Welcome to our latest farm update! Somehow, we’re again at the end of another growing season at our farm (well—our “working mini-farm,” if we’re being technical about it).
In between writing about food and showing how to cook it, we continue in our valiant efforts to grow it, too. It’s been another year of experimenting and learning, with some new and exciting successes, and also some duds too.
Show Me the Veggies (Our Fall Harvest)
The best part of fall is the beautiful foliage, as well as reaping the rewards of the crops you’ve sown.
Perennial crops like our feathery asparagus continued on dutifully in the background (asparagus takes years to get a good yield out of), and we had another great year of tomatoes (and tomato mayonnaise sandwiches), potatoes, and cut flowers, which bloomed all summer right up until the first frost (read our end of summer update here).
But the real star of fall has been leafy green vegetables. Starting in September, my mom couldn’t have been happier with the variety and volume of leafy greens we were netting from the garden. She attributes this to a thick layer of our own homemade compost, which we started making in the spring!
Ji Cai (Shepherd’s Purse)
Shepherd’s Purse is a tasty wild vegetable that we use often in frozen form for our go-to dumpling filling. It’s got a fragrant flavor, and we’ve only ever been able to buy it frozen stateside. Try it in our basic dumpling recipe, Shepherd’s Purse Tofu Soup, and our Shanghainese Rice Cakes with Shepherd’s Purse.
My mom planted some in our small kitchen garden in the spring with fingers crossed.
It didn’t do too well, and quickly bolted, flowered, and went to seed. However, those little seeds that were released in spring seemed to have self-sown themselves without our help, and we got a tidy little crop in late summer/early fall that we stir fried with tofu and cut into dumplings!
Back in China, my mom remembers Ji Cai as a wild vegetable or weed, so this result tracked with her memories.
This year, we got the *best* dark emerald bok choy with white stems, aka, dwarf bok choy. It’s also sometimes called “small bok choy,” or in Mandarin, 奶油白菜 (nǎiyóu báicài), which roughly translates to “butter bok choy” or “cream bok choy.”
My mom said this was the first time she’s *ever* been happy with her bok choy harvest. These can be hungry plants that need a lot of fertilizer, so we think our homemade compost—which we made with garden trimmings, alpaca manure, soiled straw from the chicken coop and duck house (chicken manure is very high in nitrogen), grass clippings, dried leaves and pine needles, and more—really helped.
Leafy greens are also seemingly the tasty target of any and every garden pest out there, from slugs and snails to flea beetles, cabbage white caterpillars, and our mammalian friends as well.
While springtime can be rough for these veggies, we find that fall bug activity is a bit lower, giving these tender vegetables time and space to grow.
They were tender, delicious, and plentiful. And no bolting—temps were perfect! You can’t ask for more! Learn how to grow bok choy in Sarah’s comprehensive post!
Taiwanese Flat Cabbage
This year we skipped napa cabbage in favor of planting Taiwanese flat cabbage. To be honest, we’re still perfecting our cabbage game, but we did get some robust cabbages with a solid head (i.e., they weren’t just floppy bundles of leaves).
We left them for a little too long, eating them slowly enough that the bugs and slugs really laid into them, but once we trimmed them up a bit, they were astoundingly good!
Definitely a much stronger showing than our napa cabbage experiments and taste-wise, you really couldn’t tell the difference from store-bought Taiwanese cabbage.
We shared some of our older cabbages with the chickens and ducks, who loved picking the leaves off of them like they were bloomin’ onions!
Ever since we saw this property and found a stream running through it, we’ve wanted to grow our own watercress.
With the help of some store-bought watercress, which we rooted, we’ve been able to grow several patches that we’ve been continuously harvesting from!
On a visit back in spring, our aunt planted the roots in protected spots around the stream, and they have since spread into large swaths of the stuff.
Sarah will be releasing a bonus post in our How to Grow Chinese Vegetables series about how to grow watercress (you can do it in containers!) later this month, so stay tuned.
One of our craziest experiments this year was planting ginger. We took organic ginger roots from the store, propagated it in a bowl of potting soil in a warm spot inside until they sprouted, and then planted them outside in late spring.
For the whole summer, our ginger has grown in a decidedly tropical patch on the side of our decidedly not-at-all tropical colonial-style barn.
The spot was warm with some sun, yet also partially shady. While ginger enjoys heat and humidity, it actually doesn’t love blazing sun, and needs part shade to thrive.
The other day, we ventured out before a projected frost (ginger can’t be exposed to cold, or they’ll rot. They grow optimally in much warmer zones than ours), and we pulled all of them.
What! A! Thrill! There’s something really exciting about growing that much ginger at home. The most interesting part is that this is considered “young ginger,” because it hasn’t aged and hardened underground (that’s the more familiar brown, thicker skinned ginger you’re used to).
In fact, the original propagated ginger pieces now resembled classic ginger and had branched off into more young ginger rhizomes with the prettiest ombre berry stain that transitioned into green stems.
After rinsing the ginger outside (we used the stream), we brought them in, cut off the stems, and dried them off a bit. Just look at that harvest! You can see that the pieces of ginger that look older and more leathery were the original “seed” ginger, and the pale yellow roots are the new growth. We got a pretty nice yield, I have to say!
A lot of people actually grow ginger for ornamental purposes, because it is beautiful, but we’ll be using this mild young ginger in our cooking and freezing the excess for later.
Young ginger is actually much more nutritious than old ginger (it contains 2x the amount of polyphenols/antioxidants), but it can be harder to find, so this whole experiment has yielded a real treat.
We’ve planted our daikon radish once again this fall (while we were a bit late with it last year, my mom was on it and got the seeds in the ground in late August). Now, we have sweet and tender radishes that we’re harvesting as we need them.
We have plans to cover them up with a low tunnel to prolong the time we can keep them in the ground, but once it turns consistently frosty, we’ll be eating a lot of daikon radish.
We’ve been boiling it simply as in this recipe and loving how nutritious, soothing and easy to digest it is. We’ve also been eating the greens, which are spicy and full of flavor.
We also planted watermelon radishes, which took quite a long time to get going and were a bit bitter and very spicy, but not bad when thinly sliced and added to salads:
We planted two kinds of raspberries in different places—summer-fruiting and fall-fruiting raspberries. The summer-fruiting ones were a bit of a dud, taking over our kitchen garden space and not yielding much fruit.
They have since been transferred out of the kitchen garden to a “wilder” area of the property near the beehives so we can just keep a dedicated raspberry patch there.
However, the fall-fruiting ones have yielded some stellar little harvests. If you’re looking for raspberries that are low maintenance, go for the fall-fruiting ones (AKA ever-bearing raspberries). And bonus, as the weather gets cooler, they get much sweeter than the more tart August and September berries.
With the temperatures dipping, we’ve turned our attention to sowing more cold-loving leafy greens that we can get one more good crop out of through November and clearing out old plantings so we can mulch for the winter (and also start laying out our new plan for the garden—more on that later).
Case in point—we now have a giant trash bag’s worth of huge scallions.
We’ve already made a big batch of Shanghai scallion oil noodles (cong you ban mian), and the rest are destined to be washed, dried, chopped, and frozen in bags to be used by the handful during the winter.
Fall Crop Duds
Now that we’re all feeling warm and fuzzies over the victories, a quick rundown on duds and disappointments, which are a reality in most, if not all, gardening years!
While last year, carrots were one of our highest performing crops (we didn’t have to buy them all summer or fall, and they grew big, fat, and full of flavor), this year’s carrots were a bust early in the season.
We were able to plant a small new crop, harvesting some smaller-sized carrots this fall, but they’re nowhere near the bumper crop we had last year that powered us into Thanksgiving and beyond.
While winter will cut short the steady growth we’ve gotten, we’re still thankful that the second crop is doing better in the more predictably cool fall weather relative to the up and down, soggy summer we had.
Also unlike last year, we had a pretty lukewarm showing on pumpkins. While we had a dry spring at the time when the pumpkin plants were just getting going, we had a pretty wet summer. Temperatures were also comparatively cooler, and our pumpkins and winter squashes got a bit stunted. They were also beset by some pests!
We got one very beautiful and very large orange gourd that resembled a pumpkin, but it was probably a strange cross from seasons past, because the only one in our household who liked it was Barley! It was genuinely inedible, and we don’t say that lightly.
Basically, all the rain this summer made it quite watery and bland. To a pumpkin-loving pup though, it added some fiber and flavor to her nightly dinners for a while, so luckily it didn’t go to waste.
Another disappointing gourd was the hulus that we at one point had so many of.
Known in English as birdhouse gourds, they are usually dried and stashed in the pantry or somewhere in the home to bring good energy and auspicious vibes into Chinese homes. You may recognize the silhouette from the QR codes in our cookbook!
Technically, you are supposed to be able to just dry them on the vine and they hollow out and turn dark. However, ours completely rotted and got attacked by a horde of squash bugs before they could get anywhere close. Maybe we’ll have better growing conditions next year!
Luckily, surrounding local farms had plenty of pumpkins to choose from for fall decorating purposes:
In the spirit of sharing…
We’ve been lucky enough to have fellow neighbors who also have a green thumb. The same neighbor who last year supplied us with a bunch of bamboo stalks to stake our green peas and snap peas gifted us this year with not only bamboo shoots in the spring (read more about it in our spring update), but also bags of chestnuts from his tree in the fall!
It’s been such a treat. The ones that we didn’t boil, roast, and eat straight away were cooked and stored in the freezer for future braises and baked goods.
He also did us the service of salvaging some peach pits from a very robust peach tree in the neighborhood that has great yield in spite of tricky growing conditions.
Our mature peach tree could be described as precarious at best (gummosis and rust are just two fungal diseases that have attacked this tree in our two years here), so it’s high time we started propagating the future generation of peach trees in case our mature one doesn’t perform.
Sharing really is caring!
We continued our salted duck egg experiments using our excess of fresh duck eggs, spearheaded by my dad!
We’re learning a lot, so hopefully we’ll have some useful updates to our Salted Duck Egg recipe!
We also made big batches of mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival this year. My mom made classic Lotus Paste Mooncakes with Salted Duck Egg Yolks, and Sarah made Pecan Pie Mooncakes. We packed them up and shipped them off to family and friends for the holiday.
Nowadays, we’re clearing the garden and planting some cover crops, including Austrian winter peas, in order to add nitrogen back into the soil:
Garlic and shallots, which grow over winter, also went in:
We’re also planting more spring bulbs! These here are tulips going in on a space we call “the mound,” which is a septic mound (ew) that we’re trying to beautify around the edges with shallow-rooted plants. The goal here is also to make it stick out less like a sore thumb on the property!
Making Moves in the Garden and the Barn
The Garden, Greenhouse & Potting Shed
Probably the most exciting things happening these days (now that we’re not as busy tending our veggie patches) is updating our barn and expanding the garden, which has been serving us well for the last 2 years, but is falling apart a bit:
We’re putting a new wall around the garden to expand it considerably (about 4 feet in all directions). The decades-old, rotting wood fence is seriously on its last legs, and it’s getting replaced by a new fence design with a real stone foundation.
We’re also tacking on a potting shed/tool shed and greenhouse to give us more storage and propagating space! It’s really taking shape, and we can’t wait to show you the final results!
After shopping around for prefab greenhouses, we decided to do it our own way. (Which is what usually ends up happening in our family. The DIY impulse is strong. See: the building of our duck run.)
We’re going for something a bit more home-grown and in keeping with the rustic spirit of the mini-farm.
Extreme Barn Transformation
The other big project we’ve recently completed is redoing the windows and siding of the barn.
Our goal was to add a lot more windows to the barn in order to let in natural light for photography and filming, as well as to re-do the siding, which was already decades old with the wood starting to rot.
We went all in and made it red red, and we think it turned out pretty great! It looks very cheerful compared to the faded siding from before.
As it weathers, it will also start to fade and blend into the landscape a bit, but for now, we’re enjoying the pop of color.
We did salvage some of the old wood from the barn, which was still usable. We plan to re-use it for the building of the potting shed!
We’ve also begun contemplating the inside. We’ve chosen appliances and blocked out the new layout for what (fingers crossed) will be a new studio kitchen for us to do our cooking and filming in!
As you can see, we added quite a few windows:
What do you think of the transformation so far? Let us know in the comments, and happy fall!