A Celebration Complete with Celebratory Confections

This is  Althea officinalis  , or Marshmallow. The drawing is from  http://hortuscamden.com/  

This is Althea officinalis , or Marshmallow. The drawing is from http://hortuscamden.com/ 

Our summer celebration at Delphi Agrarian Arts Foundation, which brings together former interns, their families, and friends of the farm at the beginning of the height of our Season of Abundance (yes, capital letters here are appropriate), revolved, this year, around the peach harvest: plump, juicy and abundant as could be. In the background, however, through a recipe trial I've been very excited about, were, marshmallows. Quiet, sweet, subtle, and decorated with little borage flowers, this journal entry is dedicated to these once-medicinal confections, and will serve, also, I hope, as a call for other traditional marshmallow recipes from readers or browsers alike. 

homemade marshmallows accented with edible borage flowers 

Marshmallows come from an ancient Egyptian tradition: the extract of Althaea officinalis root was combined with honey, to make a sore throat treatment fit for the Gods but accessible to all, as the perennial shrub grows easily and prolifically in many soils and environmental conditions, granted it's not in full shade. What we understand marshmallows to be, typically - the white, fluffy cylinders - more likely resembles the old French pharmacist's version: egg whites whipped up with marshmallow root extract, and lightly sweetened so that children, and adults with a sweet tooth, could better tolerate the taste of the earthy root while still getting the medicinal benefits of the plant, too. The demand for these tasty confections soon exceeded the ability that the labor intensive process of making them allowed. When the process was industrialized the ingredients changed: from egg and marshmallow root to gelatin and, eventually, high fructose corn syrup, or corn syrup, and without the root of the marshmallow plant entirely. 

Marshmallow root is used to sooth and heal sore throats as well as all mucus membranes: those in the digestive system, stomach ulcers, and the urinary tract. It helps to clear congestion and calm harsh coughs and, as an added benefit, it helps to control blood sugar thanks to it's large concentration of both soluble fiber (pectin), and the mucilage it contains. I steeped some cleaned and peeled root in near-boiling water for almost 15 minutes and found the tisane wonderfully calming, the pieces of root enjoyable to suck on and the beverage very nice to sip. One could add some chamomile flowers or another favorite herb to mask the taste but I enjoyed it solo, truth be told. 

The recipe I used for the marshmallow confections was sourced from a whole-foods oriented blog and I chose it because it called for honey and marshmallow root, itself. However, the treat is not suitable for vegetarians, and I found the final product to be a bit too gelatinous for my taste, less light and fluffy, as I was hoping for. Nonetheless, they were a hit at our gathering, and a great step toward using our lovingly grown plants as both confection, and medicine!   

José and family - enjoying the treats and the day.    

José and family - enjoying the treats and the day.   

Pinch, Prune, Trim, Tie (Repeat)

The water lilies are pruned once each season, which allows new growth more space as well as more flowers to bloom. It also ensures our interns a chance to navigate the pond in a traditionally constructed coracle.  

Busy as bees, we were, in the Delphi gardens last week! Cooperating and focusing, we finished installing the "tomato wall," pruned and deadheaded the Europeana roses to make way for their second flush of summer growth and, yes, even more clusters of red flowers.. 

We also made some necessary headway with the apple and pear cordon summer pruning process, scythed stalks of golden White Sonora wheat down and prepared it for curing, and picked so many cherries and berries: delightful!

The tomato plants are growing quickly thanks to the little heat waves we've been experiencing. The fence is in place for us to tie stems to once they get a bit more mature. 

Training and pruning tomatoes against a wall, or fence, is one of my favorite summer activities. This season, we will grow tomato plants in two different ways in order to compare fruit and plant health, as well as the labor requirements necessary, hopefully informing us about whether the inputs involved in training and pruning are, ultimately, "worth it." We will train and prune our heirloom, indeterminate varieties alongside the fence we constructed (it's about 30 feet long, 6.5 feet tall, and will support 25 plants) and we will use tall, swirling metal posts for our Goldrush Currant plants, and other indeterminate varieties, in a separate bed.

I have to be upfront about my bias, which is, of course, already clear -- although I am really excited to draw some comparisons and look more analytically at these two different systems for growing tomato vines. I learned about the intensive training method while apprenticing at Live Power Community Farm, and was so smitten with the process that I even volunteered, in addition to working very long days, to keep up with the tying and training on my own time. The intimacy that one is able to develop with the plants and, therefore, the education one receives from them - about their growth patterns, habits, and more - was irreplaceable. The rhythm of this activity, taking time for it mid-summer despite the busy-ness of everything, seemed vitally important.

It really took all of us to properly install the "fence" that we'll be growing the indeterminate vines against: I am very grateful to José, our fellow gardener and maintenance person, for assisting with its design and construction. The plants were placed about 18 inches from one another, diagonally, on either side of the sturdy fence, which is simply reclaimed 6x6 wire mesh, held into wooden posts with screws and washers. It was designed to be able to take down, and assemble, easily, and to be tucked into storage in a compact way when necessary. 

The training process is quite simple: to grow the best tasting fruit in the most organized, space-saving way, you must allow for light and air to enter the canopy, so pruning out extra foliage, in the form of "suckers," after choosing one, two or three main stalks, is the general gist of this process. I typically like to have two main stalks identified and trained: just in case something happens to the other. Suckers emerge from the stalk and stem at 45 degree angles, and will simply develop into "stems," complete with foliage and fruit bracts, themselves. The fruit bracts grow out from the stalk with, typically, three sets of leaf stems in between each bract. I like to prune the suckers off when they are smaller than 4" long, to prevent any tears in the main stalk, and they simply break off when you move it forward and back in a quick, gentle motion. I like to tie the plants to the fence lightly, just above the fruit bract, to support the fruit that we hope will get heavy below.   

Here is a photo of my farmer-mentor, Stephen Decater, working in the tomato wall at Live Power Community Farm, in Covelo, CA, July 2010. Stephen was a student of Alan Chadwick's and learned this training and pruning method from him, directly.

The Pleasures and Treasures

"The Universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper." --Eden Phillipotts

Like most gardeners in the Northern Hemisphere this time of year, we have been BUSY. The short, but intense, heat waves we've experienced seem to be bringing things on earlier than our records indicate: many of the tomato plants are nearly tall enough to need their trellis (which we're still in the process of building), the orchard needs water while the cherry trees and strawberry plants are bursting with fruit, and the raspberries, gooseberries and black currants are not far behind. The espaliered pear and apple cordons are fully ready for their summer foliage trim: we follow a modified version of Louis Lorrette's method; and the corn and dry beans and more green beans, oh my! all need to be sown. And winter squash started, and the bed prepped for that...

It is a glorious kind of busy, where sketches and notes, made in the evening, are set down first thing the next morning and returned to at the end of the day with only more bullet points, tasks, observations to move from. So, I was thankful for the opportunity we made at Delphi last week: to slow down and spend time with the flowers during this busy time of year, mimicking the bee, if you will, chasing pollen and flitting about in order to nourish and sustain the other part of self that is as reliant on feeling the sun through an array of senses.  

One of our two magnificent interns, Carra, a professional cut-flower grower at Everett Family Farm, shared a brief history of flowers as ornament and adornment with us, then brought us on a walk, meandering along the estate's paths, stopping, seeking, cutting, and contemplating our way through the diversity on site. I was released by allowing myself to feel this thought, which manifested, in my mind, as a short letter. I believe that our whole Team shares this intention, so took the liberty of signing the letter with my name, "and Crew": 

Dear vegetables, beloved fruits -

Please know that you can run amok in the summer’s sun in your own way, grow up and out, explore. We will return to you soon, with a lovely, fragrant offering from your fellow givers and sharers of life. We are all in this together, and we know you know that more than us.

With Love and Deep Thanks,
— Karisa & Crew