Let's Get Dirty

A gardening blog for adults who still love to play in the dirt.

Send stories and pictures of your horticultural adventures to letsgetdirty@gjsentinel.com.

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Miracle food and human sacrifice: There’s no end to the gardening drama

By Penny Stine
Friday, November 12, 2010

When I was planning my garden and ordering seeds last winter, I admit that I was easily swayed by the price of some of the seeds, particularly for the flowers, since I garden because I love to eat. I’ll shell out the dough for a more expensive tomato seed if it promises flavor that’s out of this world, but I tended to stick with cheap flower seeds.
So when I saw an online sale of 75 cents for a packet of Amaranthus Candelabra seeds, I bought them simply because they were cheap. I had no idea if they’d grow well here or even what the plant looked like.
It turns out that they grow very well here. And they look cool. The amaranth is the giant droopy burgundy plant in front of the corn:

Before pulling the plant out this fall, I decided to gather some seeds for planting next year and Googled to find out the best time and method for gathering seeds. What I learned was shocking. Well, in a historical, horticultural kind of way.
Amaranth is native to South America and has been grown there for thousands of years. The seeds are supposed to be one of the most nutritious super foods out there, which is interesting. The Spaniards tried to wipe out the plant after conquering the Aztec empire, which adds intrigue.  

See, the Aztecs had that pesky little problem of human sacrifice and they mixed the blood of their sacrifices with amaranth seeds, which is rather nasty and horrible. Hence, the shocking part of its history.

Although cultivation was outlawed and stopped in many places due to its association with human sacrifice, the plant survived in a few remote areas. Nutritionists began doing more research about the plant in the 1970s and discovered its superhero qualities, which include an amazing amount of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids.

I cut the flowers from my plants and put them on top of the lid on the back of our Avalanche while trying to figure out the best way to shake out the seeds, which are the tiny little black specks that look like fleas on the truck lid:

Some websites say that the leaves are edible, too, but it’s really the seeds, which, as you can see, are practically on the microscopic scale, that are the miracle food. I read somewhere that it could be one of the more important crops for subsistence farmers in Africa.

Hmmm…. Really?

They couldn’t find anything bigger for subsistence farmers to grow and depend on than itty-bitty seeds that wouldn’t fill a hummingbird?

I managed to almost fill a small plate with the seeds from all those flowers.

I grew an ornamental variety and not the crop variety, but I’ve seen the pictures. The “crop” seeds aren’t much bigger. Growing microscopic food makes no sense to me, but I’m just a gardening blogger and not a plant research person with the potential to save the world from starvation.

I am saving seeds to plant more next year and may even try to grow another type of amaranth because it looked cool growing in the garden. And I may put a tablespoon of seeds in the next batch of bread I bake just to see if it makes me want to leap tall buildings in a single bound or save little children from burning buildings, but I'm not holding my breath that the seeds would keep me from starvation this winter if the grocery stores went out of business.  


Where my love of dirt began

By Carol Clark
Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cool fall air always takes me back to the farm for sugar beet season. Back in the day, the local farmers grew sugar beets for Holly Sugar. Of course, sugar has always been my favorite food group, and it was also my favorite crop Dad grew.

Nothing could top beet harvest . It was always the most fun. We kids, even when very young, were finally allowed to help. It was important work, as important as anything, and we were part of it. We were grown-up enough to help dad provide for the family.

The freshly tilled earth was dark and moist and smelled so good. We walked behind the dump truck with hooks and found every beet that the harvester left behind and threw

 them into the truck. We are not talking about the beets we grow in our garden. 'These beets were huge tan beats with white flesh. 

Everyone in the family helped, and mom and grandma would always bring lunch right out into the field so we didn't have to stop for long.

All the farmers were always in good spirits. The year's hard work was finally paying off. It was a good crop that brought good money so they could finally payoff those farm debts.

The highlight of harvest for us kids was riding in the cab of the dump truck with our load to drop at the beet dump. That's what it was called, "the beet dump." Long lines of trucks waited in straight lines at the entry of the dump which provided for a great social gathering of lonely farmers, so talkative after long summer days alone in the fields.

Finally, it was our turn to drive onto the big scale to weigh the full truck. I thought this was why dad brought me along, (the extra 50 lbs.) I figured I brought a lot of money. I didn't realize until I was older why they weighed the empty trucks on the way out.

Watching the dump truck tilt up and unload the beets onto the conveyor belt was the highlight. The belt took the beets all the way up to the sky scraper-sized hill of beets.

Then it was back home to join the other trucks loading more beets.

It was a sad day when I heard we were no longer growing those huge beets. Apparently, Holly Sugar found another area where the beets had a higher concentration of sugar in the white flesh.

From time to time I hear a local farmer talk of bringing sugar beets back to the valley. I figure they must have had as much fun as I did helping their dads make a living.


Enough already!

By Penny Stine
Tuesday, November 9, 2010

I discovered this year that tomatillos love the Grand Valley. We must have the perfect combination of soil, sunshine and growing season to make them deliriously happy.

My tomatillos were so happy they grew far bigger than I ever imagined, spreading far beyond their planting beds, overshadowing unsuspecting herbs and pepper plants and producing so many tomatillos that I ended up picking a huge bowl of them every weekend to make green salsa.
I probably made at least 35 pints of green salsa. I also canned at least 8 quarts of a stewed tomatillo mixture that included tomatillos, corn, roasted green chiles, squash, onions and garlic. I canned tomatoes and tomatillos together. I used tomatillos for green sauce in chilaquiles, enchiladas and pasta. I used tomatillo salsa as currency to trade for juicy red tomatoes. 
Although I really wanted to use every last one, I just couldn’t. When we went on vacation, I took my brother an overflowing grocery sack full of tomatillos. When we came home from vacation, I picked another sack of tomatillos and took them to work to give away, since they didn’t freeze completely while we were gone. And then did it twice more before I finally pulled the plants out. I had to take a picture of the last basketful of tomatillos from my garden:

Of course, tiny little tomatillos fell to the ground all over my gardens and I threw the pulled plants (with more tiny little tomatillos attached) in my compost bin, which means I could have tomatillos sprouting everywhere next year. But I will be ruthless and not allow them to live where I do not deliberately plant them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I’ll dig up a buried treasure in my new garden space and get a visit from the queen of England, too, who will be coming to borrow two cups of chopped tomatillos to try a new recipe. It’s always nice to dream…


Got dirty in 2010; will get dirtier in 2011

By Laurena Mayne Davis
Monday, November 8, 2010

Penny Stine, queen bee of the Let’s Get Dirty bloggers, asked us to reflect on our gardening efforts from this season and write about what we plan to do differently in 2011.

As I was yanking out stubborn tomato stumps over the weekend, I outlined a three-prong approach. We’ll use the pitchfork in Grant Wood’s 1930 “American Gothic” for illustration purposes:

(Did you know the farmer was modeled after Wood’s dentist and the woman — spinster daughter? younger wife? It's a matter of some debate — after Wood’s sister? Lots of interesting background available at the Art Institute of Chicago, if you’re curious.)

Prong One: Soil. I will make it better for the plants’ sake and at the weeds’ expense.  I mulch with straw and wood chips; I will mulch more. I compost now; I will compost more. 

Prong Two: Commitment. After a dozen years of gardening at this house, I’m finally ready to commit to perennials. Heretofore I moved things around every year and disked up the entire plot every fall. Now I’m ready to stand down on disking in some areas for a permanent home for rhubarb, asparagus and strawberries.

Prong Three: Watering. This is related to my commitment-phobia of the previous entry. Disking doesn’t work with water lines. I’ve had open ditches. I’ve had sprinklers, and I’m tired of slogging through the mud and dragging around 100-foot hoses. There will be pop-ups. There will be drip lines. There will be the breaking of this news to my handyman husband sometime soon.   


Watermelons in November

By Penny Stine
Thursday, November 4, 2010

My gardens all get too much shade, which is why I have three different garden areas in various parts of my yard, all planted in search of the elusive sunshine. The one interesting thing about a shady garden is that produce takes a long, long time to ripen and you end up eating things out of season. 

Remember the watermelon that grew on my gate? I meant to pick it before I left for vacation, but forgot to do it. The result was I picked it on November 1 (it survived the frost) and we ate it on November 2. How cool is that to be eating home-grown watermelon in November? This is a yellow doll variety. I got the seeds from Bookcliff Gardens and even though I need to find a sunnier spot for it next year (which is why I'm killing more grass and turning more of my front yard into garden) it was a definite success. Extremely juicy and sweet in a nice compact little melon. 

True, it would have been better to eat it when it was a million degrees outside, but I'll take what I can get. 

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