Growing Amaranth – An Ancient Grain

One of the luxuries I have had over the last couple of years since retiring is the time to garden.  We have been planning (and planning) our new home here on our fledgling homestead for a while now, and we are hoping (and praying) that our local officials will grace us with an approved building permit soon.  But, between all the planning and preparing, one thing that keeps me grounded is my vegetable garden and orchard.

Harvesting Sunflowers

My grandson, Caden, in the garden.

Our homestead is in Northern California, at 3,000 foot in elevation, and in USDA zone 8 or 9 ish, depending on what map you look at. Our growing season is fairly average, with our last frost date around April 1st through 10th.

Growing Amaranth

We got our amaranth seed from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of my favorite seed companies.

Since my husband and I are trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, we are trying out new plants in our garden.  Last year our new plants were Fava (broad) beans and Amaranth.  You can read about our Fava bean adventure HERE.

Why Amaranth?  Read this article about the 13 health benefits of Amaranth on the website Sunwarrior HERE.  See?  That’s why.  🙂

I started the Amaranth seedlings in 3 inch peat pots and they were the second plants of all my garden plants (the Favas were first) to germinate.  I was so encouraged!

Once they went into the garden, they took off like wildfire.  I had eight Amaranth plants, four planted on each end of my green beans.  I had no idea what to expect in terms of how tall or wide they would grow, and I thought it might be a good idea to plant them with the beans in case they needed to be tied up.growing amaranth in zone 9

I was surprised at how early I saw the flowers start to appear!  I thought our honeybees would be obsessed with these plants and the amount they were flowering, but I was wrong.  I never saw one honeybee visit the Amaranth.  I did see a few bumblebees and some orchard mason bees, but no honeybees!  Unfortunately, I also saw some yellow jackets and some bald faced hornets, but that’s another story.

amaranth - ancient grain

The flowers start early. This plant isn’t even a full three months old!

The plants grew and grew and grew!

Aren’t these plants beautiful?  Too bad our honeybees didn’t think so!

Luckily the stalks grew thick and sturdy as the plants grew tall, so they were pretty much self-supporting.  I did have to stake one up after a nasty wind blew through, because it almost broke in half, but that trooper survived despite it’s near fatal accident!  I was blown away  😉

growing amaranth

It’s harvest time! These plants did very well, in my opinion. Plus, they are so beautiful that once we have our new house built, I will plant them in my flower borders!

Once it was harvest time, in early October before the rains and when I noticed some of the seeds starting to dislodge from the plants, I cut the heads off and set them upside down in an open paper bag. In no time at all, the seeds started to dry and fall off of the plants.  But quite a few of them actually held on.  I’m not sure if this is usual, or if I may have harvested too soon, but I harvested right before a week of heavy rain, so I think I made a good call regardless.

After a bit of research I found that it was easiest to use garden shears to cut the seed heads from the thick plant stalk, and then with a gloved hand, you can rub the seed heads between your hands to dislodge the seeds and the chaff. Then, to separate the seeds from the chaff, I gently blew on them… the chaff blows away in the wind and the heavier seeds stay put.  Stay upwind of the chaff, however, lest you get a facefull of the chaff… it isn’t pretty.

ancient grains - amaranth

The seed heads have been pulled off the plant stalk and dried. Now to rub between my gloved hands to release all of the seeds.

I have heard that some people blow off the chaff with a fan and, believe me, that’s what I will do next time.

One batch down, three to go.

Also, don’t try rubbing the seeds off the stalk without wearing gloves.  The seed heads have little tiny stickers which poke like minute thorns into your fingers. Even though I put on a pair of gloves after that first batch, my hands were sore for days!

I didn’t get a WHOLE lot of seeds.  In fact, when judging my harvest with the size of the flowering seed heads, I thought I would get a lot more.  But then, seeing the size of the seeds, I realize that I actually got a decent harvest, considering. I guess I will just have to grow more amaranth!

Harvesting amaranth

Out of eight plants I got almost one quart of Amaranth seeds.

So, what did I do with the Amaranth?  I found this really cool method of popping the amaranth seeds, like popcorn!  It’s on this website I found here:  http://www.edibleperspective.com/home/2012/7/23/popped-amaranth-cereal-puffmaranth.html

This was my first attempt at popping amaranth. Let me tell you, that stuff pops! Right out of the pan and onto my kitchen floor!   🙂

I also added the amaranth to some muffins by just adding it into the batter.  The amaranth added quite a crunch to the muffins…  still not sure I like that.  Perhaps I should pre-soften the grains in water first, before adding to the muffin batter, or maybe I should use the popped amaranth. I also found a protein bar recipe I would like to try once I have more amaranth, and I will be doing a lot more research for bread recipes using amaranth.

Will I grow amaranth again?  You Betcha!

It was easy to grow, I love the popped amaranth, and the plant itself is quite beautiful.  In fact, this could easily be a statement piece in a flower garden and most people wouldn’t be aware that it is actually a food crop.  You should try it!

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Perennial Herb Garden

Last summer I started a perennial herb garden just on the other side of our orchard.  Although I grew up eating fairly bland food and have cooked that way myself for years, as I get older I realize that I enjoy herbs and spices more than I thought I did!

Perennial herb garden

Here is my Perennial herb garden looking from East to West, with the oregano section in the foreground.  The oregano started out as one small plant, but has spread and will probably fill in the bed this year.

I decided to start a perennial herb garden because I found that buying fresh herbs at the market can be quite expensive.  Even when I find the price reasonable, sometimes I have to buy too much for the recipe I am following and end up wasting some of the herb.  So, I decided to start growing my own.  Of course I will continue to plant basil seeds every year, and red peppers to make my own red pepper flakes, but the perennial herbs seem to take care of themselves.  In fact, it’s rare that they get bugs.  That’s probably because of the aromatic oils in the plants themselves.  My only problem has been with our &%$#(@# vole that insists on tunneling right through my beds!

The rosemary plants look pretty good. They are fairly drought tolerant and have virtually no pests, but our honeybees will absolutely maul the rosemary blooms when they appear later this spring,

I grew rosemary for years at our old house and ended up with huge rosemary bushes that weren’t very well tamed.  Our kitty cat used to sleep under the rosemary during the hot summer afternoons and she would come into the house smelling like heaven!  I am just learning to cook more with rosemary, and made a delicious rosemary sourdough cracker a couple of years ago.

I have also tried growing oregano before and really enjoyed learning to make Italian and Mexican dishes with fresh oregano.  However, I have never grown sage or thyme, which I had heard are fairly easy to grow, especially in my 7B/8A climate. In fact, when our new house is finished being built, there is a hill right behind our covered patio where I will be planting thyme, as it is supposed to be a great ground cover.

I decided to locate the garden right behind the log retaining wall that is terracing our orchard because many herbs are deterrents to deer. In fact, my research reveals that deer detest rosemary!  We haven’t had a real problem with deer in our orchard/garden, but I’m all for double purpose plants!

So, I decided to plant the herb garden with the four basics:  oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. Did I just hear Simon and Garfunkel in my head? 😉  All of these are perennials.  Up in the garden I also have a few other perennial herbs including lemon balm, spearmint and lavender.

Growing lemon balm in a perennial herb gardenThe lemon balm is in a planter right next to the bee hives.  There is an old folk tale that bees will not abandon a hive (swarm) where lemon balm grows, so that is why we planted it there.  We also have another lemon balm plant right next to our bee watering pond, so you can see I put a lot of faith in some folk tales!  We’ll see how it goes this year.  Lemon balm was once called a “poor man’s lemonade” plant, because not very many pioneers had lemon trees, nor could they afford lemons, but lots of people can grow lemon balm!

I am keeping the spearmint plant contained in a large pot.  Spearmint is known to spread willy-nilly and is hard to get rid of once established.  That is why, even though it is crowded, I am keeping it in a pot.  I will find a wider pot for the spearmint later this spring, however, so it can spread it’s roots a bit more. But I must warn you, my plant kept trying to escape this past summer by producing runners down to the ground seemingly overnight!  Of course, these runners are what I snipped and used for my kitchen. I love putting a few bruised spearmint leaves in hot water with a touch of either honey or a few stevia leaves, letting it cool, then drinking it over ice.  Ahhhhh.  So refreshing on a hot summer day! Growing spearmint in a perennial garden

The lavender is located just above the log retaining wall, near the strawberries.  Lavender lavenderinfused water is also yummy, and I just love putting a few dried sprigs in my drawers for a fresh, clean scent.

My dresser drawers, silly.  🙂

When Ray and I went on a farm tour a couple of years ago, we visited a farm that specialized in aromatic herbs including lavender, clary sage and lemon verbena.  In their gift shop they gave away lavender cookies and let me tell you, they were absolutely delicious!  As you can see in the picture to the right, I haven’t cleaned the lavender bed yet, but I will get to that soon.  My husband gave me the beautiful garden armillary for our anniversary several years ago, and my father made the concrete pedestal.  When the lavender is in bloom, this is such a beautiful vignette in the garden. And the armillary actually keeps pretty good time!  Speaking of thyme…

Thyme

This is the thyme, which has spread triple from what I planted last spring.

All of the herbs survived well over the winter, despite all of the wind, rain, hail and snow, and are showing signs of good spring growth.

The sage is  the herb in my garden that looks the most winter worn, but it is showing signs of new spring growth, so I have faith it will do just fine. Ray and I can’t wait to try a new sausage recipe that uses fresh sage. Yummy.

I pinched a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme the other day for one of our new favorite veggie cooking with rosemary and thymedishes:  roasted root vegetables!  All I had on hand this time were potatoes and carrots, which is just fine, but parsnips, rutabaga, even radish works in this dish. Just a couple sprigs of fresh thyme and rosemary, chopped fine, salt and pepper, drizzled with olive oil, and the vegetables come out browned and caramelized, seasoned to perfection. What temp to set the oven?  Just about anything from 300 to 425, so you can roast meat or bake bread while roasting these healthy and delicious root vegetables – just knowing that they will cook faster at higher temperatures  MMMMMMMMM…

 

And the cute little kitty reclining on a rock that you may have spied near the sage?  That is in memory of my sweet kitty, Missy, who was queen of our neighborhood for 15 years and will remain forever in our hearts.

Thank you for visiting my blog!

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Growing Fava Beans

As a fledgling gardener, one thing I have been trying to do each year is to grow something new, so that I can expand my gardening knowledge and broaden my culinary horizons!

This past year I decided to try fava beans.  Why?  Because I was in a natural food market and saw these beautiful, huge, marinated, wonderfully flavored beans.  They were in one of those “help yourself” bars along with marinated and/or pickled olives, mushrooms and peppers.  They were so good!

There wasn’t a sign anywhere saying what kind of a bean they were, but a friendly customer next to me said she thought they were fava beans.  So, I decided I would try growing my own fava beans and find a recipe for this wonderful, flavorful snack!

growing broad beansTurns out I was misinformed.  The marinated beans were not fava beans, but a type of lima bean.  Oh well.  I had already bought the bean seeds and they had germinated by the time I figured this out.  Speaking of the seeds…

I found a wonderful seed company that I just adore!  They are based out of Chico, California and I had the opportunity to visit their store recently.  More about that in another story to come soon.

So, on with the fava beans!

The beans were very quick to sprout and were setting their first true leaves within 10 days!  Of course, I attribute some of this to my homemade kelp fertilizer, with the natural gibberellic acid in it, which is a growth hormone for plants.

I started the beans in an enclosed patio, about 4 weeks before the beginning of spring, because fava beans are much like english peas, they are somewhat of a cool weather crop and would be harvested sometime in May or June.  I had a picture of the seedlings growing in their pots, but alas, my camera got run over by our truck (don’t ask) and I was unable to retrieve all of my pictures.  🙁  But, once I put them in the ground, they started growing…growing broad beans

and growing…

I should have had some type of support for the plants, even though they are a bush type of bean, because some of the stems that were about 2 feet long started to twist and droop as they grew, I guess from their own weight.  A few even broke.  I’m not sure if that is the nature of the plant, or gardener (me) error. 😉

growing broad beansOnce the fava bean plants began to bloom, I was totally in awe!  The blossoms are gorgeous!  The white with beautiful lavender throats really stood out.  To me, they resembled an orchid. Apparently the pollinators thought they were pretty cool, also, because it wasn’t long before small, tiny bean pods developed.  In fact, in the picture on the left, you can see a butterfly (or is that a moth) with it’s head plunged head into the flower!  You can click on the picture for a better view.

Then we had a hail storm!  Shoot!  Nuts!  The hail absolutely destroyed some of my garden plants and heavily damaged others.  Luckily, the fava bean plants seemed to be fairly resilient. Though they were pretty well bruised, the leaves healed and recovered fairly quickly!growing fava beans

Within another month the bean pods were huge.  I mean H U G E! You can see in the picture at the left that the pods are bigger than my fingers!

growing broad beans

Once the outside of the pods started to show the bulge of the beans inside, it was time to harvest. Since I only had four bean plants (which I originally thought would be plenty to experiment with), I decided to dry them in the pod, as it didn’t seem like I was going to get very many actual beans.  I harvested each pod as it appeared to have mature beans inside, let it dry in the pod, and then shucked the beans into a bowl. Oh, by the way, most other people in the world call them Broad Beans!

Okay.

 

Let’s get real here.  The plants grew well.  The flowers were gorgeous.  But this is all the beans I got?

Seriously?

growing fava beans

Then, I went online to see how to prepare the beans.

Um………….

I found this on Dr. Weil’s website:

Cooking time: 60-120 minutes

Liquid per cup of legume: 3 cups

How to cook fava beans: Soak overnight. Drain water. If your fava beans were not already shelled, you should be able to slip the outer skins off after soaking by squeezing the beans between your fingers. Once favas are shelled, fill pot with fresh, cold water for cooking. Place on stove and bring to a boil in a pot with a lid. Once boiling, reduce to a simmer, tilting the lids slightly to allow steam to escape, and leave to cook for one to two hours, until tender or desired consistency.

Whaaaaaaaa….?  I have to soak overnight and slip the outer skins off of EACH BEAN! That seems like a pretty time consuming task to me!  These puppies better be worth it!

So, I soaked my meager bowl of fava beans overnight and then tried to “slip” off the skins. Umm… nope!  The skins did not slip off in any way, shape or form.  Then I started wondering if I had skinless beans (could I be so lucky?), and dug with my nail into one of the soaked beans to see.

Skins.

growing and cooking broad beans

Yeah – not very pretty. I guess this is what happens when you soak your fava beans longer than overnight, so that the skins will “slip” off. NOT!

Except mine were so thick they would not slip off.  So, I decided to soak them for a little longer.  Still didn’t work.  I went ahead and gouged each skin off (not very carefully, as I grumbled the entire 1/2 hour it took me to do it), and finally boiled them for almost an hour.

The result?  They pretty much turned to mush!

I guess the extra soaking didn’t do any favors for the texture of the cooked bean, because they all split apart and were almost unrecognizable as beans.  Harruummph!

Were they good?  Well, I guess so.  I like beans, and these tasted like… well… beans!

But, rather than eat mushy beans, I decided to puree them and use them as a dip that is very similar to hummus.  I found this recipe on the Whole Foods website.  It was good!  Not great, but good. If you try this recipe, I would recommend making the hummus at least an hour ahead of time and then let it sit for a while, allowing the flavors to meld.

broad bean hummus

Fava bean hummus. I tried to make it look pretty. . .   really I tried.

My take on all of this?  Well, let’s just say I am not going to grow fava beans this year. They took up waaaaaaaaayyyyyyy too much garden space for such little result.

One bowl of hummus.  😉

And since we didn’t swoon over their flavor and texture, why bother?

Was the experiment worth it?  You bet!  Now I have a better knowledge of what fava (broad) beans look like and taste like, how to grow them and how to prepare them. Who knows… someday I might have a larger garden and want to try growing then again, and  I also have a greater appreciation of those who DO grow them.

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Off-Grid Water and the New Pumphouse

As we get ready to build our new home, we are trying to get the infrastructure in place before all the REAL construction starts.  The septic tank is in place, as is our well.  We have an orchard that is already producing fruit, a temporary garden site, a place to live on site while we build the house, and a gravel driveway with lots of gravel.

One of the last things we need to do is build a house to enclose our well head, the water storage tank, a booster pump and a pressure tank.  A lot of people don’t enclose these components, and that’s okay, but we want everything to last as long as possible and we also want a safe, clean water supply. Unfortunately, some of our neighbors are a bit shady, so we don’t want any of our equipment to go missing.  We also won’t have to worry as much about someone or something fouling up our well.

Ray built this water tower a few years ago, and it works very well giving us enough pressure to run a hose, flush a toilet or take a shower. Unfortunately, California Code Book says we can’t use it for our new home. 🙁

Being off-grid, we have had some challenges figuring out a system that is both energy efficient and will also pass California’s over-bearing and unnecessarily strict building codes.  You see, we really wanted to just use gravity fed water drawn from the wonderful water tower that Ray built some years ago. Unfortunately, we are required to install fire suppression water sprinklers in our home, which requires that a certain water pressure be maintained for a certain amount of time, and the water tower cannot supply this requirement.

Not only do we have to pay for this unwanted fire suppression water sprinklers (about $5,000 is the cheapest quote we have received thus far), but we also have to pay for the booster pump, pressure tank and all the necessary extra solar panels, batteries and wiring to support them.  Harrumph!

Why don’t we want the sprinklers?  Because, so far, we have heard of more insurance claims from damage caused by frozen sprinkler pipes (we live in the Sierra Nevada Mountains) bursting in the winter than we have heard of homes saved by the fire sprinklers.  Besides, we are also are required to have a fairly expensive smoke detector system that is integrated within the system.  Also California Code. Also a lot of money.

A lot. 🙁

We decided to build the pump house just like we built our tool shed (which we turned into our bunk house), with a concrete slab upon which two levels of concrete brick will be mortared, then the rest with framework of 2 x 6’s, and finally a metal roof.  Of course, the first thing we had to do was figure out where the building would be built!  We knew we wanted to include the original concrete slab that surrounded the well head.  It took a while to figure the best orientation: where a window would go and which way the ridge of the roof would run.  We also needed to decide how big the building would be.  We didn’t want it to be too big, but at least big enough to be able to move around inside to work on components and turn on/off switches and/or faucets.

Building an Off-Grid Pump House

Figuring out where to put the pump house, and how many concrete blocks will be needed.

We started out framing with 2 x 6’s for the concrete slab, because we wanted about 2 inches of gravel with about a 4 inch thick slab for the floor.  Ray figured out a system of Off-Grid Pressurized Water Systempipes and faucets and such, which were all imbedded into the concrete slab.  Since the slab was going to be fairly large, we decided to pour half of it one day, wait a day for the first pour to set up, then finish the slab with another pour.  So glad we did this because we hand mixed in a wheelbarrow a total of 52 bags of cement!  My back is aching!  As you can see in the picture to the left, we set rebar into the concrete along the edges, that will tie into the concrete block and make the block wall more sturdy.  Pressurized Water Off-Grid

The PVC pipes for two faucets and the household water supply pipe, along with electrical conduit for two wires was buried in the gravel under the concrete.  With everything either being in walls or underground within the building, we are hoping none of them freeze. One of the wires goes from the solar panels to the pump, and the other wire is actually a sensor wire. The sensor wire will be placed inside the water storage tank and trips the solar pump off when the tank is full.  Our pump is a really cool brushless pump, with a direct current motor that we bought from Advanced Power Inc. (previously called Robison Pumps) and runs on solar, batteries or generator.  Perfect for off-grid applications.

Cool, huh?

Once the entire concrete slab was poured, we next needed to set the concrete block.  We used 6 inch wide block (it also comes in 8 inch wide) because we plan to use 2 x 6 lumber for the framing, which would make the whole building look more uniform.  At least that’s the plan!

Setting concrete blocks is not easy work, but Ray had a bit of experience from being a hod boy for his step-father when he was young, and we have completed several projects over the years with concrete block and also clay brick.  Working with the concrete blocks and mortar, I must say, is nasty stuff – especially if you don’t have good gloves!  I ended up losing the skin on some of my fingers when it was all said and done, from the lye in the mortar mix!  Seriously…  I could rob a bank because I don’t have fingerprints right now!   Hahahaha…

Fortunately, we were able to get the two rows done in just a few day’s work.Water Systems Off-The Grid

Once the block walls were up, we had to fill the voids with concrete.  Not only does this make the walls more stable, but the concrete holds in the J-bolts, which will eventually Pressurized Off-Grid Waterhold down the sill plate, which holds down the framework.  In the picture above, you can see a loose J-bolt, and another one imbedded into the concrete.  You have to leave enough of the J-bolt above the concrete so that the sill plate will fit over, and the bolt will have enough room to tighten down.  You can see in the picture to the left how we filled each void in the concrete block with cement.  It’s not pretty, but it works, and the sill plate covers everything anyway, so you will never see this view again!

The best part?  All of the cement/mortar work on the pump house is done!  Wahoo.  Now I can grow my fingerprints back again.  😉

Finally, Ray set the sill plate.  He had to drill holes for all the pipes and bolts that intruded through the board.  The boards were put on right after we had finished filling the concrete voids of the wall, so that the pipes would be held in the correct position as the concrete cured.  With the sill plates attached, we are now ready to start framing the walls.

We were so excited when John at Precision Pump and his two apprentices placed the rest of our equipment!  These guys are professionals and had the entire system up and running in no time!  We got a Gould Booster Pump and an Amtrol Pressure tank – both American made, which is important to us.  You can see the schematic of our system in the picture below.  As always, you can click on a picture for a better view.How to get pressurized water off-grid

The water is pumped from the well by a solar pump, and flows into the water storage tank.  You can see the blue ball valve in the line between the well head and the water storage tank.  That stops the flow of the water into the storage tank so that the water can flow through the faucet in the picture that says “unpressurized water from well pump to faucet”.  Of couse, there is a little bit of pressure, just not a whole lot.  The upright PVC pipe at the upper left corner is where the electricity comes in from the solar panels and powers the solar pump.

The other faucet is fed by the pressurized tank.  Now look at the square of rock in the lower right corner of the concrete slab, where two PVC pipes disappear.  The skinny pipe is the one that leads to the pressurized water faucet.  The larger pipe will lead down the hill to our home.  We don’t want to trench and set the line for that until most of the heavy construction is done, for obvious reasons.

Building off-grid water system with pressure

The upper red circle shows where the electricity for the booster pump comes in from under the concrete. The electricity will come from the household solar system. Follow the red line to the pressure switch – the gray box – inside the second red circle. This controls the booster pump turning on and off, based on the pressure within the pressure tank. Following the red line around brings you to the booster pump, the blue thingy.

What happens is the booster pump will be fed by electricity from the solar system that will be placed on the roof of our house.  It pumps water from the water storage tank into the pressure tank, the big off-white thing next to it.  The pressure tank is what gives us enough pressure for household use and brings up to code for our future fire suppression sprinklers.  The booster pump runs on 110 and is 1-1/2 horse, which was important to us since we are off-grid, and keeps the pressure tank between 30 to 50 pounds of pressure.

household off-grid pressurized system

This picture shows where the electrical comes out (or goes into) from under the concrete in the pump house. The line on the left is from the solar panels that power the actual well pump. The one on the right is coming from our future household solar system, that will be on our roof. Once the heavy work is done on the house, we will trench and place the conduit with the wires, along with the 2″ PVC pipe for the water for the house.

In the meantime, as we are living in our travel trailer and small bunk house, we hooked up this system to the trailer and – WOW.  The pressure is absolutely wonderful!  I can actually rinse all the shampoo out of my thick hair now!  Whoopeeeee!

Now…   on to framing!

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