Spring Foraging Run in Indiana

spring countryside in Indiana

Looks like nothing but grass and trees, most of it private land where you can’t go. You’ll find abundant food on the borderlands. Keep an eye on the treeline, pilgrim.

Winter hit me pretty hard this year, mentally and physically. I kept hoping for Spring but it never seemed to get here, even the few warm days didn’t seem to have any sticking power. A couple of days ago I woke up grumbling and creaky and for some reason, things started to happen. I put up the hummingbird feeder — it’s been cold enough that I expected the hummers to stay south for a bit, but maybe they would be here soon. I checked the asparagus bed, found nothing; took a trip to the state park to look for morels, found nothing. I truly mean nothing, in terms of fungi, usually I find mushrooms of all sorts there and come home with something to eat, even if not morels. This year, nothing.

After I came home, my neighbor knocked on the door and handed me a couple of morels he found at the end of the driveway. People are finding them along the roads this year, not in the woods. Who’d have thought? So, I went running, thinking I might come across some myself.

asparagus in grass

Serpentine? Phallic? Whatever it resembles, when the grass is a foot tall and the asparagus is 14 inches, it’s easy to find and also delicious.

Although I didn’t find morels, I did find some pretty neat things. There’s more food than I could possibly eat, growing along the roads this time of year. OK, I wouldn’t eat the turtle or the crayfish unless I absolutely had to, and the wild lettuce and dandelions are the sort of thing I just nibble on in passing, but there’s a lot of food to be had in the untended strips of land where anything grows. I came back with enough for the rest of the work week, and I have plenty more in the garden just in case I need it. Picked my first collards yesterday, when most people haven’t even planted any. If things want to grow, I let them grow. Collards are tough enough to overwinter.

Shepherd's purse blooming

Yes, it’s pretty, but can you eat that? You’d better consult an Audobon guide if you’re going to eat something like Shepherd’s Purse. The leaves and flowers of this wild radish are edible, not bad but not great, and it’s easy to mix them up with several kinds of poisonous plants like buttercups. Crush a leaf, smell it. If it smells bad, move on. No reason to risk yourself for a radish.

box turtle on the road

During my crossing of the great asphalt desert a fearsome giant approached me and carried me high into the air! I struggled fiercely and broke away, escaping into the lush undergrowth beyond the tall grass. The Turtle Clan will always speak of Flat Shell and his battle with the giant!

Wild onions

Wild onions, they’re everywhere here. They don’t die when RoundUp hits the fields, they just die back. In the late winter, every corn and soybean field turns green with wild onions, not grass. At the edge of the fields you can dig all the wild onions you want. The leaves are tough but the bulbs are tasty. Nothing better than a soup of wild onions, tofu, celery leaves and a little real soy sauce or miso. OH SO GOOD!

wild garlic bed

Looks like grass, but it’s not grass. Indiana hard-stem garlic grows in the worst of places. Dig down where this lush bed of flourishing garlic grows and you’ll find gravel. In between the gravel you’ll find rotted leaves and other organic debris, plus some really great, oily and delicious garlic bulbs. Gardeners could take a lesson from this, it’s not the clay that makes a garden. Gravel and compost grow good foods. Lots of air and excellent drainage.

crayfish mud mound

Last year the crayfish built towers that were were nearly flat to the ground and we had an amazing drought. This year the crayfish are building towers six to eight inches high, maybe taller if given time. Are they building against the rain we’ve had? or the rain to come? Interesting, this fellow closed his door already. (Yes, they are delicious, but digging them out is hard work).

garlic greens

You can buy a bundle of watery tasteless green onions at the store, or you can grab a bunch of spring garlic shoots at the roadside. One grew in herbicide and fertilizer, the other grew in gravel and the residue of roadkill. The latter is better, in nourishment and in flavor. Garlic greens used to be a popular vegetable, but few people eat them now.

After all that I set up the grill to cook the week’s meat, and while I was doing that Hummingbird showed up at the feeder. If Hummingbird is here, it’s Spring. At last.

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Growing Tropical Taro in Temperate Indiana

taro in indiana garden

Two taro corms set in a large planter in a weedy corner of the garden did better than anything else there, including the weeds.

Everyone who grows their own food wants to grow something different from time to time. I’m always trying to grow new things, including tropical plants. After spending much time in the tropics I came back with all sorts of hungers for fruits and vegetables I can’t find here. It’s kind of like the tropics are really home, with all the food we instinctively miss.

Northern gardeners interested in tropicals often choose figs. Fig trees can survive freezing temperatures but only if you go to unusual means to protect them, like bringing them indoors for the winter or toppling the bush, burying it under several inches of earth, and mulching it deeply. (In the spring, you dig the bush out and pull it upright). That’s a lot of work to do for a few figs. Citrus fruits and even hardy bananas can survive northern winters, if you choose dwarf plants and grow these tropicals in containers, but you won’t get large crops that way. In the Ozarks I tried papayas one summer and got seven foot tall plants like small palm trees, with fruit reaching about 1/4 mature size as cold weather set in. Not bad for an outdoor planting, and of course with a greenhouse it’s more possible. Growing tropical plants up north, though, usually isn’t practical. It’s just a hobby.

starting a container planting of taro

The taro sprouted indoors as soon as the pot warmed up, and after the last frost I moved it to the garden.

Taro does surprisingly well up here, however, with only a little extra help, and it does produce food in useful quantities. After growing it for a few years I suspect that I’ll eventually do better with taro than with potatoes. Potatoes are a gamble for me, and only the early varieties have a chance of producing before the hot weather puts a halt to the potato season. Taro thrives in the heat, providing a leafy harvest through the summer and starchy corms something like potatoes in the fall. All I need are enough storage bins to build a small, well-drained swamp, and that’s not really impossible. I’m partway there already and this year my garden will have a full row of taro plants for the first time, using corms I grew myself.

Taro grows naturally in warm swampy areas, although some varieties thrive in wet semitropical mountain climates. Both wetland and upland taro tolerate very wet conditions, so overwatering rarely causes problems. Cold temperatures and heavy soil present the greatest risk to taro survival and bountiful harvests. Occasionally when a taro plant gets too much water, an older corm rots, but part of the corm usually survives the mistake and resumes normal growth.

taro container planting

In the fall I moved the taro pot to a sunny spot on the deck, where it stayed until after the first frost.

Instead of growing taro directly in the garden I’ve planted this prolific vegetable in large containers, set in trenches during the hottest months, to conserve moisture and protect the roots from temperature extremes. Moving the containers to warmer areas in the fall extends the growing season. The first year I grew taro, I knew very little about it. Planting it directly in the soil failed several times, but we did succeed one year and had a nice row of taro growing along the edge of the deck, until the weather turned cold. Taro is a very beautiful landscaping plant, similar to elephant ear. At the end of the season, in direct plantings, we saw a ring of small corms developing around the original rootstock, but didn’t think they were large enough to eat.

Planted in large pots or in rectangular plastic storage bins with four 1/4 inch holes drilled in the bottom for drainage, taro flourishes here. I planted corms I bought in a local Asian grocery, not nursery stock. If you do this, look for fresh corms without shriveling or discoloration. Taro might stay on the store shelves weeks longer than it should, and aged corms are often infested with mold. Trimming out the damaged parts might save the plant, but corms in flawless condition make much better planting stock.

growing taro in a drought

To get last year’s plants through 100 degree plus heat I set the planters in a trench and banked the containers with hay. Edges of the leaves still burned a bit.

Storage in a cool humid area preserves the roots and maintains dormancy until the weather warms. For a growing medium you might try a rich potting soil, but I’ve also had success with layers of garden soil and rotting leaves, using whatever the garden provides for those rotting organic layers of swamp. Adding some potting soil to our heavy clay certainly improves the mix. Taro sprouts indoors when given sufficient warmth and light, but don’t move the plants outside until the ground warms and all frost is past.

Watering on alternate days helps the plants endure hot midwestern summers. Overwatering isn’t a serious problem, since taro grows in flooded soil as well as in well-watered soil, but the quality of water does matter. Stagnant water and poor drainage fosters rot in the taro corms.  Taro grows best when frequently flooded and drained.

kalo loi field at harvest

Growing kalo loi taro in Hawaii. That’s a really nice swamp. Photo by Marshman at en.wikipedia; CC License 3.0

Even tropical plants can suffer in extreme heat, and the taro here developed burned leaf edges when temperatures exceeded 100 degrees F last year. Daily watering kept them going when very little else in the garden was actually growing. The plants recovered fully in the cooler temperatures of early fall. Throughout the summer I harvested leaves and stems for cooked greens, and in the fall I set aside part of of the corm harvest for the table, overwintering the rest in bins of damp leaves for replanting next year.

taro in grocery

Taro stems for sale at a California grocery. Even one container planting provides an abundance of stems and leaves. Photo by ChildofMidnight at en.wikipedia; CC License 3.0

If you haven’t grown up with taro, you probably won’t know how to cook it properly. If you eat any part of the plant raw, you’ll suffer from an intensely burning swollen throat, somewhat like eating poison ivy salad with chili pepper dressing. Eating bananas or drinking milk should halt the unpleasant side effects, but this is not a plant to sample casually. Boiling the roots or leaves for an hour destroys most of the plant’s irritants, but steaming works even better and takes less cooking time. As a canned leafy vegetable, processed at temperatures over 212 degrees F, taro is even safer. Think of it as a thick cooked spinach, with a slightly gelatinous texture similar to seaweed. Eat the corms like potatoes, steamed in their skins and peeled afterward. Cook the smaller corms whole, but quarter the large ones to ensure even cooking. Taro corms have a slightly nutty flavor and a creamy consistency, substituting for potatoes in many familiar dishes.

taro corms

Taro needs two years to produce corms for harvest, and even in Indiana it’s possible. Photo by Yongxinge at Wikimedia Commons; CC License 3.0

When harvesting and processing taro, handle it carefully and don’t get the sap on your bare skin. Taro sap can cause skin irritation and some people may be more sensitive than others. So far I’ve had no problems. Traditional taro growers advise trimming off the tip of the taro leaf as well as the lower stem. The thickest part of the stem has more fiber and less flavor, while the tip of the leaf might contain more of the irritating chemical that makes raw taro an inedible plant.

To me, the best thing about taro is the beautiful way it grows. When nothing else in the summer garden does anything but struggle and even the weeds go dormant in the heat, taro is a giant cluster of vigorous green leaves swaying in the wind. Even if you don’t eat it, you’ll like taro.


Harvesting, Cooking and Eating Taro

Taro, Toxic When Raw

Taro Roots on Amazon

Books on Growing Tropicals


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Setting the Time and Date on Your New Spypen

At first I thought I wouldn’t bother setting the date on my new Spypen, but I noticed when reading through customer reviews that some people had a lot of trouble doing this. After reading the instructions, I can certainly understand why. I didn’t have a problem with this, but I guess that’s because since the 70′s I’ve shopped at lot of local Asian groceries from The House of Rice in Seattle to the Asian Market in Bloomington, with stops in Little Rock, Springfield and all sorts of unexpected places in between. I always check the back shelves where Asian shopkeepers put the odd products they bought wholesale for next to nothing. They often seem like good deals, and if you buy them now and then you get pretty good at deciphering Chinglish, the modern version of pidgin English that is the language of Asian electronic products built on the cheap. Chinglish may someday become the world’s most common language, so learning to comprehend it rather than just read it is a good thing to do. Someday all instruction manuals will be written in Chinglish. Here’s an example, from the instruction sheet for the Business Portable Recorder 6, or Spy Pen:

spy pen time and date instructions

Instructions for setting time and date on the Spy Pen pencamera.

“Y” and “N” is the time to show a sign of character — how true that is :).

First of all, ignore almost all of that. To read Chinglish you must open your third eye and see beyond the words to the thoughts of the original author. Most of the instructions apply only to the author’s understanding of the problem, not to what is actually in the product. It’s really much more simple than this document implies. When you connect the Spy Pen to your PC and choose View Files, you get this:

spy pen root directory

Spy pen provides two folders — Photos and Videos — and one text document entitled Time.

To set the time, you only need to open and edit the text document in this directory, but it’s actually a little trickier than you would think. The one line of text refers to the boot time of the pen’s computer. Originally my spy pen thought it was 2008, probably the year of the pen’s manufacture. The Time document says 2012-05-01 23:59:59 and reverts to that even after you’ve modified, saved and rebooted the pen. I don’t know why that happens, but I did manage to reset the time stamp.

Change the 2012-05-01 23:59:59 in the Time document to read the current date in year/month/day format and the current time in 24 hour mode, hour/minute/second. Save the document changes. Use the Safely Remove Hardware wizard to disconnect the camera and manually disconnect the pen from the USB cable. Take a few photos and check them out, your pen cam should now be labeling things nearly correctly. The time change doesn’t take effect until you disconnect the camera pen from your PC.

Click on the photo below for a look at the complete Spy Pen Instruction manual:

spy pen manual

The complete instruction for the Business Portable Recorder 6 Spy Pen.

The instructions may refer to the first spy pen of a series. I’ve found no way to use the spy pen as a webcam, and there is no “long bright yellow light” for example. You’ll be glad you have it, though, since “It is simple, sleek, beautiful and practical, easy to carry, business, education, security, media, justice, tourism, health, life and other areas of essential utilities, by the majority of users.” Yes, it is the most wonderful pen.

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