up any organic matter we fed them. Producing copious amounts of compost and incorporating composted horse manures or bringing in llama poop and birch leaves was a must. The birch leaves were turned into the fall soils and allowed to breakdown during the wet and snowy fall, winter, and early spring seasons.

Side dressing broccoli plants with worm compost.

Side dressing broccoli plants with worm compost. Will be scratched into surface.

With the first-sown crop, we found that by removing the bottom leaves and pinching the the blossom buds back, and keeping them as cool as possible during the heat of the summer, often was enough to get them through into the cool fall season and we’d get another good crop of side shoots before the killing frosts. I’d also start a second crop around the summer solstice but seeded them directly into prepared tubes. They were grown outdoors, kept as cool as possible and covered with row cover until set out  in the garden in late July or early August. Harvest wasn’t as prolific as the first crop but it was tasty, especially after a light touch of frost.

According to Wikipedia, broccoli has been considered since the time of the Roman Empire a uniquely valuable Italian food and was first brought to the US by Italian immigrants. My favorite broccoli plants belong to the Calabrese family with their large heads and thick stalks. The open-pollinated varieties I grew then are largely unavailable now but still the DiCicco and Waltham 29 can be found. I did seed a few hybrids as well, namely Packman, Green Valiant and Green Comet.

Bella broccoli

The broccoli plants could easily be covered with the remay stored in the middle for shade or frost protection. Sometimes for hail protection and wind protection, as well.

Our seedling mix: l part peat moss to 1 part vermiculite and 4 parts potting soil, sifted very fine. The transplanting mix: 1 part peat moss, 2 parts potting soil to 1 part compost, mixed and then sifted through larger mesh. Our garden set-out mixture included 1 tablespoon crushed egg shells, 1 cup compost, 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast and 1 cup of fish emulsion per plant. Throughout the season we’d side-dress with compost or fish emulsion, watering well after each addition.

A nice handful of home-grown organic broccoli.

A nice handful of home-grown organic broccoli.

With such copious amounts of broccoli, my preferred method of preserving was freezing them. This was done in an outdoor kitchen, utilizing a wok over a coleman stove for steaming and then immersing them in ice water before shaking out  the excess water and putting into freezer containers. Just about the time when the new spring seed catalogs arrived in mid-winter, I’d take out the few packages of broccoli that were always set aside along with a few packages of frozen peas and beans and make a pasta salad with our very own basil/garlic pesto. Yum!

Our outdoor kitchen. An amazing amount of food and herbal preparations occurred under this tarp!

Our outdoor kitchen. An amazing amount of food processing and herbal preparations occurred under this tarp!

Extra plants often made it into the floral and herb gardens for we truly loved the bluish-green hue of their leaves and admired their unique vase shape and button bud structures.

Bella broccoli showing off their lovely hues and buds.

Beautiful broccoli showing off their lovely hues and buds.

Although we’ve not grown it since moving to the Big Island of Hawaii in 2005, nor since moving to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in 2009, we found even in Hawaii, broccoli grew well in the upcountry and showed up in farmers’ markets. Of course, organic broccoli grows very well locally on the Peninsula with its extended cool spring and fall seasons and is available at farmers’ markets.

Even after all these years, broccoli continues to be a staple veggie for us finding itself added to the morning omelette, as a steamed veggie at dinner, and a valuable addition to pasta salads. Bella broccoli!

Bella Broccoli!

Bella Broccoli!


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The Alchemical Magic of Vermiculture

Worm-composted herbal and floral gardens.

Worm-composted herbal and floral gardens.

To most people who use worms to breakdown household kitchen scraps and especially to experienced vermiculturalists, a seething mass of healthy red, squirming compost worms delights the eyes. It means our efforts to utilize  compostable vegetative waste has been successful, and there’s a rich treasure of soil to help raise healthy plants. To me it’s akin to alchemical magic, transforming waste into black gold.

Ideal for the gardener who has a small to medium-sized garden and no real access to bountiful plant waste to make a  regular compost heap, the worm compost provides even an apartment dweller with rich soil for containers and flower boxes. Worm composting is simple to set up although I find its maintenance requires more attention to assure minimum odors if done indoors. If done outdoors, it is still a good habit to keep odors under control so as not to attract raccoons and rats. There is a plethora of videos, books, and websites that show and explain their construction so I won’t be going over that. This article is to share my journey and what has worked for me.

I grew up on a rural farmstead in north Idaho in the 50’s and 60’s. My family raised a variety of animals over time, adding their manures in the fall and spring to enrich and enliven the garden and orchard soils. Most of our household scraps were tossed to the chickens who dutifully did their duty of turning them into manure which we added to the garden. There was also a compost pile surrounded by railroad ties stuck off to the side into which stalks, weeds, etc. were piled and occasionally turned. No thought at the time was given to the leaching of creosote out of the bin but only that the ties wouldn’t deteriorate. The material in this pile served as a source for earthworms as bait for fishing expeditions and when there was enough broken down to have produced soil, it was tossed around the trees in the orchard, under the raspberry bushes, or under the shrubs in the flower gardens.

When Michael and I moved to Alaska, I was told you couldn’t compost so being the person who likes to take on a gardening dare, I found you could if you used a shredder first and turned the pile often and sifted it before applying to the gardens. I also ordered worms from the “Outside” and added them to our greenhouse beds each year. The worms froze during the severe freezes of winter except for a few worms I found one spring. We had a garden down below at the old, ramshackle homestead for a couple of summers which was hand watered from a nearby pond, before building our own place by hand with new gardens and greenhouse along with house, sauna, dog lot, etc. above the road. Quite the endeavor!

Compost and hand watering made for a magnificent garden at the old place.

Compost and hand watering made for a magnificent garden at the old place.

Our food compostables were fed to a flock of chickens we raised each summer which had to be penned up because of the foxes, weasels, owls, wolves, bears, coyotes, etc., that would have done them in. We butchered each fall and the feathers, offal along with additional kitchen wastes were shredded, too. Of course, the bins were outside, well secured, turned often, and kept meticulously clean so as not to attract critters, especially the bears. With the long days of summer and with water hauled from the lake or gravel pit or collected during rainfalls, our gardens and greenhouse which incorporated drip irrigation were spectacular, if you don’t mind my saying so.

Compost, hand watering and love.

Compost, hand watering , drip irrigation, and love paid off.  We raised cucumbers, tomatoes, herbs, and flowers in our new greenhouse.

Moving back “Stateside,” I found living in town to require a different approach although we tried building regular layered composts which needed to heat up in order to kill the disease organisms and weed seeds. Eventually, worms started to invade from the bottom up as it cooled down and in order to save time and energy to pursue our gardening and herbal chores instead, we incorporated composting worms or red wrigglers with a large starter mass from a friend who owned a restaurant and was using worms to break down his compostables including copious amounts of coffee grounds.

We went through several incarnations of compost bins which Michael made including one in which a panel at the bottom of the bin allowed us to access the rich soil that eventually accumulated.

Glorious vermiculture gold!

Glorious vermiculture gold!

Over time we settled on stackable bins where we could add vegetative parts including household scraps, leaves, weeds, coffee grounds, etc., and the worms could do their duty. After the materials gained a certain height, they were turned and piled into another set of stackable bins, back and forth until they were almost totally broken down. I found the worms were most productive by this method if carefully turned and thus exposed to the new territorial food sources. To separate the worms at the end, I’d put in a rich wad of fresh kitchen wastes at the top and a good amount of worms migrated to begin “eating”  through the scraps. This was then taken out and stored until I sifted the finished compost and then the whole process was started again.

The Alchemy of Vermiculture

The Alchemy of Vermiculture

First we’d pile a layer of rough weed stalks, then some of the composted soil full of healthy organisms which I collected and set aside before sifting, the wad of worms and new scraps, etc., allowing the worms to work their way upwards as the wastes get tossed in and periodically turned.

Our gardens also received copious amounts of birch leaves collected in the fall which went through a leaf shredder and then turned into the beds by hand. Additional fish emulsion and some manures were added, as well, to enrich the soil but always side-dressed with compost.

Sifted compost ready to put into the garden and flower beds.

Sifted compost ready to put into the garden and flower beds.

Worm-composted basil and Italian parsley.

Worm compost side-dressed basil and Italian Parsley.

Our medicine wheel herbal and floral garden.

Our medicine wheel herbal and floral garden.

In Hawaii, I simply took my kitchen scraps across the street and threw them into the jungle where they magically disappeared overnight and seemed to keep the vermin away from our side.

The jungle across the street where I gifted my Hawaiian compostables.

The jungle across the street where I gifted my Hawaiian compostables.

Moving to Sequim, WA, because I didn’t want to waste the scraps from our lovely organic produce we are able to procure, I started a small wormery in a plastic storage bin which we had many of with our recent move from Hawaii. Michael drilled holes in the sides for ventilation because worms are living creatures who require food, air and space to grow.

Plastic bin worm compost operation. Excess moisture drips down into collection bin.

Plastic bin worm compost operation. Excess moisture drips down into collection bin.

The bin was stacked on top of two, upside down flower pots in another bin to collect the occasional moisture that dripped through due to the plastic nature of the bin and all the moist food the worms ate through. The bin has a secure top because we have a family of raccoons living close by and although they never have bothered it, there’s no reason not to think one night they might investigate.

I got a few starter worms from friends and it wasn’t long before I had a plethora of wrigglers which I started giving away to a friend who has an orchard, gardens, and much larger compost pile. I couldn’t use all the compost my worms produced for our container gardens so decided to harvest the worms often and she uses all the worms I breed to help breakdown their ever-growing garden wastes. She also takes my excess kitchen scraps and adds them to her pile.

For me it is a delight to open the bin and investigate what’s happening in the worms’ world. Having raised and lived with so many generations, I swear they know me and I get these messages of when to come visit, what to add, and when to add it. Sometimes they want something sweet such as fruit, other times I add protein-based fat such as beef fat off the bone broths. I especially find this request coming at a time when it turns cold. The sweeter contents are tossed in when the worms are actively breeding and producing eggs. All is covered with brown paper before topping with a secure lid to keep out raccoons.

Getting the bin ready for a fall rest after having harvested the latest crop of compost worms for a friend.

Getting the bin ready for a fall rest after having harvested the latest crop of compost worms for a friend.

So I do  hope you find worm composting to be an effective way to turn your kitchen scraps into gold and enjoy the process involved with their bountiful gifting efforts.

Solomon sea grown in a container is side-dressed with worm compost and worm compost tea.

Solomon seal grown in a container is side-dressed with worm compost and worm compost tea.