Midwest Feed

This Is What Environmental Stewardship Looks Like When You're Farming: Eckenfels Farms

Eckenfels Sue
Sue Eckenfels, taking time out on a Sunday to give us a tour of their farm.

By Lisa Brunette

We purchase most of our meat directly from farms, a practice we began in 2015, when we lived in Chehalis, in Washington state. Back then our beef came from the Olsons, just outside of that small town. Here in Missouri, we had to source meat anew, so we hit the local farmer's market and found two excellent locals: Eckenfels Farms and Farrar Out Farm.

Eckenfels Sign
A colorful sign entices you to explore the rolling hills beyond.

We've been buying meat in bulk quantities from both farms for four years now, so I figured it was about time to visit... at least one of them! The Eckenfels Farm is located in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, and with that tiny burg's proximity to primo hiking spots (my big draw) and its National Historical Park (to feed Anthony's history obsession), we couldn't not go there. Besides, we just really enjoyed chatting with Bob and Sue Eckenfels at the farmer's market. So we scheduled a trip to charming Ste. Genevieve, and the couple graciously agreed to give us a tour of their farm during our stay.

Eckenfels Wagu
Eckenfels' herd is pasture-raised.

Eckenfels Farms is a "Century Farm," meaning it's been in the same family for 100 years or more. In this case, the Eckenfels have been farming their 300 or so acres for 170 years. But Bob will quickly tell you of neighboring farms that have been around for 200 years, an important marker, as Missouri celebrates its state bicentennial this year. In a place like Ste. Genevieve, history is a long game. As Missouri's first European settlement, its roots stretch back to at least 1750, and some of the historic homes you can tour as part of the National Park Service site are one of only a handful of remaining examples of rare French architectural techniques.

Eckenfels Pond
Pasture stretching down toward a pond at Eckenfels Farms.

A few fun facts about Eckenfels Farms:

  • Winner of the beef industry's 2009 Region III Environmental Stewardship Award
  • Herd is free-range, grass-fed, with no antibiotics, hormones, or unnatural growth stimulants
  • Practice rotational grazing on a mix of fescue, over-seeded millet, rye, and clover as warranted, with native warm-season grasses providing food during the hottest summer days when the fescue doesn't do well
  • Raise South Poll cattle, well-adapted to Missouri's heat and humidity
  • Animals have continuous access to well water
Eckenfels Wagu Watering
The herd gathering at one of several wells.

Though it was a steamy day in late August, the temps climbing into the 90s, we enjoyed the chance to get up close and personal with the animals who become our nourishment. The Eckenfels were kind enough to drive us out to see their pasture-fed herd of 50. Their South Poll breed is so docile and easy that we were able to gather around them in close proximity while provoking only curiosity in the cows. 

Eckenfels Wagu Mama
A cow regards me with what I took to be some level of interest. The South Poll breed is known as the "Southern Mama."

Bob runs a superior operation, as evidenced by the recognition the farm has received, but you can also see it in the health and beauty of the herd. Grass-fed diets are better for the animal and for us, too. Grass-fed beef is leaner, with fewer calories, but it contains more nutrients. "If all Americans switched to grass-fed meat, our national epidemic of obesity would begin to diminish," as the Eckenfels explain to their own website visitors. Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3 fatty acids than grain-fed.  

Eckenfels Tour
Bob and Sue on the tour, with my husband, Anthony, staying in the shade in the cab.

Cows are meant to eat grass, not grain, and they're healthier on their natural diet, in less need of medical intervention. Attention is also paid to the pasture itself, as Bob employs several techniques to ensure a healthy pasture environment. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the National Cattlemen's Foundation awarded Eckenfels an award for environmental stewardship, citing the following practices:

Eckenfels plants his crops using no-till, which has proven to increase his returns and minimize erosion. He has utilized rotational grazing by cross fencing his fields using a combination of barbed wire and electric fence to maximize production. He’s also fencing his ponds to exclude livestock. By implementing these conservation practices, Eckenfels Farm provides wildlife habitat and improves pastures. 

Eckenfels Bob Anthony
Bob and Anthony.

Calling Bob a "progressive adopter of new ideas and technologies that benefit and protect soil and water resources," the industry groups sponsoring the award praised him for a number of initiatives, such as installing ponds and stream buffers, creating quail habitats, and volunteering to educate others on conservation principles and practices. And of course this is a family effort; Bob's son Matt is already a key part of the farm, daughter Kayla can often be found staffing the farmer's market booth, and both of their other children have been involved at one time or another. All four live either on the farm or in close proximity. Eldest Matt has even custom-built a grain silo home.

Eckenfels Silo House

Farm life is not without its challenges, as you can imagine. The Eckenfels have struggled with a lower water table from which to draw well water. Consolidation in the slaughterhouse industry has led to disadvantages for small independent farms like this one. And while clearly fixtures in the Ste. Genevieve community, you can't actually purchase Eckenfels meat at any of the town's stores, or even find it in restaurants. This strikes me as a sorely missed opportunity, as someone who's used to Seattle restaurants and specialty grocery stores routinely listing just such an "origin story" for their meat as the Eckenfels give in spades. Bob and Sue drive the hour to St. Louis a couple times a week to sell to customers there instead.

Eckenfels Wagu Walk
Using corridors like this one, Bob rotates the herd to different parts of the pasture, giving it a chance to regenerate between grazings.

It was personally quite satisfying to get my farm fix with this tour, and I thank the Eckenfels for their hospitality and time. While unlike both Bob and Sue, I didn't grow up on a farm, I have often wished I had. Instead, I've had to live vicariously through others as a writer who chronicles this work, whether as editor of the oldest independent fishing publication on the West Coast, author of a book about a century-old dairy farm, or the writing I do as a volunteer for this little old blog. I hope you enjoy my stories.

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3 Natives You Can Plant This Fall for Spring Blooms

Iris fulva open
Copper iris, a native to the Midwest that blooms in May.

By Lisa Brunette

There's nothing so hopeful as an early spring flower, defiantly emerging out of the deadened winter landscape and signaling a renewal of life. Here in the St. Louis area, that usually means daffodils. These cheery trumpets sound off in early March to lift our collective spirits.

But as much as Anthony and I like our daffodils around here - and we do, as evidenced by our apparent daffyness for them - we have to admit they don't do much to provide food for pollinators and other insects here in the U.S. Most ornamental bulbs originated in Europe or elsewhere; they did not evolve alongside our native fauna, which tends to find them either outright toxic or regard them with indifference. These bulbs are not a viable food source; they're just pretty little statues, really.

Daffodils 21
They are awfully cheery.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. A few tulip, daffodil, gladiolus, and other blooms in the spring garden can give you beauty and joy. 

But if you want to turn back the tide on habitat loss - one of the major factors cited in pollinator decline - you should put in more native plants. While a lot of people think of native summer wildflowers first and foremost, I want to turn you on to a few spring bloomers you might not know.

Copper Iris - Iris fulva

With long, slender, light green leaves topped by an audacious tuba spray of copper, this early spring bloom should be on everyone's wish list. Native to the Midwest, copper iris is slow-growing at first, like a lot of native plants, but then explodes in its third year to give you stunning flowers.

It's exciting to see the bud begin to open in late May.

Iris fulva bud 21
Copper iris bud.

I put in one plant from a nursery seedling in 2019, and it's already divided. The blooms are astounding!

Iris fulva blooms
Iris fulva in full bloom.

Ozark Witch Hazel - Hamamelis vernalis

The very first bloom of the spring is something of an oddity. Ozark witch hazel blooms as early as late February, with crinkled orange streamers around a yellow center. Besides the funky-looking bloom, the odd factor comes in two other ways: 1) the early bloom time and 2) the fact that what pollinates this late-winter flower is a bit of a mystery. February is bad timing for most pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, as they tend to emerge later in spring. So what pollinates witch hazel? Perhaps hoverflies, which take advantage of warm winter days to forage for pollen.

Witch hazel Feb 21
When witch hazel blooms, it gives off the pleasant scent of cloves.

Ozark witch hazel is also a rare plant: Out of the entire world, it's found in only five U.S. states: Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. I'm happy to say we've added three Ozark witch hazels to our garden, one from a nursery and two seedlings from the Missouri Department of Conservation (costing only $1 each, yo, through Wild Ones). After some initial damage from our Eastern cottontail rabbits, which found them delicious, all three are thriving, and the one from the nursery, which we planted in 2018, has not only bloomed profusely but is tall and robust enough to support squash vines, which clamber up the branches.

Witch hazel Aug 21
Hey there, squash! Why don't you climb up here and join me?

Witch hazel is a great permaculture plant because of its dual role as a support for native animals and insects and its use as a medicinal for humans. You should be familiar with witch hazel as a traditional medicine cabinet item. You can make an astringent from the bark, and it's historically been used to treat hemorrhoids, sore muscles, coughs, and other ailments. Removing the bark kills the tree, however, so sources recommend using only pruned or fallen limbs. Disclaimer: I have not yet tried to make my own witch hazel astringent, but it's on my list. Second disclaimer: I am not a health expert and am not advising you to treat ailments with witch hazel; I'm merely reporting on its historic use.

Violets - Viola sororia

Regular readers of this blog know I've waxed enthusiastic about violets before, with full recommendations on their many culinary uses, their value as a host plant for fritillary butterflies, and my enduring preference for them as a ground cover to replace turf grass. With so many beneficial aspects, and pretty little white- or royal purple-and-yellow blooms to boot, how could you not desire violets in your home landscape?

In some regions, the violets are likely to show up of their own accord, too. Yeah, that's right; this is one flower you might not have to plant yourself! Our ubiquitous violet ground cover is 100 percent volunteer and lasts from spring to fall. I've used the blooms and leaves to make everything from petal-infused ice cubes to violet sugar and violet tea. 

Viola sororia spring 21
Violets are host plants for fritillary butterflies.
Flower cubes 21
Violets (and lilacs), ready to freeze into ice cubes.

I hope these three suggestions for spring-blooming flowers you can plant this fall inspire you to the possibilities in your own garden. Happy fall planting!

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Our 'Cool Season' Annual Gardening Report Card 2021

Snap Peas on Vine
Sugar snap peas on the vine.

By Lisa Brunette

Last year we got a very late start on our vegetable gardening, so we didn't enjoy much of a cool season, outside of some arugula and a heaping supply of chervil. But this year, I was determined to plan things better. Armed with this extremely helpful vegetable planting calendar from Gateway Greening, I updated my sowing schedule, shifting everything earlier.

For those of you new to the idea, the "cool season" is the first planting season of the year, in early spring here in the Midwest, when you can sow seeds and seedlings for vegetables that like cooler temperatures. A lot of people wait until May or June and plant everything in one go, but you can make better use of your space if you stagger your plantings in successions, starting with the early cool season vegetables in March, continuing with warm season vegetables in May, and then sowing a fall crop to last through the first gleanings of winter.

Early Spring Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is my new go-to for seeds.

The other change I made was in where I source my seeds. Last year I'd scored most of our seeds at the Missouri Botanical Garden Shop, using our 30% member discount to purchase seeds put out by Botanical Interests. I supplemented that with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. But this year I took advantage of Gateway Greening's super-duper seed offerings, getting them for $1 and $1.50 a packet, an even better deal than I'd had with the botanical garden member discount. I also purchased more than half our seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Because SESE operates out of Virginia, they're much more focused on plants that do well in hot, humid conditions, a better fit for our zone 6a/7 needs than Seed Savers, which is in northern Iowa, and Botanical Interests, which is more of a mass-market outlet.

What stayed the same: I still don't have an indoor location to grow seedlings that will stay warm enough, get enough sunlight, and stand up to the cat's tendency to dig in the dirt. So again, we sowed seeds directly into the ground.

Last year I graded us a C for our spring food gardening; this year, I'm upgrading us to a solid B - maybe even a B+? You decide. Let me break it down for you by harvested crop, in order of when they went into the garden.

Spring Food 21
An open-faced sammy made with herbed cottage cheese on a bed of arugula, topped with violets.

Arugula

Remarkably, we're still getting arugula from that one packet of seeds sown last spring. Remember my tarp method? I repeated it again with the fall 2020 crop and got a third harvest this year already. So by using a simple tarp, I've turned otherwise annual arugula into a kind of self-seeding perennial. It was a great food to pair with the edible violets, blooming at the same time in March and April.

Peas

The first planting in earnest this spring was peas, and I opted for two kinds, both from SESE: 'Sugar Snap Tall' snap peas and 'Green Arrow Dwarf' English shelling peas. These vining plants need support, and that's where our free supply of bamboo from a neighbor came in handy.

Pea Tripod w: Anthony
Anthony, setting up the bamboo tripod supports.

I'd never built a pea trellis before, but I know the tiny pea tendrils need a rather slender something-or-other to grab onto. So we wound the bamboo poles with twine.

Pea Trellis
Winding the twine.

This method worked, but I don't know that we'd do it that way again. It was time-consuming to build and used a LOT of twine. If you have any great ideas for low-cost pea trellises, tell us in the comments below.

In 2020, the rabbits ate the peas as soon they emerged from the ground, way too tempting a treat early in the spring when there are not as many other choices. So this time, we fenced in the peas. I scored a set of modular fence panels on clearance at Menard's; these have stakes that fit into the ground, and the fences can be easily lifted up and moved wherever you need them. They're attractive, too, with a hummingbird-and-flower motif. The chicken wire sections in the panels proved to be a perfect climbing surface for pea vines.

Pea Trellis with Fence
The trellis, surrounded by fencing to keep out rabbits. The added benefit is that the fence also acted as a vine support.

We put the peas in the ground on March 6 and harvested them in late May and for most of June. Our pea harvest was pretty phenomenal, with a high germination rate and productive vines. First we ate some of the shoots, as they can replace beef kidney pills as part of my treatment for MCAS. By the end of May, we had an excellent crop of both snap and shelling peas. They tasted better than any peas we've ever bought from a grocery store! We will definitely grow them again, probably even doubling up on the quantity. While my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou doesn't rate peas highly, saying they take up a lot of space for the amount of food they produce, we grew them really close together and had both high germination and yield. It's enough to put them back on our list for 2022.

Peas on Vine
An English shelling pea, ripening in the sun.
Pea Flowers
Pea flowers.
Shelling Peas
Shelling peas is a meditative and satisfying activity.

We did have one area of abject failure related to peas. I made the mistake of putting in black-eyed peas at the same time as the peas above, and none of them germinated, probably because the soil was still too cold. Later, I learned they're not a classic Southern dish for nothing; black-eyed peas (and crowder peas) like it hot and humid. Next time, we wait till May for those.

Lettuce

Whoa, lettuce! We had a bumper crop this year, with all three varieties from SESE thriving: 'Jericho' romaine, 'Bronze Arrow' loose leaf, and 'Crawford' bibb. It was actually too much lettuce for the two of us - I don't think I've ever eaten so much salad in my life - so we ended up giving away a lot to friends and family. All three varieties we sowed as seeds directly into the soil on March 13 and began harvesting in early May. We put them in right next to the peas, a good companion plant.

Lettuce Going In
A row of lettuce, next to the peas.

In case you had any doubt about this, rabbits love lettuce. So it behooved us to enclose them in the fenced area. While we enjoy the rabbit family we're fostering through wildlife conservation habitats, we do have to set boundaries. There's plenty else for them to eat without snacking on our food plants.

Teacup
We can't help it. We named this one Teacup.

But rabbits and people can coexist; it's a matter of finding out what the rabbits like to eat that isn't your food plant, giving them plenty of it, and then cordoning off your tasty veggies. Yay, modular fencing!

Peas and Lettuce
Lettuce and peas, fenced.

As the pop star Prince once sang, "Sometimes it snows in April." We had a freak snowstorm late that month, and many a leaf withered. So there is that risk in putting in the seeds as early as mid-March. But the Jericho and Bronze Arrow were virtually unfazed by this setback and indeed seemed to strengthen in response to the sudden burst of chill. 

We likely won't grow the bibb again, though. It didn't yield as much for the space it takes up, it withered the most during the cold snap, and even though it sprang back no problem, those dead leaves were still wrapped into the bibb head, making harvesting more of a challenge. The bibb also bolted; whereas, the other two lettuces did not.

Spring Veggies Sprouting 21
From left to right: Beets, carrots, lettuce, peas.

Beets and Carrots

On the other side of the lettuce, we planted rows of beets and carrots, which also need protection from rabbits. We sowed these seeds on March 20, easily moving the fence line over a space to accommodate the new row. The carrots are a variety called 'New Kuroda,' and they come from Gateway Greening. GG staff grow the carrots in their demonstration garden and save the seeds to sell to the public each year. The New Kurodas also had a high germination rate, a good yield, and are quite tasty.

Carrots
The 'New Kuroda' variety is tasty and attractive. We also eat the greens; they're great chopped up in rice.

The beets, however, haven't done well. I might have to throw in the towel, as this is my third failed attempt at beets. Or maybe I'll try a SESE variety next year; these were an inexpensive Ferry-Morse seed packet I got in the Gateway Greening super sale - called 'Tall Top Early Wonder.' The only wondering I did about them was why they didn't come in better!

Kale 21
Kale growing in a strip on the side of our house.

Kale

Kale was one of our few triumphs last year, and some of those same plants continue to produce to this day. Also on March 20 of this year, we sowed a new row along the side of our house. It took off and is still producing. This was SESE's 'Premier' kale.

Cabbage Patch Obelisk
An obelisk, in the middle of our cabbage patch, because it's too heavy to move.

Green Cabbage

We unearthed an obelisk of sorts when we dug up the bed for cabbage. It looks like the rebar and concrete foundation for some large structure - perhaps the garage that once stood in the backyard. We recently found out from a neighbor that the garage was destroyed by a fallen tree. That might explain this obelisk and definitely tells us why we're constantly digging up bricks.

We planted cabbage on March 20 as well, a busy day for the garden. It had a high germination rate, seemed to also improve from that late-April snowstorm, and has given us lovely heads of cabbage. 

Cabbage Head 21
'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage.

I read that you can cut the main head once it's grapefruit-sized, leaving the plant and its outer leaves, and more heads will form. I'm happy to report this is very much the case.

More cabbages
After cutting the main head, several more smaller ones form on the laterals.

We sowed 'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage (Ferry-Morse seeds) and harvested our first heads on June 19, with more still forming as of July 17. It's been a steady stream of cabbage dishes and sauerkraut up in here.

Sauerkraut
Anthony's been perfecting his sauerkraut recipe, and I reap the benefits.

Potatoes

On March 27, we put our seed potatoes in the ground after a round of chitting. Chitting is how you prepare them for the garden; first, you cut them into wedges, with each wedge possessing at least one eye. Then you let the cut sides heal over, which protects the seed potato from rot. Once healed over, you plant them.

Potatoes Going In
Seed potatoes going in.

We planted the potatoes on either side of a plot of horseradish, a perennial and good companion, as it's supposed to ward off potato beetle. We ordered half the amount we'd sown last year; after the 'poop potato' incident, I wanted to make sure we have this thing down before investing too heavily. I ordered two varieties from SESE: 'Keuka Gold' and 'Banana' fingerling.

Alas, our yield this year was poor. This could be from a number of factors:

  1. That snowstorm in April withered the plants. Even though they seemed to fully spring back, this might have had an effect.
  2. We didn't realize it, but there was quite a bit of rubble underneath where we'd planted the seed potatoes, from that aforementioned garage destruction. These might have inhibited their growth.
  3. We got really busy this spring running our company (Brunette Games), and we forgot to hill up around the plants.
  4. The potatoes were planted in soil that had been converted from lawn the previous year, so nematodes likely still present ate the potatoes.

This is half our harvest.

Potato harvest
At least it was enough to make a big potato salad for my family's 4th of July party.

I'm still thinking on whether or not we should shift the potatoes back to May... or even just April. Our friend Claire doesn't get started out there in her garden until May, but her location offers cooler temps and very different soil, plus she has a greenhouse where she can start seeds for transplanting; whereas, we sow seeds directly into the soil. Decisions, decisions...

I think we'll start the lettuce, peas, kale, and carrots at the same time next year, as those all worked out great. We can improve on the carrots by being more diligent about thinning them early on, but otherwise, everything was stellar. I'll do some research on beets, and I also want to find something else that can coincide with that early lettuce. It really makes you realize how dependent we are on the fossil fuel system and grocery stores for our modern ideal of the "salad." A lot of salad ingredients - tomatoes and cucumbers, for example - come in much later, when it's too hot (here, at least) for lettuce. So eating with the seasons means your salad won't feature those veggies.

Well, that wraps the 'cool season' annuals. We had great success with arugula, peas, lettuce, kale, carrots, and cabbage. Black-eyed peas, beets, and potatoes challenged us, however, so perhaps we should stay at a solid B. What do you think?

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Poppies and Whimsy on the St. Louis Native Plant Tour

NPT_glimpse
View of a woodland bubbler in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra, also featured in Doug Tallamy's book, Nature's Best Hope.

By Lisa Brunette

Anthony and I attended the St. Louis Native Plant Tour for the first time this year. It was a masked, socially-distanced, outdoor (of course) affair in early June, with a wide range of gardens to view. A joint offering by both the St. Louis Audubon Society and Wild Ones St. Louis, this year's tour included nine residential gardens located across the St. Louis metropolitan area, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. We made it to six of the nine.

NPT_celadine poppy
Celadine poppy growing in the garden of Dan and Mary Terpstra.

I've talked about the Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home program on the blog before - most recently when we scored platinum status for our own garden. Many BCH gardens were included in the tour, with a nice smattering at every level, from silver through gold and up to platinum. One of our favorites on the tour was Dan and Mary Terpstra's woodland oasis. It's easy to see why this .62-acre property has achieved platinum status - and why it attracts so many birds - 150 species and counting.

NPT_platinum
View across the woodland toward the gazebo in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Here's a video of their pond, which features a bubbling cascade into a naturalized area for native water-loving plants.

 

While the Terpstras obviously take conservation seriously, they haven't neglected the whimsical aspects of gardening.

NPT_mushrooms
Garden art tucked into a rock in Dan and Mary Terpstra's garden.

Speaking of garden whimsy, while the Terpstra's property offers a stunning example of what can be done, my favorite of the tour was actually the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky, which had whimsy in spades.

NPT_music stand
In the garden of Christina Rutz and Mark Hrabovsky.

This garden clocks in at the BCH gold level and comes with a wonderful personal story, to quote the tour brochure:

Established in 2010, Carolyn's Garden is a living memorial to Christina's mother, an avid gardener. Diagnosed in 1996 with stage 4 breast cancer and given six months to live, she proved doctors wrong, living with the disease until 2011... a testament to being a lifelong gardener.

Many of the plants in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden were transitioned there from her mother's garden over in Illinois.

NPT_pathway
A pathway beckons in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.
NPT_glass ball
A glass ball emerges from penstemon in the Rutz/Hrabovsky garden.

Another highlight was getting to tour the garden belonging to Robert Weaver, editor of The Gateway Gardener, which features this lovely water bubbler.

Now, a note about these bubblers, though: You don't need them. While it's true that birds are attracted to the sound of bubbling water, the problem with bubblers is they need a power source in order to, well, bubble. And that means a) you have to be able to afford to install (or have installed) an electrical bubbler connected to your home's power system and b) you're adding to your home's draw on the electric grid, not the best option, eco-wise, unless it's also solar-powered. Our garden achieved platinum status without a bubbler; as mentioned previously, we have four bird baths, all fashioned out of repurposed items and not costing a dime.

Here's a perfectly nice non-bubbling bird bath, also in the Weaver garden.

NPT_birdbath
In the Weaver garden.
NPT_shade
Shade-loving Virginia sweetspire in the Weaver garden.

One of the best aspects of garden tours like this one is you get to see first-hand fine examples of plants that thrive in challenging areas, such as deep shade (above) or intense sunshine, like these native prickly pears.

NPT_prickly pear
In the garden of Susan and René LaVoise.

While honeybees are not native to North America, it was cool to spot these beehives in the garden of Jim and Judy Stroup, where we started our tour.

NPT_beehives
Beehives at the Stroup garden.

And last but certainly not least was the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka, avid conservationists whose gold-certified property features many a bee hotel in addition to bird bottles, bird and bat houses, and more than 30 woody native plant species and 95 wildflower species.

NPT_beehotels
A stunning array of bee hotels in the garden of Dave and Karen Tylka.
NPT_Indian pink
The common name of this native plant is 'Indian pink,' though it's neither pink nor from India!
NPT_Ninebark
Ninebark growing in the Tylka garden.
NPT_smooth sumac
This smooth sumac grows in part-shade in the Tylka garden.

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Now's the Perfect Time to Start That Sourdough

Sourdough6

By Lisa Brunette

A sourdough starter is a thing of beauty and seeming magic. All it takes is a bowl of water and flour, and you can 'catch' wild yeast from the atmosphere, claiming it as your own to use in everything from a simple loaf of bread to pancakes and pizza dough. 

If you've never done this before and are relying on commercial yeast packets for your baking projects, you don't know what you're missing. I highly encourage you to give wild sourdough a try. Not only is the flavor and texture far superior, but it's a lot healthier for you, too. As someone who suffers from Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, I can tell you that wild sourdough is pretty much the only bread I can eat without triggering symptoms. Since I love bread, creating my own sourdough has been more than worth the effort to bring bread back into my life. As it turns out, the process is also thoroughly satisfying.

Spring is a great time to start sourdough because the yeast thrives in the mildly warm temperature range of 65 to 85°F (18-29°C). Any colder, and it can be tough to capture that yeast; any hotter, and the flour/water mixture can quickly become acidic. I captured my culture last spring - over a week in late May to early June during relatively mild weather for my region at that time of year. I've nurtured it over the course of the past 12 months, baking with it, letting it go dormant, and then reactivating it to bake again for what I like to call MY YEAR IN SOURDOUGH. Now I can confidently report back to you on what works and what doesn't. This is a four-part series starting with... what else? The start.

Sourdough3

It's something of a miracle that you can stick a flour/water mixture outside and voilá! You've got yourself a sourdough starter. Of course, it's not quite that easy. There's a fair amount of babying, coaxing, feeding, waiting, babying, coaxing, feeding, and waiting some more until the magic happens. 

What didn't work for me? YouTube videos. Unfortunately, in this case, the algorithm's highest-ranking videos all tell you to do things in kind of silly ways, using methods that at best fail to rely on the collective historic wisdom of true sourdough artisans and at worst just don't work at all.

What brought success in spades? Following (and modifying) the advice laid out in Ed and Jean Wood's excellent book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. We inherited this book from Anthony's mother, A. Grace, when she passed in 2011, and it's just a pity I hadn't cracked it open sooner. We don't get anything in exchange for this endorsement, but here's the book if you want to check it out, with a link to where you can buy it used without involving the almighty 'Zon in the purchase.

ClassicSourdoughs

One of the best things about Classic Sourdoughs is that it doesn't present a one-size-fits-all approach but rather educates you on the nature of sourdough so you can adjust and adapt to your own environment. And that's crucial.

I live in a Midwestern river town, and even by late May, our air gets steamy, the humidity index high. But luckily, the temperature stayed under 85°F for that week or so that I successfully captured a sourdough culture. If you're in a more northern area, you might need to create a proofing box, which you can do with a standard Styrofoam cooler and socket light. This is outlined in Classic Sourdoughs, but I have not done it myself.

Another option is to capture the culture in the candle warmth of a (solar) Sun Oven set up inside, which is on my list to try as soon as we can. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission if you purchase a Sun Oven through this link, at no extra cost to you. Sun Oven is doing important work to promote solar energy and bring sun ovens to villages that dearly need them.

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But if you've got a lovely springtime range of 65-85°F (18-29°C), you should have no problem starting your culture. I strongly recommend doing this outside, as indoor air can be drier, less biodiverse, and laden with household contaminants, especially if you don't have the windows open. We tend to wait until the last minute to turn on the A/C, so our windows were open last year in late May, but I started the culture outside anyway. 

STEP 1

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (280 g) of flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (380 ml) warm water
  • A glass bowl
  • Cheesecloth or another type of screen to cover the bowl
  • Something to use to secure the screen over the bowl

A note about flour: I've used both unbleached all-purpose white flour and whole wheat flour, as well as a mix of both. You might have to add more water for whole wheat once you get to the dough stage, something you can sense if the dough is too hard and thick instead of a nice doughy mound you can easily knead. In all cases, I prefer organic, non-GMO if I can get it.

Vigorously stir the flour and water together, introducing enough air into the mix. A sourdough starter consists of both bacteria and yeast, and they need air to thrive. Don't freak out that I said "bacteria." Some bacteria is good for you, and in this case, it's what gives the sourdough its flavor. The yeast provides texture.

STEP 2

You shouldn't cover the bowl with a lid or plastic or anything else that will prevent the organisms from finding your flour and water. If you're worried about insects getting into it, cover with cheesecloth or another fine-mesh screen. I used a splatter shield held down with a rock to keep both insects and critters out. Now, you wait...

Sourdough2

STEP 3

Give the mixture a good stirring at least twice every 24 hours. During this time I checked it occasionally, eyeing its consistency and sniffing to make sure the odor was right. If the odor heads south, that means it's been taken over by undesirable organisms, and in that case, you'll need to start over. This happened to me once; actually, what happened was I had a great start pretty much right away but didn't understand that's what I had and left it out too long, at which point it went bad.

The mixture should begin to bubble a bit after 2-3 days. At this point, add 1 cup (140 g) of flour and enough water to maintain consistency. I had to repeat these "feedings" a few times before I got a fully active culture on my second round. Let this take the time it takes, even if you go beyond the four or five days recommended in Classic Sourdoughs. As long as the culture's trending toward activity and doesn't look or smell bad, you're on the right track. A fully active culture will look spectacular and alive. To some this means "bubbly," but to others it means "foamy." Here's an example.

Sourdough4

You might experiment with different locations, too. While the photos above show my culture mix sitting on top of a garden table, because it wasn't protected from rain in that location, I eventually moved it to under our back porch, in the walk-down stairway to our basement, where it seemed to thrive, out of both rain and sun.

Once you've got a nice, active culture, you can bake with it immediately, but definitely reserve some of the original for future baking. You can also store it in the fridge to use later. I recommend labeling it as sourdough starter and including the date. This is now your start, your buddy, your friend; it will stick with you through life if you keep feeding it. The Woods recommend doing this every couple of months even if you're not baking, and I concur. I had two starts, one of which I baked with every two months. It's still my winner. The other one went four months' dormant in the fridge, and I opened it this spring to find it had gone bad: black fuzz and a terrible smell. I had to pitch it.

But the good one! Oh, the things I've baked... I'll tell you all about it in a future post.

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