Our weekly crate of goodies – the Abokiste

Back in December of 2017 we decided that we would finally register for the “Abokiste” – a local community supported agricultural program that delivers organic produce and products to your doorstep on a weekly basis. The Abokiste offers a large selection of different crates and you can always manage what you will receive the following week through an online shopping cart system. We have a crate that always has 5-8 regionally grown vegetables and we often let ourselves be surprised by what they send us, and every once in a while we will change items out for other ones.

This week we received white asparagus, an Asian salad mix, red Spring onions, multicolored carrots, cucumber, and potatoes. We were really excited about the asparagus and prepared it right away.

Recently, I have had different neighbors at my doorstep asking me about our little green crate filled with goodies that waits for us on our doorstep until we come home from work. It is really great to have fresh produce waiting for you after a long day of work. A friend of mine has been receiving her crate for over 10 years now and it’s sad to say that it took me so long to try it out. Now, I can’t imagine not having it. Do you CSA?

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Welcome to the Jungle

We have had an amazing Spring so far – with lots of sunshine and warm summer temperatures. This is quite a treat since we live in a pretty grey-sky-ladened region of Germany.

Here are some pictures of “the farm”. I was at our local garden market this weekend and couldn’t help but buy a few plants from my favorite organic farmers. Thank goodness that the balcony in our new apartment is much larger!

Now growing on the farm:

Flowers:

Peonies

Clematis

Tulips

Hyacinths

Achillea

Scarlet Beebalm

White flowering Catnip

Herbs:

Chocolate Mint

Grenada Mint

Spear Mint

Strawberry Mint

Lemon Melisse

Savory

Italian Basil

African Basil

Krim Basil

French Tarragon

Leafy Mustard

Lavender

Koriander

Parsley

Sage

Pineapple Sage

Mandarin Sage

Scented Geraniums

Chives

Green Onions

Bay Leaf

Thyme

Creeping Rosemary

Oregano

Fruits:

Raspberries

Strawberries

Pineapple Strawberries

Wild Strawberries

Blueberries

Cape Gooseberry

Tangerines

Grapefruits

Bergamot Lemons

Figs

Vegetables & Co:

Cucumbers

Tomatoes

Wild white Tomatoes

Brown Japanese Tomatoes

Tomatillos

Purple Jalapeños

Pimentos del Padron

Sweet Habaneros

Purple Potatoes

Pink Potatoes

Yellow Potatoes

mini Striped Eggplant

Cambodian Chilies

Cayenne Chilies

Expanding my mini urban farm & some good news

I am really excited to share that we will be moving! I have been living in downtown for the last 14 years and we are moving to a neighborhood on the outskirts of downtown – so still central with a bus stop in front of our new home and a train and subway stop a few minutes walk away – but it is green and there is no main road that runs by my bedroom window AND there is a really large balcony included! Yes, that means that our urban garden will be growing (even though we will be downsizing in living space – more on minimalistic living another time) and we will have a south facing balcony with enough room for outdoor dining and lots of planters to provide us with more food. Ideally we would be moving to a small house with a large piece of land that we could farm, but the time is not right. Luckily, this doesn’t have to keep us from farming our balcony. The move is not for another 2 1/2 months but there is a lot to do until then and planning the move of all my plants will take some thought.

So, I have decided to separate the wine crates that I have had stacked on eachother which originally allowed the roots of my plants to grow deep into the lower crates. At least that was what I thought my plants would do, but I recently realized that they were only staying in the upper crate and that I had 2 crates full of soil just sitting empty waiting to be used.

I have not decided how my new mini urban farm is going to look – I feel that I have to be there to make those sort of plans and it will be a project that will grow over time. I have to see how the sun shines on the different spots of the balcony and observe the wind and rain directions – there is a bit to take into consideration to get the most out of a small space.

Yesterday I visited a local garden market with a large variety of organic growers. I wanted to take at least half of everything I saw at the market home with me, but I decided that it would be wiser to just take a few plants and wait another few weeks for the next market since the danger of frost is still possible and would damage or kill my new plants. That would be terrible.

My youngest son loves raspberries more than anything, so we decided to take 2 raspberry plants home – a Summer and Fall fruiting one to make sure that we have fresh raspberries from July until the first frost (about mid November). The gardener that sold us the plants said that they would both fit in one deep planter that was about 60cm long and that a good companion would be strawberry plants. Both strawberry and raspberry plants like well drained soil and raspberries even like drying out periodically. So, when we got home we planted our raspberries in one of the extra wine crates with soil and transplanted 4 pineapple-strawberry plants that I picked up last Fall at my local organic grocery store. Then, we covered the soil with shredded wood to keep the soil from drying out so quickly. Usually, I would use straw, but I am all out and this is what I had lying around.

Using straw or other plants as ground cover in my planters is a valuable tip that I have picked up from my research on permaculture. It saves water and time and keeps plants happy. It tried it out on my plants this winter and it kept them from dehydrating especially when the temperature was too low to water. My experience over the years is that most plants don’t die from the freezing temperatures directly in Winter or Spring but rather of dehydration in winter or from rapidly warming temperatures in the Spring followed by frost and precipitation which damages the plants or even kills many of them.

Part of the permaculture gardening concept that I am trying to integrate into my balcony garden is a zoning plan. This zoning plan can be pretty intricate, but I am breaking it down into 3 vital zones:

  1. Zone 1 – a garden of edible goodies: this is closest to you and your home and where you plant fruits, berries, vegetables, and herbs that you harvest for personal use. For balcony gardeners this means keeping your planters with fruits, vegetables, lettuce, etc (when possible) in easy to reach places that make harvesting easy and enjoyable. You can keep cold-sensitive plants such as tomatoes in a pot or planter directly on an outer wall of your home to help extend the growing season because the wall will act as a battery when it releases it’s heat and will warm up any plants close to it when the temperature drops at night.
  2. Zone 2 – a garden of blooms: a flower “field” surrounding Zone 1 that attracts pollinators (such as bees and butterflies) to increase your harvest. For balcony gardeners this means integrating planters with local and native wild flowers and herbs. Many herbs, such as mint and chives, are good sources for bees while we enjoy their green leaves- a win-win for everyone.
  3. Zone 3 – a wild zone: this space surrounds Zone 2 and is living space for animals that helps keep your garden free of pests. For balcony gardeners this means bird and bat houses or maybe even a mini fruit tree large enough to house a nest. Did you know that a mother bird will collect up to 30kg (!!!) of insects to feed her babies in one season?

We bought a few plants for Zone 2 and are glad to have added: white flowing Catnip, Achillea, and Beebalm to our garden. I have always had various flowering herbs and plants in my garden, but the more I read about permaculture the more I learn how important this zone is.

If you are interested in reading (in German) about permaculture and homesteading, check out my favorite blog here or permaculture and insects here and here.

Up-Cycling using Nature’s best Garbage

I had quite an interesting conversation with my son today: “Mom, was there only organic garbage before?”

“What do you mean by before?”

“In the Middle Ages”

“No, there was no garbage in the same sense as we know it today. There was no packaging, everything was reused or recycled into something else.”

“Even food?”

“Food leftovers and scraps were fed to the animals.”

I had a smile on my face during the silence following our little conversation while we drove back from one of our favorite local farms “Auhof”. It feels good when my kids think about social issues and his thoughts on garbage were similar to my thoughts on the beautiful and smart up-cycling works of art that I saw in the “Augenweide”.

There is “garbage” all around this beautiful garden that has been turned into beautiful and fun ideas:

A crunchy path of walnut shells

Insect hotels

Chestnut necklaces for trees

Ivy wreaths that provide a bit of protection

Scarecrows

Pinecone garland

Folded paper wreaths

Branch ornaments

Fence wreaths

Pussy willow wreaths

Bottle Ornaments

I think these are great examples of what you can make with what you have lying around. Obviously, this didn’t happen over night and is the love and care poured into this garden over decades.

My mini Urban Farm

I would like to introduce you to the smallest and best spot in my apartment: the balcony – which I have now deemed my mini urban farm. It looks pretty dormant at the moment but in a few months we will barley be able to sit here because it will be an awesome jungle of edibles.

mini urban farm - blueberries and thyme

mini urban farm - rosemary and tulips

I have quite a few perennials growing in different planters: rosemary, thyme, tarragon, spearmint, Grenada mint, chocolate mint, strawberry mint, lavender, blueberries, clematis, wild strawberries, pineapple strawberries, mustard greens, peonies, savory, and raspberries.

mini urban farm - savory, lavender and mints

mini urban farm - strawberries

And, on the way in my mini urban farm – and still growing inside: tomatillos, Japanese sauce tomatoes, wild white tomatoes, sage, pineapple sage, mandarin sage, jalapeño, sweet habañero, cucumbers, basil, Texas tarragon, bay laurel, murmel melons, green onions, cilantro, pimenton del padron, and parsley. There is definitely more on the way, but I haven’t decided what flowers I will plant to attract bees to pollinate my plants or if I will bring more fruits and berries into my life. Some decisions are best made spontaneously when it it feels right.

mini urban farm - french tarragon and mustard greens

What I have definitely realized is that I can more efficiently use the space I have to plant more by better using the different vertical spaces on and around my balcony. I have quite a few fruit trees growing indoors that I will bring out when the temperature rises and they all need to be integrated into my concept. My indoor fruit trees haven’t given any fruit yet, but they should slowly be getting old enough for the first flowers to come this year. I have raised them each from seeds that I just took out of a fruit I was eating: avocados, grapefruits, bergamot lemons, mandarins, loquats, figs, jackfruit, and (not trees) pineapples.

A napping bumblebee in my planter

What are you planning in your garden/windowsill/balcony this year?

Urban Gardening Season is now OPEN!

The snow has finally melted away for the 20th time this year, the day’s sunlight is growing by leaps and bounds, the temperature is slowly warming up, the birds are chirping, and little buds are popping up all over my planters – my balcony garden is calling.

Cucumbers and Basil

March and April are fun yet “hard” months for the urban gardener. There is a lot of planning to do but it is mostly from indoors. I have already planned what will go in my planters this late Spring and have already sown seeds that are growing on my kitchen counter.

Wild white tomatoes

This year I have decided to take up organic and permaculture gardening and am making thoughts on how to live this out on my balcony so that I can have a mini-urban homestead on my balcony that supplies us with Mother Nature’s goodies all year long – yes, even in Winter.

Texas Tarragon

I just spent a wonderful two weeks listening to interviews from the Bio-Balkon Kongress (German) and am even more certain that my plan will work. In all actually, I have been gardening using similar methods for the past 15 years without having a plan. My hope is to make vegetable, fruit, and kitchen-herb production more efficient in the small spot that we have available.

Sage

Here are a few inspirational blogs that have great tips:

Biotopica Farm

Bio-Balkon

And, don’t forget that you can find tons of information in books for free through your local library. Here is my latest cache:

Gardening Books

Meine Mini-Farm

Grüne Stadtoasen

Die neue StadtGartenLust

Vertikal Gärtnern

Pineapple Sage

There is no time to waste. If you dream of homesteading but have no yard or land you can still grow food on you balcony or even on a windowsill. Just give it a shot – it’s worse not to have tried at all than to fail.

A Hidden Treasure in Franconia: the Altes Gewürzamt

Today started off a bit rough.  The clouds blanketed the sky in that way they do when they let you know that summer is over, and I could have slept another hour, but my body had other plans.  Even after my favorite cup of coffee I couldn’t naturally put a smile on my face.

Weeks ago we had planned on taking a day of our vacation to follow a dream of my husband’s and visit his favorite spice producer.  Years ago he fell in love with the herbs and spices of Ingo Holland, and always dreamed of visiting the small town and shop that gives life to so many of our dishes.  And, as luck would have it, today was the day.  I wanted to go in a better mood, but I just couldn’t wing it.  My husband even asked me if I was sure we should go today, but, as this is not the first time in my life that I have woken up on the wrong side of the bed, I told him that the trip would do me good and that sitting at home on our couch definitely wouldn’t make it better.  With that, we were off.

We decided to go by train since the trip to Klingenberg, where the Altes Gewürzamt calls home, is over 3 hours away from us on the Bavarian boarder with Hessen and Baden-Würtemburg.  This way we could have a “mobile couch day” on the train and sink into the books we are reading.

We exited our last train, stopped at a small bakery for a snack, and where directed by a friendly lady to find our destination.  Not that Klingenberg is large – not at all – it is just a maze of many old houses.

Because we arrived during the Altes Gewürzamt‘s lunch break, we walked around the town before heading to the store.  We walked through one alley after another of 400+ year-old houses, and even found ourselves on a bridge hovering over a small canyon running through this really small and inconspicuous place.  We found a path leading into the canyon, and walked through it.  What a surprise and a hidden treasure.

We made our way back to the heart of town – passing by a few wine cellars built into the hill that the town sat at the foot of.  Finally it was time.

We opened the door to the Altes Gewürzamt and were quickly encompassed by the warm smells of wood and spices.  By the time the door closed behind me, I had a smile on my face.

For a moment, I stood in the first room and just looked around.  We were greeted by two very friendly employees, and I tried to decide where to start.  I decided to walk around the store, and then walk around it a second time to gain focus.  Finally, I was in my element.  Food is just my world.

After I mentioned to my husband that I was going to smell every spice in the shop before we left (they have one open container per spice), one of the lady’s who worked there turned to me with a lovely smile and asked if I would like to set my backpack down by the register because it would take a while to discover them all and I would be more comfortable that way.  I took her offer, and started traveling the world through my nose.

Some smells were new, some were invigorating, others nose tickling, and yet others brought back fond childhood memories. I smelled in the container with chives at least three times – they smelled so buttery.  Since when do chives smell buttery?  I smelled into a container of Timut pepper that smelled like spicy grapefruit.  I tasted Danish Jozo Salt that grows in exquisitely thin little square flakes and crunches like chips.  I smelled the mind-blowing floral explosion of Iranian Safran.  I smelled a spiced-wine spice mix laced with roses and lemon grass. I could go on and on. What an experience.  Oh, and did I mention that they also have different types of vegan gummy bears??  I am moving in.

Two hours later, we were at the register and ready to take our bounty home.  It doesn’t look like a lot, but we already own quite a few that we order through their online shop.

We walked out the door, and as I closed the old wooden door behind me I felt like I had spent the whole day in a spa.  Aroma therapy does wonders.  I had such a great time, and had such a huge smile on my face as we walked back to the train station that my husband said that he thinks I had more fun than he did, and it was his dream we were full filling.  And that, lady’s and gentlemen, is why even when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, you should always decide to get up and go do something great rather than hang out on your couch all day.

Besides, I had enough “mobile couch” time today.  We spent a total of 6 and a half hours on different trains going back and forth for a less than 3 hour visit.  It was totally worth it.  What a great memory this place has made.

Strawberry Paradise 

Summer is finally here and I am fully in jelly-making-mode.  I want to preserve all the delicious flavors of summer in a hundred different ways.


Recently, I’ve been busy with rhubarb and elder flowers, and now strawberry is where it’s at.  This Spring I preemptively prepared a strong tee made from freshly picked sweet woodruff on one of my hikes bc it pairs wonderfully with strawberry.


Yesterday we drove out to the small town of Wolkersdorf where there is a strawberry plantation, and we picked 9 pounds of tiny super intensely flavored strawberries.


It’s hard work picking strawberries, and I have really soar thighs today from crouching through strawberry patches for 2 hours.  It was well worth it however!  Ironically, there were so many people who passed by us and we continuously heard “there are no more strawberries left to pick”.  I guess they don’t know that you really have to get down on your hands and knees to find them hiding in the shade of their own leaves.


As you can see from our bounty, we picked quite a few white-tipped strawberries.  We did this on purpose since partially ripe berries have a stronger more intense flavor, and when made into jams and jellies the flavor come out better.

I spent an hour plucking off the green tops, but it was well worth it – the smaller the berry the more flavor that is jam-packed inside.  And, of the nine pounds of berries I made strawberry jam, strawberry-sweet woodruff jam, strawberry-tarragon jam, strawberry-kiwi jam, and strawberry-chocolte-mint jam.  A little goes a long way and there are so many combinations.  Another favorite of mine is strawberry-pineapple jam.

No matter what combination of fruit I use, I always use a 3:1 ratio of fruit to sugar, and top off each boiling pot with the juice of a freshly squeezed lemon.  Get out and get jamming to preserve the flavors of summer!

Elder Flower Syrup

People, it is elder flower season and that means that it’s time for make elder flower syrup!

If you’re unfamiliar with the elderberry tress it can seem like every other green tree, but when the first warm days of late Spring and early summer roll around, you just can’t miss them.  Elderberry trees grow like weeds here in Germany.  Everywhere I have been in the last few weeks I have seen at least one. They grow on the sides of roads, at thw edge of rivers, in the midst of forest, along sidewalks, in the middle of farm fields…the list goes on.  They can be spotted by their large white flower clusters, and when you get close by their intensely sweet floral scent.


Making a syrup with the flowers is pretty easy and not very labor intensive.  And, afterwards you are rewarded withe a unique syrup for making your own sodas and cocktails year round.  My favorite combination is elder flower syrup topped off with spritzy water with a squirt of fresh lemon juice and Granada-Mint leaves muddled it – and served super cold of course!


For the syrup you will need:

20 Elder Flower clusters, debugged

400g Sugar

500ml Water

1 organic Lemon, cut into rounds

To prepare:

Place all your cleaned elder flower clusters in a large wide-mouthed jar or a bowl (if you use a bowl you may need more lemon rounds).

In a saucepan, heat water and sugar over high heat, stiring frequently, until all sugar is dissolved and the mixture has reached 80C.  Pour the simple syrup over the flowers while it is still hot.

Using the lemon rounds, layer them above the flowers the keep the flowers submerged beneath the syrup.  Let the syrup sit in a cool dark place – unrefridgerated – for 24 hours.

Strain syrup through a fine sieve and discard the flowers and lemons.  Place thw syrup in a sauce pan and heat it to 80C before pouring it into prepared jars for canning.  Pour into the jars and close with a lid and allow to sit on your counter, undisturbed for 24 hours.  Alternatively, you can leave you syrup uncanned and can use it immediately.  Once opened, keep refrigerated.

Makes about 1 Liter.

Hikers Paradise – La Palma, Canary Islands – Day 6

The first thought I had this morning, after a wonderful 10 hour sleep (!!!), is if the farmer sold his rooster.  I didn’t hear him this morning – just the faint calls of the neighbor roosters.  A few minutes later I was relieved to hear that he was still there…I might just have been too tired from yesterday’s hike to hear him.

It is late in the morning, and we enjoyed our breakfast of fruit and cereal grains with a hot cup of coffee while looking out over the ocean.  For the fourth time in the last few days, I watched a small speed boat head out south/south-west.  Where are they headed? …there is nothing out there.

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After breakfast, we headed out to Los Llanos.  We parked our car and asked an old white-haired lady with a cane if she could point us in the direction of the farmer’s market.  She consulted with two other ladies that just happened to be passing by, and the consensus is that we need to go 2 street over and walk straight down hill for 5 minutes until we run into the market.  The directions are right on, and we meander down yet another town of perfectly clean roads, quaint colorful houses, and gardens full of trees and flowers.

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We find the market at the end of the pedestrian zone, and walk through once before deciding to buy anything.  We return to the stands where we saw things that peaked our curiosity, and walked away with sweet-sour grapes, sweet tomatoes, huge red onions, pimentos del Padron, and a bag full of tangy tree tomatoes – all for a steel: 7,80€!!!

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We walk back to our car, purposely winding through tiny roads with more colorful houses – some just taller than I at the entrance.  We then quickly make our way home and make lunch – a skillet dish of potatoes, carrots, pimentos del Padron, onions, olives, tree tomatoes, and a hint of oregano.  Wow – the tree tomatoes are a tangy explosion of sweetly citrusy tomato softened potatoes in every bite.  Fantastic!

After lunch, we head off to the beach in El Remo – the salty smell in the air calms me and I am flooded with joyful feelings of my childhood.  I have not been on a beach in 8 years.  And, I have never seen a black sanded beach.

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We reach the beach – it is relatively small for a beach, but perfectly nudged in between volcanic rocks – like everything else around here.  The sand is hot – really hot.  We lay down on our mats and our towels, and still feel the burning heat soaked in by the island on our bodies.  The beach is pretty empty at 5:00pm.  The life guards have the red flag hanging high, forbidding everyone from swimming, it is high tide and there are strong rip currents.  An hour later, the yellow flags go up, the tide begins to subside, swimmers enter the lively waters, and the life guards stand directly on the beach to keep a close eye.  It is still not 100% safe, but the beach is starting to fill.  The sun is still high enough in the sky, and it will soon entertain everyone with a spectacular sunset.  As the tide falls, we walk to the water and cool our feet in the cold waves.  Every time a wave subsides back into the ocean, it reveals the end of the island…it just drops off a few meters in front of us.  How beautiful and scary at the same time.

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We make our way back home and rid ourselves of the cakey-feeling of sunscreen under the shower, and make our way off to dinner.  On our way we met our hostess, Karen, a really nice German lady who speaks with her hands like a true Spaniard.  She convinces us to change the restaurant we want to visit because they have a larger vegan selection.

We drive to Franchipani, and are seated in a small room with 3 large tall wooden tables.  The service is spectacular, and our waitress speaks German and Spanish.  We were delighted throughout the night with the service of a 1-star restaurant, but, unfortunately, the food was not as impressive.  The thought behind each dish was creative and well meant, but not well executed, and I left with indigestion from overly oiled food and a yogurt sauce that accidentally ended up on my vegan dish.  Such a shame…it was very promising.  I think I will move here one day and open a vacation rental complex with a restaurant down bellow.  I can definitely do better than this.

A beautiful stone house with red tile roof, reminiscent of the traditional Canary-style architecture of ages ago…with small apartments on either side of the house to rent.  In the middle is a restaurant that spills into a patio in a large garden where we will harvest the ingredients for the dishes we will prepare.  After a day’s work, I will sit out on my patio – all lights turned off on the property – and watch the amazing view of the stars and planets in the night’s sky.  This place is perfect.