With summer well and truly behind us and fall swiftly morphing into winter, it's a good time to don a thick sweater and take stock of what we reaped this past season. The freezer is full of pestos (spruce tip, nettle, basil, arugula, etc.), raspberries, saskatoons, applesauce, and rosehip syrup. There's a sack of colourful potatoes keeping cool, cabbage fermented into sauerkraut and kimchi, and some extra root veggies (carrot, beet, burdock, and celeriac) in the crisper. There are even some tough little greens holding out in the garden in spite of the cold - chard, kale, arugula, parsley.
But possibly my most prized harvest is from my small "three sisters" patch. The widely-known three sisters guild of corn, beans, and squash is actually a simplified implementation of the Mesoamerican agricultural practice called milpa which can involve several other complementary crops. In classic guild fashion, each of these crops both provides and reaps benefits through its proximity to the others. The nutritional results are complementary as well - corn and beans form a complete protein; squash provides a vitamin-rich starch. My corn, bean, and squash patch was part of my initiative to grow the elements of a balanced diet right here in our yard.
In permaculture, one of the dictates is "obtain a yield". Though much of that yield needs to be utilitarian and tangible (ie. food, fuel, mulch, pollination, etc.), it refers also to less obvious rewards like beauty, community, and fulfillment. Without a doubt, our greatest yield from the three sisters guild has been beauty. The Mandan Bride corn I planted produces cobs in the most breathtaking colours, from pale yellow streaked with violet to deep ochre or purple. Orca beans released from their dried pods seem surely to have each been hand-painted and placed there. And with Cochrane's severely short number of growing days, I'm just giddy when I can produce squash at all! (I did choose a small, short-season variety, but summer squash/zucchini would fill the guild niche similarly). I celebrate each little orange orb amongst the foliage.
At about a cup of beans (after setting some aside for planting next year), a large armload of squash, and six or so cups of corn for flour, you could say we're laughably far from sustaining ourselves over the winter. True, but I'll expand the three sisters patch next year, plant it more densely, and add a pollinator plant to the mix. Perhaps there's a more prolific bean than the Orca (though more beautiful, I doubt). I'll explore further ways to add fertility and make effective use of water. Year after year, this exploration and fine-tuning will begin to yield something crucial and precious - a knowledge of place and a deepening interaction with the sustenance we derive from it. In the meantime, we'll feast for a night on the most beautiful of baked beans!
I'll be grinding that Mandan Bride corn into flour and making polenta and cornbread with it. Here's one recipe I use (sometimes on the B&B menu) should you like to warm up this winter with your own freshly-baked cornbread - breakfast, lunch, or supper.
Makes 12 small or 6 large muffins, or one 8" x 11" pan
1 1/4 cups cornmeal*
3/4 cup whole grain flour (gluten-free will work, but result will be a little more crumbly and dry)
2 Tbsp sugar (eg, Sucanat or coconut sugar - use honey or maple syrup for a more local sweetener)
1/2 tsp unrefined sea salt
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1Tbsp fresh thyme or rosemary (optional)
2 large organic/free range eggs
1 cup buttermilk (or kefir, thinned yogurt, or milk with bit of lemon juice/vinegar)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2/3 cup grated parmesan or other cheese (optional)
-1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and minced - or minced pickled jalapenos - or chopped olives
-1-3 garlic cloves, crushed or minced - or 2 minced green onions
Preheat oven to 375ºF. (A toaster oven works if you don't want to heat up your whole oven just for this - you may need to halve the recipe).
Whisk together all dry ingredients. In separate bowl, lightly beat eggs, buttermilk, and oil. Add jalapenos, garlic, etc., if using. Gently stir wet ingredients into dry mix, then fold in cheese.
Scoop into buttered pan or muffin tins and bake until toothpick comes out clean.
*If you don't have freshly-ground corn, try blue cornmeal (an older variety of corn with super-healthy blue pigments) or go for organic yellow cornmeal to avoid GMOs and pesticides like Roundup.
Though not officially part of my three sisters patch, this Tom Thumb popcorn was another garden highlight this year. The plants only grow to about 2 ft high so they fit nicely in the front of the tiny house. And the kernels made the most toothsome, flavourful popcorn!