Homegrown Thanksgiving '23
Believing in Brussels Sprouts
This is the second entry documenting our 14-month challenge to ourselves to prepare a Thanksgiving meal made entirely of food and ingredients grown, harvested, hunted and produced right here on Fain-XX Farm. Regardless of the outcome, subsequent entries, photos, recipes and social media posts will be arranged into a book format for publication.
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Saturday, September 3, 2022
A staple in our home for just about every full-production meal is Brussels sprouts. I can hear the collective “ugh” from the reader at that last sentence. How can anyone like Brussels sprouts enough to make it a supper time favorite? Right?
It’s all in the preparation
Jessica has successfully turned about a half-dozen Brussels haters into believers over the years. Granted, for the Homegrown Thanksgiving, there may need to be some substitutions to her recipe or some old-fashioned bartering of goods, but first, we need the Brussels sprouts.
I haven’t really tried to grow Brussels before now. Brussels sprouts are a cooler weather crop that are best if finished to a sweetness by the first frost of fall. I performed a lot of amazing feats of gardening the dozen years I was in Colorado but fall crops at 7000 feet wasn’t one of them. At that altitude on the edge of the plain, late summer is too hot and dry, and the soil doesn’t retain moisture, so watering doesn’t help. Then, fall lasts for about two weeks before a hard freeze inevitably kills everything.
Since returning home to Tennessee four years ago, and acquiring Fain-XX Farm two years ago, we’ve lacked the equipment to turn and till new ground. Additionally, the pandemic and inflation has prevented us from making the necessary acquisitions, but we’ve been pretty creative. The previous owners of Fain-XX Farm had horses and they left us a substantial amount of aged horse manure in the barn, excellent fertilizer. Filled with a layer of gravel from the creek for drainage, an ample layer of manure and topped with left over potting mix, a half-century old feed trough I rescued from the family homestead became a planter box for tomatoes, jalapenos and sweet peppers. We had some issues early on with blossom-end rot from a calcium deficiency in the planter mix, but I fixed that with some crushed oyster shell I feed to our hens. The peppers are still producing, but the tomatoes have run their course. Eight plants kept us supplied with fresh tomatoes all summer as well as enough for about a dozen pints of canned salsa with fresh jalapenos.
On the southeast corner of our home, a brick retaining wall terminates the addition of our garage and offers an elevated, triangular garden for our herbs. Thyme drapes over the tip of the planter like ropes over the bow of a ship. Greek oregano crawls across the bottom of the planter while sage, basil and lemon-balm bush out over six cucumber plants that drape over the brick wall in a cascade of bright green leaves and yellow blooms. Personally, I hate fresh cucumbers. I like pickles and relish, but I can’t even stand the smell of cucumbers. Jessica on the other hand, loves fresh cucumber so I grow them for her every year. In return, she makes killer relish to mix with her chunky salsa for a tasty topping over burgers and sammies… as a chips and cracker dip notwithstanding.
Trial and Error
As often is the case, we can learn more from our failures. We had several volunteer pumpkins come up in a field next to our barn. Using some of last year’s firewood and old rotting fence post, I built a cradle to hold some of that straw bedding and manure then transplanted the best of the young plants to the cradle. At first, I thought I was going to have a bumper crop of pumpkins. The vines grew quickly, bursting out over the cradle walls blanketing the ground in broad leaves interspersed with spiky blooms opening to a bright yellow in the sun. But just as the first little bumps of a couple of pumpkins started to form, I noticed the vines were looking sickly and dying away. I watered if it didn’t rain, but the vines were still dying. I worried there was something in the manure or the straw. I wondered if the dogs were digging around or if rodents were gnawing at the roots or blossoms. I even imagined an interdimensional tunnel of rot running under the farm like in season two of Stranger Things because that is what looked to be attacking my vines. Though I found out too late, it turned out to be something more sinister than rodents, but not quite as fantastical as an interdimensional tunnel.
Squash bugs! Ghostly gray, disturbing little buggers, they gnaw into the vines, inject a toxin and then suck the sap right out of the plant, like the brain bug in Storm Troopers. I just noticed them two days ago as I was surveying the three underdeveloped pumpkins left in the middle of interlocking strands of wilting and rotting vines. The pumpkins appeared to have grown pale lumps on the outer skin. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the lumps were moving and they had legs. Less than five minutes later, I had them identified. These squash bugs are voracious. After devouring the vines, they turn to the fruit itself. If left untouched, I expect those three pumpkins will look a little like burnt orange prunes in a few days.
It is too late to do anything about the squash bugs this year, but next year, I’ll know what to do. It is tempting, however, to see if there are salvageable seed in those underdeveloped pumpkins and go ahead with a late crop this year. According to what I read, the squash bugs have run through their cycle for this year and not likely to harm Cucurbita plants this late in the year. We might be a little short on Jack-o-lanterns this year, but maybe we can still have some for fresh pumpkin pies.
Inherent to the challenge of a Homegrown Thanksgiving in 14 months is to prove that we can be self-sufficient beyond just one big feast.
Though we have developed creative ways to supplement our purchases of supermarket produce with a fresher variety, without a plow and tiller, we lacked the square footage of suitable planting ground for a more sizeable haul to store up for the winter. It was the desire to grow Brussels that finally led me to my epiphany. After cutting the drying tomato vines from the old trough, I decided I wanted to plant some greens, specifically Brussels sprouts. I pulled out my seed stores to see what kind of greens I still had. I’ve been storing seeds for years, partly because I find gardening to be essential therapy and partly because we used to purchase heirloom seeds wholesale to sell retail when we still had a shop in Colorado. As I previously mentioned, I never had much luck with Brussels; just never been in the right environment for it. As such, I still have at least a half-dozen unopened pouches of Brussels sprouts ready to get started. I also have cabbage, red cabbage, kale, collard greens, and a plethora of mustard greens, though I never really cared for mustard greens. I found Danvers carrots, parsnips, shallots and onions too. All the latter will overwinter nicely and might offer up some necessary fresh produce through the winter months. I once broke frozen ground in February in Colorado to dig up some of the sweetest carrots I ever tasted. If I can grow carrots in February in Colorado, I’m sure I can grow them over the winter here, but I still need the ground to put them in.
The trough, now devoid of gnarly tomato vines, was a good start, but even with its 7-foot long 18” deep tub, I wasn’t going to have much of a variety of greens. Still, a little more than a week ago, with pepper plants still dangling over the side, weighted by growing peppers, I planted Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and some Glory of Enkhuizen cabbage that I will have to thin out to three or four heads because they are so large. For one large meal with family and friends, this trough might cradle more than enough greens, but inherent to the challenge of a Homegrown Thanksgiving in 14 months is to prove that we can be self-sufficient beyond just one big feast. I needed more raised beds, but if I was going to spend thousands of dollars on building materials, I might as well go into debt on a tractor and plow. Fain-XX Farm has plenty of wooded space with invasive species like the princess tree, tree of heaven, and Chinese privet I could take down to make log cribs, but that would take weeks of back breaking work. That might be a good plan for end of winter to get ready for spring planting, but I needed something much easier and much quicker for now, and that is when it donned on me, hay bales!
When we had a primitive shop in Colorado, I sold seeds and gardening materials and taught a few classes on straw bale gardening. I’m sure most think of Colorado as a wild country of wide-open spaces, fast moving streams teeming with trout, and massive, gray mountains rising to the heavens. That is in fact an accurate description, but only because the vast majority of the population of the state are squeezed into within about 10 miles of the I-25 corridor from the southern border with New Mexico to the northern border with Wyoming. The average Coloradan has a deck or patio, then about 30’ of back yard before the privacy fence they share with their neighbors. With a couple bales of straw, and a commitment to water every day, because Colorado is dry, any Colorado urbanite can have fresh tomatoes, beans, greens and etc.
I certainly did not want a bunch of straw bales scattered all over the yard with stuff growing out of them, and it wouldn’t be a very economical solution either — once I purchased all the straw bales, but it did lead me to remember that our barn loft had quite a substantial amount of old, leftover square hay bales.
I should mention here that hay bales are not a good substitute for straw bale gardens. This following article does a good job of explaining the difference between hay and straw, Using Straw vs Hay in the Garden: Which is Ideal for What Purpose? — Garden and Happy. The simplest reason to use straw over hay is that hay generally has lots of seeds while straw does not.
I would never try to garden in haybales anyway, though these bales were likely old and dead, but if I stacked them end to end, I could build a rather large, elevated planting bed, fill it with the ample material and get seeds in the ground before the first of September. Easy, right?
“The best-laid plans of mice and men…”
On August 31, exactly one week before the anniversary of my first COVID experience, the virus decided to hop on board for another ride. Fortunately, it isn’t as bad this year and I got out in front of it this time, but it slowed me down considerably, nevertheless. I have enough hay bales for at least two planters. I wanted to get both built and planted by the first. As it was, I managed to get one built and seeds planted on September 3.
The first thing in the dirt was two kinds of Brussels sprouts followed by broccoli, cauliflower, and celery. I had one pouch of leaf lettuce, some kale, collards and three kinds of cabbage before ending the column in onions, carrots, and parsnips. Depending on weather and the course of this virus, I may try to build one more box for some squash and pumpkins. After all, a steaming pot of spicy butternut squash soup when the cold weather starts rolling in, sounds pretty good.
Jessica’s Believe in Brussels Recipe
For the sake of sharing the best tasting Brussels sprouts ever, I’ve annotated the instructions for this recipe as Jessica makes them under normal circumstances.
Because anybody who has ever broke bread with us demands it, I’m certain that Jessica’s Brussels sprouts will be a featured dish for Homegrown Thanksgiving ‘23 as it has for nearly every previous Thanksgiving. The reader will note, however, that some of the ingredients may not be attainable under the stipulations of “homegrown” for Homegrown Thanksgiving ‘23. This is the first recipe we are adding to this documented challenge, so we still have 14 months to work it out, but Jessica and I are already discussing possible substitutions as well clarifying the rules. More on that after the recipe.
Feeds Four to Six
- 2 lb of fresh Brussels sprouts (about 30 Brussels)
- 1 lb of bacon
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp pepper
- 2 cloves garlic (2 tsp garlic powder)
- 1/2 cup cranberries
- 1/2 cup pecans chopped
- Italian seasoning (parsley, basil, oregano, thyme)
- Fresh ground Parmesan cheese
Cook bacon to crispy, not burned. Drain grease and retain about 4 tbsp of bacon grease.
Clean, cut off the ends, then quarter the Brussels sprouts.
Place in a pan (seasoned cast iron is best) with bacon grease and olive oil and fry over medium heat for 5 minutes.
Add in balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper and seasonings.
Turn down the heat and let simmer in sauce for about 5 minutes.
Cover and leave on low heat, turning the mix frequently for about 15 minutes until sprouts are tender and bright green.
Add in Cranberries, Pecans and crumbled bacon.
Stir, recap and leave on low heat until ready to serve.
Sprinkle with fresh ground Parmesan cheese (optional)
Sounds yummy right?
It is, but this recipe presents us with some concerns if we follow the principles of the Homegrown Thanksgiving ‘23 to prepare a Thanksgiving meal “made entirely of food and ingredients grown, harvested, hunted and produced right here on Fain-XX Farm,” as indicated in the Homegrown Thanksgiving ’23 — Introduction to the Challenge.
The first concern is bacon. Bacon is certainly something that can easily be procured on the farm — if I wanted to raise pigs, which I do not. We have discussed raising goats, especially for milk, and there is goat bacon, but not sure we will be ready to harvest a Billy by Thanksgiving 2023. Dark turkey meat, giblets, liver and heart fried up crispy might offer a strong flavor to substitute for bacon, as might a squirrel or a dove. I don’t think there are wild boar in these parts, but as long as I’m thinking about game, I suppose venison will work too.
Finally, on the topic of bacon, we are considering an old-fashioned barter agreement. If we can locate and establish a relationship with a local farmer that does raise pigs for meat, perhaps we can perform a trade of goods, something we produce for something he produces. It’s a thought.
Next, I’m not raising olives in East Tennessee, and I don’t have an olive press if I could. Truly, the olive oil can be left out entirely. If we aren’t able to use bacon or some other fatty meat that produces grease, we can always add a stick of butter that we will make on the farm.
The rest is easy:
- Making many types of vinegar is already on our to-do list long before Homegrown Thanksgiving ’23.
- Salt is the only exception I made from the start of this challenge.
- By November 2023, we will have stored many varying degrees of pepper powder.
- Cranberries can be substituted with apples, peaches or berries.
- We don’t have a pecan tree as of yet, but walnuts or hickory, of which we have plenty, or even homegrown peanuts will do the trick nicely.
- Parmesan is a pretty exceptional cheese, but with the right seasonings and craft, I’m sure we can make a suitable substitute.
About the Creator
The Bantering Welshman
M.S. Humphreys is The Bantering Welshman, an East Tennessee native, author, journalist, storyteller, marketing specialist, husband and step father. https://www.instagram.com/thebanteringwelshman/ and http://www.banteringwelshman.com
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