What's a cardoon and how did it get in my garden?

Cardoons starting to grow behind a wall of Swiss chard.

Cardoons starting to grow behind a wall of Swiss chard.

Way back in 2015 we planted an artichoke start we got from our neighbor. The small plant eventually grew to be 10-feet tall, its buds quickly growing and flowering, and then it just up and fell over. Sometime in the winter I noticed there were little sprouts growing out of the dead flower laying in the dirt so I transplanted them in the greenhouse. When Spring came I noticed the little sprouts had turned into tiny artichoke plants so I excitedly replanted them in the garden in Spring. Eventually they grew into a towering artichoke fortress blocking out the sun from our small garden, but I determined it was worth it for artichokes. 

We waited patiently for the artichokes to reach full size, and then we picked one, boiled it for an hour, and dipped the leaves in garlic butter. You can’t imagine the disappointment we felt when we discovered they were too fibrous to eat. We boiled the next one for two hours and found it was still woody and inedible. What kind of cruel and twisted joke had our neighbor played on us and why did I plant a dozen of these things all over the yard?

Eventually I spotted my neighbor in his garden and asked him about it. He told me the artichoke wasn't a typical artichoke, and that he thought it might be something called a cardoon, a variation of artichoke prized for the stems of its giant leaves, not its hearts. For real, the prize is the giant, scraggly-ass Jurassic Park-looking things.  Is there an expression for being “Trojan horsed” but in respect to gardening?

We later learned that by picking the cardoon hearts really early you could eat them as baby artichokes, and if you've ever had fried artichokes at our house that's what it was and I thank you for letting us experiment on you.

Just recently I emailed a bunch of local friends offering them the rare opportunity to experience unlimited cardoon stem/leaf gathering for free and exactly zero people expressed interest. So there they are, giant fake-ass artichokes leafing out, blocking the sun, and eroding trust between neighbors.

Someday I’ll cook these weird things and see whether or not they taste as I’ve read them described—like bitter celery.

Learn the wonders of cardoons here --> https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/what-heck-do-i-do-cardoon-180950301/


Cardoons have a heart, but it must be plucked very early.

Cardoons have a heart, but it must be plucked very early.

New Garden Rows

The Barreto Rear Tine Rototiller is the only machine for the job.

The Barreto Rear Tine Rototiller is the only machine for the job.

Six months ago I envisioned an expanded garden so I marked out eight 25-foot garden rows, covered them in horse manure, and then placed plastic tarps over the top of each. This killed most the grass, but it also warmed the soil. I recently added more chicken droppings, more compost, and then a bunch of fish fertilizer/compost. Then I rented a rototiller and after eight hours of continuous tilling a respectable garden emerged. After that I rototilled along a fence to plant sunflowers, and then another spot for more flowers, and then I redid half the berry garden. If you rent it for a full day you have to use it for the whole day. Anything less and you're getting ripped off. 



The addition of the eight garden rows creates an additional 800-square-feet of garden, which means we have to fill it with something. Six weeks ago I turned a section of our kitchen into a potting shed and filled it with seed trays, and then over the past month we've slowly started planting them in garden. So far we've planted... arugula, basil, dill, chives, sage, cilantro, oregano, parsley, spinach, peas, sugar pumpkins, carving pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash, strawberries, alpine strawberries, zucchini, squash, fava beans, potatoes, green beans, Chinese long beans, cucumbers, turnips, parsnips, radishes, carrots, Swiss chard, collards, kale, corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, ground cherries, okra, watermelon, cantaloupe, sunflowers, artichokes, a variety of lettuce greens, and more. 

If those all goes according to plan we should have some extra edibles to share with our friends and family.


Return of the Berry Garden


We were out of the country for 4 months of last year so we weren't really around to plant, weed, and harvest our 800-square-foot garden. What was once raspberries, marionberries, veggies, and grapes quickly turned into a field of 6-foot tall thistles. By Spring we learned many of the berries had died, it was too shaded for grapes to ripen, and it's practically impossible to get rid of morning glory and thistles. The upside is we have bunch of dry grape vines to use as barbecue wood, and most of the blackberry-raspberry blends are drought-tolerant. 

Despite the setback, we enthusiastically rototilled the hell out of the thing. And then we transplanted raspberries, loganberries, marionberries, boysenberries, tayberries, strawberries, golden raspberries, and more. And after that we added a bunch of pumpkins and acorn squash and artichokes and sunflowers, and more. 

And this stuff is hard work so you earn a reward and that prize is a Rainer Beer tallboy. 


Maple Blossoms and Foraging



I have a sudden abundance of free time so that's how I learned maple blossoms are edible, and also that they're abundant in the woods near my house, and also how I was able to gather up a bunch of them in the middle of a Tuesday. 

These are the blossoms of big leaf maple trees and basically if you look up in a Pacific Northwest forest in spring and you see you yellow you're probably looking at them. And don't worry about having to climb a tree to get them because Spring is windy and these things just rain down on the ground to be easily gathered up.

What can you do with them? Great question and I have the same one. I've read that some people fry them up as fritters, but I had dreams of turning them into something called "jonjoli" and if you haven't spent time in the former Soviet Union then don't feel bad if you don't know what that is. Over a decade ago I lived in the Republic of Georgia where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for over two years. While there I met my future wife (fellow volunteer), adopted our current dog, and developed an enthusiasm for pickled bladdernut blossoms during dreary winters devoid of green veggies. Jonjoli was that pickled green vegetable that I would eat between wine toasts and more toasts, and animal horns full of wine, and more wine and then maybe some vodka. While my liver is probably no better for the experience I never did get scurvy.

If this were a popular food blog this story would lead to me reconnecting with this prized food using locally-sourced ingredients, but unfortunately maple blossoms don't work like that. They are bitter (unless boiled in salt water), they fall apart when pickled, and they seem hard to utilize in any sort of redeemable way. That said, even though I struck out this year I'll be trying again next year. If you know what to do with these things please let me know in the comments! 

Maple blossoms

Maple blossoms

Episode IV—A New Flock

Original Flock

Original Flock

Back in 2011 we built a coop and started a flock with six chicks. Four years later we added seven more. Since then, we've lost a few to old age (RIP John Travolta), one to a hawk (you are missed Lil' Bandit), another to a raccoon (I avenged your death with a lethal shotgun blast, Betty White), and another because the flock turned on her (you kind of had it coming Roseanne Barr) and we gave her to someone willing to take in a universally hated bird.

Now, with our numbers down to a flock of six, and egg production plummeting, we decided to add baby chicks to our time management woes. 


We picked up six chicks from Bay Hay and Feed, choosing two varieties—3 Buff Orpingtons and 3 Rhode Island Reds. When choosing a chicken we value three things:  1. Egg production. 2. General friendliness. 3. Inability to fly over a six-foot fence. If you have a 10-foot fence then just get a ton of Americanas because they're awesome. 

I turned this box into a garden box and now I'm growing tomatoes in it.

I turned this box into a garden box and now I'm growing tomatoes in it.

I built a large box with a heat lamp attached to it, filled it with wood chips, and put it in our kitchen. Then we added the chicks and let the kids name them. Since Star Wars is everything to our kids right now these chickens ended up with Star Wars names. Luke Skywalker is oversized (please don't be a rooster). The last surprise rooster we had ended up as chicken enchiladas when it started crowing and the kids do not want this one to reach that fate. My favorite is Ewok because she's the runt and is nearly impossible to catch and is definitely not a rooster that I will have to dispatch with an axe.


After a week that saw a steady stream of visitors dropping by to play with the chicks we eventually moved them outside. We have a 300-square-foot chicken run with two coops inside it. The two remaining members of the original flock live in one coop and the four members of the other flock live in the second coop, at least until I locked up the original coop and forced everyone to move into the second coop. This was very upsetting to the old hens, and it only got worse when I divided the run in half with a divider that's half fence and half tool rack. With the chicken universe divided into two rival sides I brought the new chicks out and put them in the original coop. 

The two flocks will be able to see each other through the fence, but the barrier will keep the older hens from attacking the younger ones. Once the new flock is fully grown we'll pull the divider and let this chicken universe develop a new pecking order. And by then everyone will be laying and we'll even have eggs to share with our friends. If you want to come by and see them feel free (provided we know you).


Visiting the Berry Farm of My Ancestors


I live on Bainbridge Island, which was once home to a large number of strawberry farms, so many in fact that when I played PeeWee Football the neighboring team would taunt us for being "no-good berry pickers." While my family members were never professional berry pickers on Bainbridge Island my mom did build a berry-picking rep while spending summers picking berries on her grandparents' farm in Lynden, Washington.  

All my life I've heard her stories about her summers on that farm so when I found myself in Bellingham recently I decided to buzz up to Lynden and see the land where they once farmed. With an address on a piece of paper that my mom gave me I set out with my wife and kids to find it. After driving past miles of berry farms, dairies, and housing developments we arrived. 

It was hard to imagine that this 35-acre parcel with scattered homes and an apartment complex was once my great-grandparents farm, but that's because this wasn't their land at all. The address my mom gave me was completely wrong. My great-grandparents' farm is actually 500 yards down the road. I found that out after getting back and showing my mom photos of the land. Someday I'll take a look at it on Google Maps I guess. 

Stinging Nettles


These are lean times on Nickum Farm. The six chickens are laying a combined three eggs per week, the garden rows are still spoken of in the future tense, and nothing edible is growing anywhere on our property unless you count the patch of swiss chard and I do not count the patch of swiss chard.

Obviously, we have no choice but to venture into the woods to gather nettles, regardless of the stinging danger they possess. Amelia and Hazel and I bravely set out and gathered a grocery bag full of these healthy green leaves. We brought them home, trimmed off any woody stems, and boiled them in a pot of salted water. 


The amazing thing about nettles is not that the sting vanishes when you cook it, it's that the leaves shrink down so much you genuinely question whether it was worth the effort. That grocery bag of leaves somehow barely fills a quart-size ziplock bag when cooked. Despite this, the chopped leaves provide a peppery punch to soups, sauces, and for us, ravioli filling and pasta dough.  

There are no shortage of nettle pasta or ravioli recipes on the internet and I will not clutter it with one of my own, but I will say mine is better and we froze a bunch and I'm willing to share it with friends who come for dinner. 



Nickum Farm


42 years ago my father bought a house on an acre of land from a man with a steer. That man included the steer in the purchase, which would have made my father a man with a steer, but alas he declined the free beef. My dad spent the next handful of weekends ripping out all the fencing that corralled the now disappeared steer and eventually turned the pasture into tightly mowed grass, just as the God of the Homeowner's Association intended.

Fast forward to today and you'll find my father living on this same acre of land, only now there are two houses, and one of them is inhabited by me and my family. In this latest property incarnation my father stands on his deck and as his grandchildren play happily on an expanse of lawn, but just beyond them something sinister is taking place. His eldest son (me) has begun replacing much of that beautiful lawn with a small, but ever expanding agricultural enterprise that threatens decades of dutiful mowing. Chickens now peck for bugs on bare earth where grass once grew. Two dozen new fruit trees break up what was once a sprawling expanse of green. A fenced berry garden has decimated 800-square-feet of precious lawn, and soon there will be a rototiller ripping up 200 feet of grass to make way for garden rows.

This blog will detail a son's ongoing act of betrayal...