Native Leaf Mulch for Tomatoes

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Thick Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Tomatoes are the most popular vegetable in South Texas gardens, but tomatoes are also one of the most difficult vegetables to grow.   The intense heat of our summers, and the relentless Gulf winds, are great challenges to the gardener.

Tomatoes can withstand a lot of heat during the day, 100 degree temperatures or higher.  But it is the nighttime soil temperature that matters.  Tomatoes can only set fruit when the nighttime soil temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees.  When the nighttime soil temperature rises above 70 degrees, the plant may live, but it will not make tomatoes.  That’s why tomato plants often stop producing by July or August.

But you can cool your soil and produce tomatoes through the heat of summer with good mulching.

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Adding Live Oak Leaf Mulch

Mulch serves as a blanket of insulation over the garden:  mulch prevents weeds, stabilizes soil temperature, and helps retain moisture in the soil.  Good mulching can dramatically reduce the amount of water required for the garden.

Mulch also prevents the soil from drying out in our relentless Gulf winds:  90% of the microbial activity of the soil is found in the top four inches, the layer that dries out the fastest.  Mulching protects this delicate layer of topsoil.

The best mulch material is always the most native, and the very best mulch of all is raked-up leaves from the trees on your own property.  Native leaves have a special relationship with your soil.  The leaves and soil have lived together in biological harmony for hundreds or even thousands of years.  Their chemistry is highly adapted and they are perfectly matched for growing vegetables.

Native leaf mulch is available in vast quantities, usually right in your own yard, and even better, native leaf mulch doesn’t cost anything.  Every year, millions of bags of freshly raked-up leaves are sent to landfills and transfer stations; leaves that would have made perfect mulch in backyard gardens.

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

Raked-Up Leaves in Bags Spread on Garden

On our farm, we have been using live oak leaf mulch for years.  There is a myth that live oak leaves contain an acid that hurts plants, but that is not the case.  Our gardens absolutely love their thick live oak leaf mulching.  And as the leaves slowly decompose, they add structure to our garden soil and actually improve the soil Ph.  We even use oak leaves in our compost piles, and as bedding for our laying hens.

The leaves of any native tree will work as mulch:  oak tree leaves, pecan tree leaves, and even the duff, or detritus, of mesquite trees make wonderful mulch for gardens.

The thickness of mulch applied to the garden depends on the heat; the hotter the weather, the thicker the mulch should be.  By the month of August, the mulch around our tomatoes is 6 to 8 inches deep.  This thick layer of mulch keeps the soil cool at night, and our vines are full of ripe red tomatoes into the hottest part of summer.

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

Live Oak Leaf Mulch 6 to 8 Inches Thick

August Tomatoes

High, 98; Heat Index, 109; Low, 80; Humidity 76%; Wind SSE at 21

Friends, we invite you to stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today for wonderful ripe red tomatoes, freshly picked from our garden.  We also offer eggplant, butternut and scaloppini squash, hot peppers, okra, mint, oregano, and basil.

You may find our pastured chicken in the frozen section, as well as our pork chops, ribs, pork roast, ground pork, and fresh bacon.  We collect our farm fresh eggs daily and deliver them to Kimmi’s store with our produce and herbs.

Tomatoes at 98 degrees

Wonderful August Tomatoes

It is nearly impossible to grow tomatoes in Rockport in the blistering heat of late July and August.  Tomatoes typically do not set fruit when the nighttime soil temperature rises above 70 degrees.  The noontime sun can rot tomatoes on the vine in a single day, and burn the vines to dust.

In our Spring gardening talks, we discussed some of the techniques we use to grow prolific tomatoes through the worst of our summer heat.  Drip irrigation beneath a deep oak leaf mulch, early morning and evening shading from oak trees, native wood ash and crushed oyster shell amendments, and strategic companion planting are some of these methods.

However, the key factor in our ability to produce such sweet, flavorful, and prolific tomatoes in this intense heat is the health of our soil.  This factor is more important than all the other techniques combined.  There is no shortcut to developing this kind of soil health, and there is no possible way to duplicate it with chemicals.

Each successive year that we employ our heritage farming methods, we increase the health and vitality of our plants, animals, and environment.  And with each new garden cycle, the taste of our produce improves.  The taste of our food is very unique—it is the flavor of our farm, a distilled taste of Rockport.

More Tomatoes and Eggplant to Come

Click on the photo above for a better view of our tomato garden.  We plant one row of tomatoes on a fence trellis, then two rows of eggplant, then another row of trellised tomatoes, and repeat.  The tomato vines grow extremely tall and dense, and having eggplant on either side allows easier harvest.  We have just finished harvesting all the collards, cabbage, chard, lettuces, radishes, carrots, beets, and turnips that grew on that space as companions to our tomatoes and eggplant.

You can see many green tomatoes still on the vine, so we expect to offer tomatoes through the middle of August or longer.  Stop by Kimmi’s store to get yours.  Thank you for shopping locally!

Two More Weeks of Tomatoes

A Hundred Degree Harvest

 

We have enjoyed several days of triple-digit heat this week.  In this picture, Kayla is harvesting vegetables in 101 degrees of direct sunlight.  I don’t know how she stays so lovely in this heat.

Our vegetables, however, will not stay lovely for long.  We design our gardens to endure the blistering heat of a Rockport summer; but eventually our vegetables will play out  for the season.

A Diverse Harvest

Our harvest today includes:  tomatoes; eggplant; okra; butternut, spaghetti, and scallopini squash; sweet corn; Thai, serrano, jalepeno, and habanero peppers; collards; carrots; basil; mint; ginger; and more.

Stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today for freshly picked local produce, while it is still available.

We feature fresh pastured chicken today in the four and five pound range, as well as half chickens, perfect for roasting.  We also offer fresh eggs and pastured pork chops, roast, ribs, ground pork, and bacon.

Companion Planting for the Heat

Several gardeners have asked how we continue to get such beautiful tomatoes and eggplant in this oppressive heat, much less collard greens and carrots.

One technique we use is to inter-plant our tomatoes with our collards.  The collards serve as a living mulch for the tomatoes and help keep the soil shaded and cool and moist.  As the tomato vines grow thick on their trellises, they in turn shade the collards when collards need a little protection from the sun.

Tomatoes and eggplant also grow extremely well when companion planted with carrots, lettuce, chard, mustard greens, and in many other combinations.

There are no monocultures in our garden–every row of crops features innovative combinations of two, three, or more vegetables.  Herbs and native flowering plants seeded among our vegetables help attract birds and beneficial insects to the garden, increase biodiversity and soil health, and add flavor to our harvest.

But our summer crop will soon play out in the South Texas heat.  We encourage you to stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today and enjoy freshly picked local produce while you can.

Daily Harvest through End of June

Roma Grape Tomatoes, Four String Farm

 

Friends, we invite you to Coastal Bend Health Foods for the freshest and most delicious produce in town.

We are picking produce as fast as we can and delivering it fresh daily.  Stop by Kimmi’s store and discover the difference our heritage farming methods bring to the flavor and health of your food.

Daily Harvest for End of June

Our tomatoes are simply incredible this year.  We are giddy with tomatoes, eating them continuously even as we pick them.

We offer more than ten varieties of freshly picked tomatoes:  big fat sweet red tomatoes and little tart cherry tomatoes and everything in between.  As Kayla and I sample the fruit, we find that each tomato has its own unique flavor–even the same varieties in different areas of the garden take on their own flavor.  Our years of investment into the soil is paying amazing dividends.  Every single tomato is wonderful.  If you want to try the very best of freshly picked, ripe red tomatoes, stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods today.

We also offer cucumbers, crisp and delicious, and black beauty and Japanese eggplant.

We have butternut squash, zucchini, scallopini, and spaghetti squash.  We also have a new batch of beautiful edible squash blossoms, perfect for stuffing with ricotta, cream cheese, or other fillings, and so delicious.

Our sweet corn has come in.  Our Tres Hermanas gardens continue to supply an amazing bounty of produce.  For a real treat, try our sweet corn on the grill with a little butter and salt.  We offer five varieties of sweet corn and various heirloom beans daily.

We offer Thai, serrano, and jalepeno peppers and also sweet peppers.  We offer fresh basil, mint, and oregano daily, as well as fresh ginger from our garden.  For the best tea in town, boil our crushed ginger for ten minutes and add a handful of mint and some local honey from Kimmi’s store.  It is so good and so healthy.

Fresh Chickens Today

Enjoy fresh broilers in the 4 and 5 pound range, as well as half-chickens, perfect sizes for roasting. We offer blue, green, dark brown, and speckled eggs, lovingly gathered every day.

Pastured Pork Chops, Roast, Ribs, Bacon, and Ground Pork

Get the grill ready for pork chops! If you love hamburgers, try using our ground pork for the best burger ever. We also have roast, ribs, and bacon.

Thank you friends for shopping locally! Please enjoy!

End of May Harvest

End of May Harvest

Tomatoes, beans, eggplant, peppers, collards, carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, butternut, scaloppini, ginger, basil, oregano, and more!

Friends, we invite you to Coastal Bend Health Foods today and tomorrow to shop at a local store that would love to have your business.

To prepare for your Memorial Day weekend celebration, we offer a wide variety of freshly picked produce.  We offer fresh chickens today and tomorrow.

Stop by Kimmi’s store and discover the difference our heritage farming methods bring to the flavor and health of your food.

Daily Harvest for End of May

Edible Squash Blossom

Tomatoes, large, roma,  cherry, and roma grape.  Eggplant, Japanese and black beauty.

String beans:  stringless, purple pole beans, French long, Kentucky Wonder, and Mayflower beans (these heritage beans were brought over on the Mayflower, and the seeds have been continued unchanged for 400 years, and you can enjoy them grown on our farm).

Squash:  acorn, butternut, gray-striped zucchini, yellow straight and crookneck squash, dark green zucchini, yellow scallopini, Mexican, Italian long, and spaghetti.  We also offer our beautiful edible squash blossoms upon request, perfect for stuffing with ricotta, cream cheese, or other fillings, and so delicious.

Carrots, collard greens, and kohl rabi.  Our companion planting methods allow us to continue to harvest all of these winter vegetables until July.

Thai, serrano, and jalepeno peppers.  Coming soon, sweet peppers.

Ask Kimmi about our freshly picked ginger, as well as basil, oregano, and thyme.

Fresh Chickens Today and Tomorrow

Enjoy fresh broilers in the 3, 4, and 5 pound range, as well as half-chickens, perfect sizes for roasting.  We offer blue, green, dark brown, and speckled eggs, lovingly gathered every day.

Pastured Pork on the Grill

Get the grill ready for pork chops!  If you love hamburgers, try using our ground pork for the best burger ever.  We also have roast, ribs, and bacon.

Thank you friends for shopping locally!  Please enjoy!

Beans on Corn Stalk Trellis

Tres Hermanas: Harvesting beans from a corn stalk trellis.

Spring Gardening Series, Final Meeting this Saturday

Companion Planting Peppers in Carrots

Companion planting peppers with carrots

Friends, join us at Coastal Bend Health Foods this Saturday, May 5, from 11:00am to noon, for the last meeting of our Spring Gardening Series.  We will recap highlights of our gardening program and address any problems you may be having in your garden.  Also, we will provide you with the resources, literature, local authorities, and on-line support to enable you to continue to grow vegetables and herbs free of chemicals.

Our Methods Put to the Test this Season

This growing season, we have experienced endless challenges in our gardens.  Every caterpillar known to science has attacked our plants.  Gophers, cut ants, squirrels, raccoons, deer, grasshoppers, aphids, spider mites, stink bugs, on and on, every type of garden pest in this area, has been active in our crops.  We even had a tornado pass over the farm and play havoc with our corn stalks.  Worst of all, our spring weather only lasted a few days.  The oppressive heat of summer kicked in early this year to begin the slow burn on our gardens.

Methods that Work

Despite the relentless attacks on our gardens, we have hardly lost a plant this season.  For every problem we encountered, our program provided a solution–completely without the use of chemicals.

Lacewing hunting

In our gardening talks, we demonstrated the paramount importance of maintaining healthy soil.  Healthy soil, well mulched, watered appropriately, and fertilized effectively, is the best possible pesticide. When our gardens were attacked, the natural health of the plants resisted disease and bug damage, and gave us time to control for specific pests.  The lacewings and trichogamma wasps we seeded into the garden matured into voracious pest-eating machines.  Our native lizards, ladybugs, wasps, dragonflies, birds, frogs, toads, and other beneficial predators have been hard at work cleansing our gardens of pests.

I am convinced, now more than ever, that if we had used a chemical program, our gardens would have failed this spring.  First, we could not possibly afford to buy all the chemicals required to fight the problems we faced.  Second, I have been far too busy this growing season to apply chemicals, and still get all my work done.  And finally, even if the chemicals killed some of the bad bugs, they would also have killed the beneficial predators, diminished the soil health, and simply made matters worse.

We spent less time, less money, and less labor using our methods, than if we had used a chemical program.  And best of all, we are now enjoying a stunning harvest of the most healthy and delicious produce in town, completely free of chemicals.

Companion Planting for a Summer Harvest

Corn, beans, and squash seedsWe are currently harvesting yellow squash, dark green and striped zucchini, ripe red tomatoes, along with our carrots, kohl rabi, and collards.  We will soon begin to harvest beans, sweet and hot peppers, and eggplant, and a little later we will pick our sweet corn, winter squash, melons, and okra.

By inter-planting, or companion planting, our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and okra into shared space with our mature winter vegetables, we have been able to continue to harvest our carrots, collards, kolh rabi, and etc., throughout the summer, until they are sold out, and still provide summer produce.

Our Tres Hermanas (corn, beans, and squash) gardens are extremely prolific this year.  The Tres Hermanas gardens continue to increase in productivity with each successive planting.  The bean vines growing up the corn stalks stabilized them and held them in place when the tornado passed over.  Companion planting is the only reason our corn survived the direct 70 mph or greater winds from the tornado.

Recap of Program

This Saturday, we will provide a general recap and offer detailed resources around each of the following topics:

Focusing on Healthy Soil 

Growing Tomatoes in Rockport

Tres Hermanas and Other Companion Vegetables

Easy and Powerful Homemade Fertilizer 

Watering the Garden

Chemical-Free Pest Control:  Beneficial and Bad Predators

Mulching, Compost, and Native Resources

Bring your passion for gardening and your questions and suggestions and join us Saturday from 11:00am to noon!The Three Sisters

Spring Gardening Series: Ideas for a Chemical-Free Garden

Friends, we are pleased to announce that Four String Farm will host a series of gardening discussions, “Ideas for a Chemical-Free Garden”, at Coastal Bend Health Foods this spring.  Join us on the first and third Saturdays in March and April from 11:00am to noon, for a fun and interesting exploration of chemical-free gardening.

The first session is this Saturday, March 3rd, from 11:00am to noon.  There is no charge and all current and future gardeners are welcome.  Bring your passion for healthy and delicious food and a desire to grow a beautiful, chemical-free garden.

Saturday, March 3rdPreparing the Soil and Getting Ready to Plant

Saturday, March 17thGrowing Tomatoes in Rockport.  How to Grow Tres Hermanas.

April:  Easy and Powerful Homemade Fertilizer.  Watering the Garden.  Chemical-Free Pest Control.  Beneficial and Bad Predators.  Maximizing Native Resources.  Potent Compost.  Efficient Harvesting.  Preparing for Fall Companion Planting.

Experience not Required

If you do not know the first thing about growing vegetables, do not be worried; I have been where you are.  I was not raised in a farming family and probably never saw a vegetable planted during my entire childhood.  I didn’t even have a cactus in my dorm window in college!

However, I am profoundly grateful that I had no early influences on my farming.  I was never schooled in a particular method and consequently locked into a flawed model through habit or fear of change.

On the contrary, I have been privileged to study farming methods in many diverse places, particularly in developing countries, where the failure of a garden means starvation for the families that depend upon it for survival.  The stakes are very high for these farmers and they can’t afford to miss.

In the upper Himalayas, the growing season is only five months of the year.  The tiny terraced gardens carved into the cold mountain must produce all the food for the community for the whole year.  And they are vegetarians!  A single failed harvest brings devastating consequences.  Those folks do not use chemicals in their gardens.  In the tiny islands of Japan, every tillable square inch of land is under cultivation, right up to the roads, sidewalks, sides of buildings, even the tops of buildings.  Japanese farmers, for the most part, use traditional methods and shun chemicals.  I visited a farm in California where the “beneficial predator garden” was nearly as big as the vegetable garden.  They raised enough good bugs to eat the bad bugs so they never needed to spray chemicals!  On little farms across America, innovative farmers are developing highly successful programs free of chemicals.  I have been blessed to learn from many good teachers.

Sometimes the best innovation is simply re-discovering old methods.  I found the Tres Hernamas companion planting method in a history book about early American pioneers.  However, I could not find anything about this method in gardening books, on the internet, or from local experts, despite the fact that Tres Hermanas was the dominant method of growing food in America for over 1,000 years.  Native American Indians and pioneer settlers survived on these gardens without any chemicals whatsoever.

Today, corn, beans, and squash are a significant portion of our farm income and the Tres Hermanas method is an indispensable part of our overall program.  We are professional farmers; we make our living with our gardens and animals.  Like the Indians who developed Tres Hermanas, we cannot afford to miss.  Our methods must work.

The Pastured Method of Agriculture

On our farm, we employ the “pastured method” for growing food.  Our animals and gardens work together to create incredibly healthy and flavorful food.  We employ our native resources and a little ingenuity and a very few store-bought items.  We never use chemicals on our gardens.  We do use a chemical for one specific case on our farm (the dreaded cut ant) and never apply it close to animals or plants, and we will talk about this.

To my knowledge, my friend Greg Edelen of Edelen Farms, 100 miles away, is the only other farmer in South Texas who uses a pastured method of agriculture.  I would love to see more farmers adopt this method!  Pastured farming requires less money, less labor, and less time than chemical agriculture.  It is easier on the animals and actually improves the environment.  The gardens are more vital, more nutrient rich, and more prolific.  The health properties of pastured food far surpass chemical-soaked produce.  And the taste of pastured food is beyond comparison.

My challenge has been to translate the elements of a pastured program into methods that home gardeners, who are not able to keep animals, can implement.  We will explore those concepts at our discussions and will learn from your ideas as well.

Don’t Bash the Chemical Guys!

There are many gardening classes and lectures in our area open to the public.  However, most of those programs are based on the chemical model of growing food.  Some of the classes seem more like chemistry than gardening.

If you use chemicals, you will not get a hard time in our discussions.  Many of our farm customers are local master gardeners who use chemicals, and some have been out to our farm to observe our methods in detail.  The owner of a large chemical fertilizer company sits down the pew from me in church, and is the nicest guy you will ever meet.  It is not in my nature to make anyone feel uncomfortable.  Our goal is simply to create a forum to share ideas about growing vegetables without chemicals.

I believe the chemical model of growing food does not work.  Chemicals usually kill gardens gradually, and sometimes all at once.  And besides, who wants to eat vegetables that come out of a chemical garden, if you can grow them in a natural way?  When home gardeners use chemicals, they benefit the chemical companies more than their gardens.

“If I Knew a Better Way, I Would Do It!”

A home gardener recently told me that every time she fills her cart with Round-Up and Miracle-Gro and other chemicals, she can’t help feeling a little uneasy.  She assumes the products are safe, or they wouldn’t sell them at the store, right?  But she wants to raise her own food, and if she knew a better method, she would use it.

Friends, our “Spring Gardening Series:  Ideas for a Chemical Free Garden” will show that there are chemical-free methods to grow food that work better, are safer, healthier, and taste better!  Stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods on the first and third Saturdays during March, April, and May, from 11:00am to noon, to find out more.

Red and Green Christmas Tomatoes

Friends:  Stop by Coastal Bend Health Foods this Saturday, December 3rd, and try our freshly picked red and green tomatoes.  Supplies are limited, get them while they last.

This Saturday is the Rockport “Tropical Christmas Celebration”, including a tree lighting ceremony and other events in the downtown Heritage District.  Coastal Bend Health Foods is a sponsor and offers some holiday discounts for you.  Come celebrate your tropical Christmas with garden fresh tomatoes!

Who Would Believe It, Tomatoes in December?

We are thrilled to have this last harvest of tomatoes so late in the year.   Many of our customers will remember the incredible production of tomatoes Four String Farm enjoyed from April through August, until the night-time soil temperature became too hot for tomatoes to set fruit.

We kept all our tomato plants in the ground and continued to water them through the hottest part of summer, to allow us to coax this autumn harvest from the mature plants. The unusually high temperatures in September and October unfortunately delayed the fall harvest, but here we are, finally, with a beautiful crop of December tomatoes.

Our first mild frost, a couple of days ago, ended tomato production for the year.  It is astounding (and ever challenging to your local farmer) how quickly our weather turned from blistering heat to frost this year.  Still, we have had an excellent autumn harvest.  The green tomatoes still on the vine will not have the time, or the heat, to turn red and ripen. So, in addition to ripe red tomatoes, we also have baskets of beautiful green tomatoes.

Why are These Winter Tomatoes So Sweet?

Our poultry and porkers take most of the credit for the wonderful flavor of our vegetables.  We pasture our animals on harvested gardens and allow them to eat down the foliage, add their magnificent fertilizer, cleanse the soil, and till the garden for the next planting.  There is no way to duplicate the flavor (and health properties) of vegetables grown in a pastured program.  We never use any type of chemical pesticide or fertilizer on our gardens–we don’t need to.

Additionally, we conduct carefully controlled wood fire burnings on our gardens (except during burn bans, of course) and work all of that wood ash into the garden.  Wood ash is a natural soil amendment that adds essential minerals to the garden: calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and other trace elements.

The calcium and potassium in wood ash is particularly important to growing tomatoes.  Calcium helps prevent blossom-end rot, a common problem for Rockport gardeners.  Further, the taste, the sweetness of a vegetable, comes from the activation of potassium in the plant.  The potassium in wood ash helps the sugars activate and release in the fruit.  This activation creates incredibly sweet and flavorful tomatoes.

I love to watch my friends try these tomatoes, and see their faces light up.  Each ripe red tomato is a like a concentrated dose of summer, a sweet red taste of the sun on a cold winter day.  The green tomatoes are a tangy mixture of sweet and tart, a unique and interesting flavor.  Our green tomatoes make delicious chutney, and are just as good fried in December as they are in March.

Limited Quantities

I must confess, we have a limited supply of our December tomatoes.  Our season was cut short, due to the weather.  Further, Mrs. Butts and I have been busily picking and canning tomatoes as fast as they ripened this autumn.  When you live on a farmer’s wage, you don’t have a lot of cash for Christmas presents.  However, we have been blessed with a wonderful gift that is very rare in these parts:  garden fresh Christmas tomatoes.

I hope it doesn’t ruin the surprise for some you who are reading this, but at least you will not know if it is salsa, marinara, green tomato chutney, or one of Kayla’s other delicious creations, in your stocking this Christmas.

But for now, we are out of canning jar lids and are generally canned out.  The rest of our tomato harvest is at Coastal Bend Health Foods, waiting for you.  Stop by tomorrow and get your red and green Christmas tomatoes!

Okra is Not a Four-Letter-Word

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I never liked okra, and that’s not my fault.  I had only ever eaten it slimy, deep-fried, and wrapped in a wad of corn meal.

However, my opinion of okra improved greatly when I learned to roast it in the open fire; to sauté it with onions at altitude; to spice the okra with some foreign four-letter-words.

A Vegetarian Trek

My distaste for okra surfaced on a mountain climbing trip in the Himalayas.  In a small village on the Beas River of India, I hired a guide and porters and horses for an expedition through the Rohtang pass to Ladakh.

As the crew prepared for the trip, I drank tea on a balcony facing the immense wave of mountains we were about to ascend.  The weather shifted on the crest of peaks from sunny white clouds to mist to black storm.

I had long dreamed of exploring those forbidding mountains.  I had a burning curiosity to know how food is grown in such impossibly harsh conditions.  It was difficult to imagine that humans could survive, much less cultivate, the brutal terrain rising in front of me into the clouds.

Our plan was to pack a few days of food and re-supply at farms along the way.  It was to be, out of cultural necessity, a vegetarian trek.  The porters loaded our supplies into burlap bags and metal chests and balanced the loads on two small black horses and tied it all down.  The guide waved to me and I followed them out of the village into a steep vertical climb.

Because We Have Much, My Friend!

On the first evening, when the porter opened a chest to prepare dinner, I saw a lot of okra.  There were onions and peppers and spices in the kit, but mainly there was okra.

The guide was soft-spoken and articulate.  He carried the novel Le Morte d’Arthur in his pack and sat to read every moment his work allowed.  I held an okra pod in the air and asked him why there was so much.  He looked up from his book and said, “Because we have much, my friend!”

The Local Food Movement

This answer is the expression of a good harvest in a farming culture.  In this remote land, all food is local.  When a crop ripens, there is suddenly very much of it.  Okra ripens with a vengeance.   We had chests full of okra in our camp because the green fields along the river far below were full of okra.

In America, there is an increasingly popular “local food” movement–people who strive to eat seasonal produce from sustainable local farms.  They are called locavores.

In the farming cultures of developing countries, and especially in the villages of the upper Himalayas, folks are locavores of necessity.  They don’t have continual access to a perpetually ripe and unlimited diversity of vegetables from around the world.  The menu is the daily harvest as each crop comes ripe.

A High-Level Cooking Class

At dinner, I received my first lesson in cooking okra.  Our camp cook was a culinary phenomenon.  His only tools were a small knife, a brace of spices, tin plates, and a diesel camp stove.  As a fierce wind howled around the tent, he prepared a dish of sautéed okra and onions and peppers and spices so good that I nearly wept into my tin plate.

After climbing all day in the wind and storm and sun, clinging to the footholds of some perilous cliff-face, shuffling awkwardly along a narrow path at the edge of an abyss, struggling to the top of a vertical rise only to find yet another ragged peak looming above, straining every muscle of man and horse over rocky impediments of the thrilling landscape, standing awestruck at the views from the tallest ladder of land in the world, lungs burning and body slowly numbing with weariness and cold; we were all very hungry.

The cook prepared okra in a different way at each meal.  A trick to keeping the harvest interesting is to employ multiple unique recipes for each crop.

One night the cook brushed the okra with oil and spices and threw it into the camp fire.  When he carefully pulled it back out, it was a vegetable masterpiece.  I leaned into the glow of the fire and ate one of the best meals of my life, roasted okra of all things, under the brilliant flickering Himalayan stars.

Teaching “Okra”

The Hindi word for okra is bhindi, which translates to ‘lady fingers’.  The guide would say, “Eat the delicious lady fingers!”  They loved okra.

I taught the porters to say “okra”.  They had never heard the English word okra.  They thought it was hysterical and practiced the word with much laughter.  When something unlucky happened, or a dark cloud rolled across the mountain, or a horse lost his footing, they would point and say, “Okra!”

Go Left! and Go Right!

One of the porters wore his pants tucked into rubber boots twice the size of his feet.  He weighed about 90 pounds, but could probably carry both horses fully loaded up the mountain.  All day he talked to the horses in Hindi.

I began to recognize several of his expressions from repetition and a certain sharp tone of voice.  I asked the guide what the porter was saying.  He hesitated and then said, “He is telling the horse where to go…such as, ‘go left’ and ‘go right’.”  The guide said something to the porters in Hindi, and they all laughed.

I asked him to teach me these commands.  Since I taught them “okra”, they agreed to teach me some good words in their language.  As we ate supper by the fire each night, I learned a small vocabulary of Hindi.

Unfortunately, the words they taught me did not mean “go left” and “go right” and so on.  They were the filthiest curse words in the Hindi language.  Later, when I got down from the mountains and practiced my “go left” and “go right” on the rickshaw drivers of India, I found out just how foul these commands were.

The porters must have thought okra was a four-letter-word.  So they taught me some Hindi four-letter-words as a practical joke.

As we climbed to the roof of the world, we depleted our store of food.  It was too cold for okra in the terraced gardens of our new altitude.  We were a band of roving locavores, so we purchased new and rare and wonderful vegetables from the farms we passed on the cloudy cold heights of India.  But I must tell about those vegetables another time.

Lady Fingers in Rockport

Now is the time for okra at your local farm.  We have much okra, my friend.

Prepared correctly, okra is a tasty dish—and very healthy.  Okra is rich in vitamin A and C, folic acid, and dietary fiber, as well as iron, calcium, and magnesium.  These vitamins and minerals are essential to the body in the heat of summer, when okra is in season.  Nature gives us exactly what we need, when we need it.  Local food works.

You can find cooking gems to grace your lady fingers under “Recipes” at fourstringfarm.com.  Look for bhindi with onions and peppers and spices, fire roasted okra, and frittata featuring okra.  If these recipes are not incredibly delicious, call me and we’ll figure out what went wrong.

Or, I will teach you to say “go left” and “go right” in Hindi.  When you serve okra, add that touch of spice to the dish.  But remember, okra is not a four-letter-word.

The Tomato Curve

Have you ever wondered why Rockport gets so many tourists in August, but so few good tomatoes?  The reason is:  “night-time soil temperature”.   

Tourists love to dig their toes into the hot sand of a Rockport sunset.  They want to sway in the warm night breeze as they bar-hop down Fulton Beach Road.   

However, tomatoes don’t like sand, especially salty beach sand.  That’s why they are virtually impossible to grow in this town.  And tomatoes simply won’t tolerate hot sand and a warm night breeze.   

Tomatoes are able to set fruit only when the night-time soil temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees.  This window of opportunity is the “tomato curve”.  Below 55 degrees, no flowers will form.  Over 70 degrees, the little yellow flowers turn brown and have no chance to bloom into tomatoes.    

In temperate climates, where a soft spring warms to a gentle summer, there is a long season for tomatoes.  The curve is rather flat.  However, in Rockport, the tomato curve is extremely steep.  The number of days between winter and swelter are few.        

Usually, by late July, there is not a garden tomato within 100 miles of Rockport.  Sometimes, however, we are lucky.  These last few days of rain and cool nights helped coax another batch of beautiful tomatoes from our garden.   

Heirloom Tomatoes, Four String Farm

So, finally, we can have our tourists and our tomatoes too.  But call now to place your order–they will go fast. 

And if you miss this last wave of summer tomatoes, don’t worry.  Our fall tomato plants are already in the ground.  But you will have to wait until September to enjoy them, when the nights cool down enough for the little yellow flowers to bloom.   

We are approaching the dog days of summer and the top of the curve.  Get your tomatoes while you can.  The autumn window for good tomatoes will open in about 50 days, 49, 48, 47… 

To place an order, go to fourstringfarm.com.

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