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Tea Time

tea and gardening T-shirt

Blackberry and raspberry plants are prospering and are gifting several handfuls of delicious fruit everyday. There are plenty of leaves, which actually make for a refreshing herbal tea, if only treated the right way.
While they could be just quickly dried and used as such, blackberry and raspberry leaves are much more aromatic after a short “fermentation”, which is in fact rather an oxidation, similar to the way black tea is processed.
One starts by picking well-developed but young leaves (not leathery). You may want to wear gloves, even some raspberry varieties can be quite spiky on the leaf base. They leaves then should be left to wilt for a day.
Once they have lost most of the water so the leaf lamina won’t break easily anymore they should be squeezed properly, while being exposed to fresh air (=oxygen). One can use a dough roller on a wooden board, for example. During this treatment the leaves will already change colour to a darker tone, quite like “real” tea from Camellia sinensis does. Now that mass can be rolled into a “sausage” and tightly wrapped into a kitchen cloth, if it feels rather dry sprinkle a small amount of water over before. This leaf sausage may then be stored in a warm place, 30 degrees Celsius / 86 degrees Fahrenheit seem to be optimal. Occasionally give the sausage another good squeezing (no need to open it). After 3 days the leaves should have a dark reddish-brown colour and an aromatic / fruity smell. Spread them to dry properly at low temperature, i.e. on an oven tray (try to stay below 50 degrees Celsius / 120 degrees Fahrenheit during the drying process in order to preserve the aroma). Once they are dry enough (at least on the edge of breakage when touched) they can be stored in a mason jar.

To brew a tea, use a teaspoon of your fermented leaves per cup, pour hot water over which just stopped boiling, and allow it to infuse for 5-10min.

Because it was so simple, here’s an alternative way to approach the leaf oxidation: Take the freshly harvested, unwilted leaves, roll them into a sausage, slice coins with a knife or use large scissors, so you get stripes just a few millimeters wide. Throw them into a cotton back, hang it into the sun and occasionally shake the bag. Once the leaves have wilted sufficiently, stuff the whole bag or just its contents into a freezer bag, seal that, store in a warm place (some people had great results on the dashboard of their car, but on sunny summer days it may not only get very hot in there, it may also raise questions what “substances” you are transporting here…) Every day at least once that bag should be opened for ventilation, after a few days the moisture content will have greatly reduced and the leaves crinkled like an Oolong tea.
Another good fermentation device is a baby bottle warmer. Since the little creature is off the milk, that machine stands there for nothing, and begs for new use. The one I inherited has digital temperature control and can be set to 30 degrees Celsius / 86 degrees Fahrenheit, which it will keep quite exactly for however long. A small mason jar in the bottle chamber retains the moisture. Note that at temperatures below 50 degrees Celsius / 120 degrees Fahrenheit mould will appear sooner or later, so again, limit fermentation time to 3 days to be on the safe side.

Strawberry leaves can be processed in a similar way, and many others. Some may have medicinal effects (which means potentially also side effects), so esp. when mixing different varieties or if larger amounts are consumed regularly it’s advised to consult knowledgeable books or people on the matter.

blackberry leaf tea

The result: Homemade, organic blackberry leaf tea

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Bee-Friendly Garden Plants

Bees are the best pollinators that nature has to offer, and it’s in our best interest to plant a few bee-friendly plants in our garden. Certain plants will help keep them fed, happy and pro-creating so there will always be a strong bee population to pollinate all of our food plants. Plan your garden so there will be something in bloom most of the year to provide a constant source of pollen for hungry bees. Plant some of these bee-friendly garden plants to attract these hard-working pollinators to your landscape.

Bees like lavender flowers
Lavender flowers are very attractive to bees

Spring Blooming Plants
Spring brings a lot of activity in the insect and plant world. Pollinating bees are anxious to get busy building hives, increasing the size of their colonies and making honey. They need pollen to accomplish all of this. Make sure the bees have their food and you have beautiful floral blooms and fresh produce by providing them with pollen-rich spring blooming plants.
Plant some crocus, borage, calendula, hyacinth, forsythia and lilacs for a spring blooming feast that bees won’t be able to resist. Bees also enjoy the pollen-rich blooms on blueberry and blackberry bushes in the spring.

Summer Blooming Plants
There’s no shortage of blooming plants during the summer months, but there are some that bees prefer.
Their preferred list of summertime pollen plants include bee balm, butterfly bush, cosmos, echinacea, foxglove, forget-me-not, hosta and snapdragon. Most garden vegetable plants are in bloom during the summer and provide pollen for pollinators. Bees are especially attracted to okra and squash blooms, and corn silks on developing ears of corn.

Fall Blooming Plants
Incorporate a few of these flowers that will bloom right up until the first frost to keep bee activity going strong in your landscape. Aster, zinnia, sedum and witch hazel. Bee balm and butterfly bushes will continue to bloom into the fall. Golden rod is a bee favorite in the fall that grows naturally in the wild. To promote the growth of golden rod, leave a section of your landscape in its natural state. Several native pollen-rich plants will grow and provide bees with pollen.

Flower of a borage plant
Bee-friendly gardens can be pretty, too: Close-up of a borage flower

Editor´s note: This year, I´m growing specifically for pollinators large amounts of the following plants (basically in any corner I could spare, and a couple of extra beds plus along the edges of several borders):

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), see picture above – LOVED by bees and bumblebees, flowers the whole summer and makes a spectacular display

Calendula officinalis – a beautiful orange shade this season, also growing quite high for a change (2ft plus), many medical properties, edible flowers, keeps the colour well when dried

Calendula flower with a bee

Phacelia tanacetifolia – it´s said to have soil structure improving properties, so I seeded it wherever I could, will report later in the year how well it did in that regard

Phacelia tanacetifolia

Buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) – growing really well and fast even in difficult conditions, ground covering, supposed to have a positive effect on soil structure, too

Fagopyrum esculentum flowering

Bee Houses

That’s something I wanted to do for long. Build a little bee “house”. Whenever I spend some time reading on one of the benches, there’s tireless buzzing in the air. I always thought it mainly came from honeybees, until I started to spend some close attention.

There are a lot of different bumblebees in the garden (I am not sure were they have there caves). This time of the year, I leave for them the nettles (which actually are quite pretty plants, fresh green and with bright pink flowers). The bumblebees are mad about them.

bumblebee in the nettles

bumble bee in a pink nettle flower

A really impressive creature is the violet carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea). It seems it is making use of the old tree trunks I left to rot under some of the bushes (a large woodpecker also spends the occasional visit there).

I don’t remove the small wasp nests, which appear every year under some of the roof tiles – they don’t become bothersome.

wasp nest under a roof tile

Most of the bees, however, seem to belong to one of the many species of solitary bees. No idea where they come from. They are here on and off. Some have red socks, some are cutting precise patterns into the leaves of the rose shrubs. Some seem to inspect every tiny hole in the house wall (not that there are that many). So I got the idea to give them a home.

I heard that deep holes in hardwood are quite ideal. Since I had some solid oak blocks in storage, I started to drill ahead. Diameters range from 3mm to 9mm. I tried to make the drillings as smooth as possible, and gave the edges some sanding.

oak wood block with drilled holes

solitary bee hotel from solid oak wood

Looks like a house (blue roof optional):

bee house with blue roof

I made two that way. I also got one from a shop, sold as an “insect hotel”, which was totally dysfunctional, because it was empty inside. (I only saw that when some sunlight was shining in). A bee house simulation. I opened it and filled it with branch trimmings from the Catalpa tree, which I hollowed out on one side.

The three of them got a place under the big silver fir, facing South East, so there´s sunlight most of the day (except during midday heat), while rain rarely reaches that spot. (Btw., now that I´m giving it attention – I had two mason bees nesting in deep screw holes on the Northern side of the shed, so there´s that. It seems “mild and protected against the elements” is more important to insects than direct sun.)

3 different bee houses in a row

Already in early April, the first occupant had secretly claimed one of the apartments:

the first occupant

Now, on sunny days, it is really quite busy:

solitary bee visiting the bee house

Even the one which needed “customization” gets visited often (if the Catalpa cuttings are working the way they are supposed to I can´t say yet):

bee hotel with solitary bee inside

The larger holes are preferred by most bees, after all, even by the smaller ones. I will take that in consideration when I prepare the next:

solitary bee coming out of the bee house

Update: It´s worth providing a small pot with moist clay directly next to it – since I did that more holes got properly closed:

holes closed with clay

Now the place starts getting that bee-hive sensation, plenty of flying and buzzing going on:

Success! By May 14 the mason bees have closed most nest cells with mud:

mason bee nest cells closed with mud

Winter Shiitake

While Shiitake logs generally seem to be frost-proof 1-2 months after inoculation, and can therefore spend the winter in the garden, it was my understanding that mushrooms will only grow in warm weather, at temperatures above 15 degrees Celsius.
The winter was long and rather cold, but when I had a random look at the Shiitake logs in the wine barrel, much to my surprise there was a mushroom on one of the birch pieces – and a nice one at that! It was February 19, every night before below freezing point, and daytime temperatures barely above.

Another birch log followed just a few days later, and at the beginning of March the old oak logs. I must have picked already two dozen mushrooms by now, all good quality and really tasty. Astonishing creatures, really.

Shiitake Mushroom Empanada

After all that Shiitake talk, here´s a quick and easy recipe. It needs the following ingredients:

400g flour
10g yeast
100 ml white wine (dry)
100 ml olive oil
100 ml milk
Half a glass of warm water
A good handful of Shiitake mushrooms
2 onions
2 zucchini

1 egg
Black ground pepper
Thyme
Feta cheese
Salt

Start by preparing the dough: Stir the yeast into half a glass of warm water. Add some salt and the yeast water to the flour, knead for a moment. Slowly add the olive oil, the wine and the milk while you keep kneading until you get a dough which doesn’t stick anymore like glue to the bowl.

Keep the dough for an hour covered with a clean cloth to let it rest and rise.
In the meantime, prepare the filling: Chop the Shiitake, the onion and the zucchini in little pieces and fry them with a little bit of olive oil, salt, black paper and thyme to taste till they get softer. Put it aside.

When the dough has risen to appr. double its original size switch the oven on and let it heat up to 75 degrees Celsius. Cut the dough in two halves and knead with a rolling pin to get two sheets, each about 2 mm thick. Lay one of the sheets on the oven tray (apply some butter before or use cooking paper) and spread the Shiitake, the zucchini and as much of the Feta cheese as you like (crumble the cheese with your hands for better handling). Lay the other sheet on top and tie both sheets on the borders. Whisk an egg and spread it on top of the empanada, then put it in the oven. Keep it there for 45 minutes while increasing the temperature three times in steps of 50 degrees Celsius (the empanada is done in the moment its colour turns golden).

empanada recipe

Growing Shiitake Mushrooms On Logs

An update on the previous mushroom post .

I mentioned before that I inoculated some logs with Shiitake myself.

shiitake log

The first challenge was to find the right wood. While I have a lot around, there are some specific requirements to be met. Oak and beech are perfect woods, they also last the longest and will produce the biggest harvests over 5-7 years. Apple, maple and sweet chestnut are also suitable. I did not try hazel and alder. Logs should be 2-4 feet long and ideally have a diameter of 4-6 inches, so the fungus can occupy the log as fast as possible, which prevents infections with other (competing) fungi. The bark has to be intact. The log should not be too fresh (4 weeks+ after cutting, so the tree’s immunity mechanisms are not fully at work anymore) and not too old (less than 3 months, not dried out).
There should be also 6-10 weeks time left before major frosts.
Among the logs potentially fitting those criteria, I mostly got birch. For Shiitake supposedly not ideal, but possible.

shiitake birch logs

I drilled the holes, filled them with mycelium substrate, kept everything clean and then moist. Next summer, nothing happened. All the other logs produced lots of mushrooms, nothing on the birch. Its rings started to look whitish, which I took as a sign of the fungus spreading.
Earlier this summer, again – nothing. I kept the logs moist like the others, regardless.
Suddenly, this September, the first little Shiitake mushroom appeared on a birch log, 2 years after the inoculation.

shiitake birch log

Now there are more, and very nice ones.
So, if you try that yourself, and it looks like a failure, don’t discard the logs too early.

The fastest results I had by growing Shiitake on sawdust.

shiitake on sawdust

A pressed block gave me mushrooms regularly for 2 years. Less and less with each wave, but one can even activate it indoors. My first oak logs are going strong, and show no signs of fatigue.

shiitake oak log

Mushroom Time

Autumn is mushroom time. A wet August and September with mild temperatures are ideal, but that doesn’t happen every year. October and November can usually be relied on. And cooking is fun again, the body craves a warm meal. Mushrooms must have been the surprise eggs of the early human hunter.

I used to (and still do) go for lengthy walks to find them. Get up early (better before the ones in the know) and spend 3-4 hours in the forest scanning the ground. One develops a sense for mushrooms and their preferred places after a while. One might actually smell them, like a truffle dog, but it’s more likely that experience signals that a pretty birch tree with fresh moss underneath is just the place one would choose to live in if one were a mushroom. There’s also the weather component – a warm rain, and they pop, often overnight.

mushroom

After such a day, I tend to dream of mushrooms. It’s like finding rare books in a library without catalogue, wandering along the shelves with the head tilted to one side, examining titles. Over a few hours it’s draining in a weird sort of way.

mushrooms

While good days fill the baskets quickly, more often than not there’s none, or only the grandpas, mushy and wormy inside.

Then I discovered Shiitake. Got some prepared oak logs out of curiosity, later inoculated some birch logs myself. Shiitake mushrooms like it warm and moist, they prefer higher temperatures than the local ones, so the outcome was rather uncertain.
It appeared to be well worth it.

shiitake logs

Shiitake logs fruit in waves. I found if I let them rest for a few weeks, then re-moisten them over night in the rain barrel, I can well control the fruiting and get a quite predictable harvest. Since I have several logs which can be rotated, there are always some mushrooms. Shiitake have a distinct aroma, few is needed to spice up a meal. I find it quite similar to garlic (and believe it imparts a similar odor…) They are very mushroomy, solid and chewy, and can be dried well, if there’s an oversupply. Since I can take them fresh directly from the garden, I never had a wormy one (they are also not prone to it, it seems). In fact, they are pretty creatures:

shiitake mushroom

I’ve tried several log stacking methods. Currently I keep some logs in a wine barrel from La Rioja. Without any care, there’s always a fruiting piece. The barrel keeps the logs from drying out too much in the heat of the summer, I think. And the occasional animal visitor to the garden has less access. Coming from the logs, the mushrooms are basically kitchen-ready.

wine barrel

Gardening Is A Serious Sport

Supposedly an English saying. I never heard that from the mouth of a Briton, but anyway. I think it is. Or at least can be.

Although I’m an avid cyclist and still pass the Marines pull up test, a day of gardening feels like good exercise.

I once kept a little track of it. When I inspected the plants first thing in the morning for slugs and critters and other threats, I ended up doing 50 deep squats. Walking down the main path takes 50-70 steps = 100-140 return, times 20 with the watering cans in the hand. Afterwards I carried the log splitter from the shed to the car (weight 44kg) – for nothing, because it wasn’t needed after all, so I brought it back. Reaching for that lanky tomato plant without harming it’s neighbors turned out to be a fine gymnastic move – hooold that position!
I do most of the pruning by hand with a razor-sharp Japanese saw and a number of scissors. While power tools have their place, they do not only require some preparations usually, but also are noisy. I often enough don’t feel like having even more engine roar around me.

In my childhood I knew an 80+ years old man who still went to swim training several times a week. His main transport was his bicycle (a black machine from biblical times). He cared about his garden every day literally until his last day.

Gardening as a physical activity seems to have a metabolic equivalent (MET) of 3.5-4 (one MET defined as the energy it takes to sit quietly, appr. 70-80Kcal per hour for an average adult). Of course, it makes a difference if one’s picking berries or if some serious digging in hard clay soil is the task of the day.
Now, jogging/running has a MET of 6-12, but you must be an excellent runner to hold that up over the course of 4-8 hours.
On the extreme side of gardening/landscaping, alpine farmers on steep meadows (where not much mechanization is possible) easily compete with marathon runners and triathletes on caloric expenditure.

In your private garden, you can even take it slow. Fresh air is good for bookworms, that’s my rule of thumb.