By Jared R. McKinley
I grew up in New York state; when I talk to friends who still live there, I realize they think of my home as something akin to sand dunes in the Sahara Desert or the moonscape-like scenes of the Atacama Desert of South America.
But Baja Arizona is nothing like this. Rich in flora and fauna, our region is actually more nurturing to plants than you might think, especially if you’re coming from the green-soaked East Coast. Sometimes we maintain a foreigner’s prejudice when considering our gardens.
And, the Sonoran Desert is one of the wettest deserts in the world. While in many parts of North America, growing food stops for almost half a year (unless you have a greenhouse), in most of Baja Arizona you can grow all year long – indeed, the prime time to grow is during the cool season. Perhaps it isn’t a surprise to learn that the oldest agricultural site in North America is not found in Ohio, Florida, or even California, but right here in Baja Arizona, at the base of “A” Mountain in Tucson. Many factors contribute to our region being great for growing – despite our water limitations – and our mild winter temperatures is one of them.
In the north, plant nurseries shut down their growing operation and focus on selling Christmas trees, poinsettias, and holiday decorations. Sometimes nurseries slow down here, too. But it isn’t because there isn’t anything to grow. It is because many of us assume we can’t plant anything in the winter – which isn’t true. I am not suggesting you don’t enjoy your seasonal poinsettias and Christmas cacti. It is, after all, the holidays. But why not also spend a day in the garden? Get your knees dirty planting more seed, mulching plants, and harvesting food from your edible beds.
In the September/October issue of Edible Baja Arizona, I urged you to go through your garden, pull out those warm season crops, and start planting your greens, root crops, and other cool season vegetables and herbs. But what did I do myself? Nothing. The garden my girlfriend and I maintain is on automatic irrigation. We’ve been busy this fall and so have hardly looked at the garden. The garden still produces some eggplants, squash, and Armenian cucumbers, and there are dried miniature luffa fruits all over. Yet, I could be enjoying arugula, cilantro, Italian parsley, and much more.
I suspect that some readers of this column might also have busy lives, and schedules that don’t always align with that of our garden. Luckily, we live in a place where you can plant all winter long. In November and December, you can still plant some of the long-season varieties, as well as any other season-appropriate crops. Keep in mind, however, that in the coldest months (December and January) some seeds will take longer to germinate, and some will germinate sporadically (cilantro is notorious for this sort of behavior). But thanks to our mild winter’s sunny skies, it isn’t too late for you or me to get the cool season garden going.
In the next few months, expect cold snaps. The lack of moisture in the desert air allows for quick changes in temperature. Although they rarely last more than a few hours, occurring at night and early morning, they can do lasting damage to your crops. Lettuce and other tender greens can be damaged by hard frosts, so it is a good idea to cover them when the temperature is forecast to drop. A cloth cover will work best, especially if it incorporates some sort of frame. Crops like parsnip, cabbage, and kale actually improve in flavor with frost. If you live in the higher elevations in Cochise or Santa Cruz Counties, frosts are more severe and more frequent. In these regions, you can still grow most of the crops that grow in Pima County, but you must be much more diligent about frost protection for tender plants.
Another option is to use row covers, which can be purchased ready-made or made at home. A row cover is basically a frame covered with frost cloth or plastic. When making these frames – which can be made from wood, PVC piping, or another supportive material – make sure they can accommodate your tallest crops. They should be portable, so that in the morning you can remove them to let plants have light and air circulation, but not so light that they’ll be blown away on a windy night. You can always secure them to the ground using stakes.
If you leave row covers on, plants can become light-deprived (if row covers are made of cloth), or they can overheat when daytime temperatures intensify and turn those protective row covers into ovens (particularly if row covers are made of plastic). Make a habit of removing them during the day and replacing them at night.
Over the next few months, hold off on feeding your garden save for some side dressings of compost. Feeding encourages more tender growth of crops, and growth rushed with plant food is more susceptible to cold damage. You should also decrease the amount and frequency of water you add. Overwatering is bad for soil and plants, and of course it is wasteful. Mulching with straw or coarse compost saves water and also holds in a fair amount of warmth.
The nicest thing about the cool season garden is that most of the crops that flourish this time of year are tidy and lend themselves to successional plantings; you can also get more food per square inch because most plants in the cool season are entirely edible – for example, you can eat the leaves and roots of turnips and you can eat the a turnip at any stage of growth (as seedlings or full-grown). The winter garden also presents a consistent abundance as there is always something to cull from the beds. Just about every part of every plant growing in a cool-season garden is destined to be eaten, with only a few exceptions.
If anything, the most difficult challenge is not wasting food. Learn how to make sauerkraut or kimchi, or start experimenting with more creative ways to pickle your bounty. A great resource for preservation projects is The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz. You might also work your excess vegetables into soup stocks that can be frozen for later use.
This mild mustard green has an obscure history. Originally grown by the Tarahumara it was probably a weed that came in with other crops introduced by missionaries. Over time, it’s become a tough and useful vegetable. Eaten fresh or cooked, the sturdy but tender leaves are delicious. Seed is always a little scarce partly due to the popularity of the vegetable, although Native Seeds/SEARCH (NativeSeeds.org) members have access to it, so join up and order some seeds.
Plant from seed in full to partial sun and thin to let rosettes develop. Young seedlings are tenderer than full-grown plants. Plant in succession if you wish to have a steady supply of young, tender greens.
This curious vegetable is still quite rare in the U.S. Agretti is prized in Italy (and among savvy gourmet chefs) for its lively minerality and crunchy texture. It is a welcome addition to any salad. Seeds are available from Seeds of Italy (GrowItalian.com). You might call them before you order and make sure the
seeds are quite fresh, as argretti seeds do not stay viable for long. The Japanese have their own species, considered one of their oldest foods: Oka hijiki, or land seaweed (Salsola komarovii). This species is often more available than Italian agretti and the seeds having a slightly longer viability. Seeds available at Kitazawa Seed Company (KitazawaSeed.com).
Both species are easy to grow. Plant from seed and snip tips to encourage branching. Grow in full sun. Little care is required except protection from hard frost.
Those of you who pay attention to botanical names might recognize the genus of both these species: Salsola. A familiar plant in our region is of the same genus, Salsola tragus or tumbleweed. Native to Eurasia and North Africa, tumbleweed hitched a ride from the Old World to the new with the earliest invaders. Now you can find tumbleweed in almost any site with disturbed soil. Always considered a weed, very few realize that the seedlings possess the same delicious edible traits that are found in the esteemed agretti and oka hijiki. Tumbleweed is best harvested as very young seedlings. If you have a garden, you probably get volunteers all the time. Think of them as free food and pick before they get too tough.
Text and Photography by Jared R. McKinley
Milk kefir is a great alternative to yogurt; it also helps improve digestive flora, the critters that help you digest food and maintain a healthy immune system, but has the advantage of being much higher in species diversity, and requires no heat to make. In fact, making milk kefir is one of the easiest habits I have ever made. Every morning, no matter my mental and physical state, I can handle the process of making this delicious product. It resembles yogurt in flavor, but is more liquid in texture.
All you need are milk kefir grains and milk – cow, goat, or sheep milk will all work. Milk kefir grains are not grains at all. They are a combination of bacteria and yeasts in a matrix of proteins, lipids, and sugars. This symbiotic matrix forms the grains that resemble tiny little florets of cauliflower (milk kefir is not to be confused with water kefir, which is a different assortment of yeast and bacteria species and is brewed in unchlorinated water and sugar.).
I got my milk kefir grains online at KefirLady.com. They came wrapped in plastic and slightly moist.
Fill a pint jar three-quarters full of milk and add your kefir grains, about 2 to 3 tablespoons. Cover the top of jar with a piece of clean cloth and secure with a rubber band. Let sit at room temperature, preferably in a dark place, for 24 to 48 hours. The longer you allow fermentation, the stronger and more acidic the flavor.
The milk may separate into curd and whey, but this is nothing to worry about. Take a spoon and stir the solution to a homogenous mix and pour through a finely meshed sieve made of non-reactive metal, like stainless steel, and into a drinking glass.
Put the strained kefir grains into a new, clean jar, and fill up once again with milk for tomorrow’s yield. Over time new grains will propagate and you will be able to share your extras with friends and family.
You can drink kefir plain or flavored with fruit in a smoothie. The flavor can vary depending on the ambient temperature, how long you ferment for, and the amount of kefir grains you use.
If you are traveling, or just need to take a break from kefir, you can suspend fermentation in the refrigerator. I have done this for up to a few weeks with no negative results. ✜
Jared McKinley is the Associate Publisher of Edible Baja Arizona.