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October 2014

Sweet potato heads - How to grow sweet potato slips

How to grow sweet potato slips 1. Little eco footprionts

We are growing sweet potato slips on our windowsill. Little Eco added faces to sweet potato tubers and we’re watching their roots, shoots and character grow. It’s an activity that combines creativity, nature study and growing your own food. Win-win.

How to grow sweet potato slips 2. Little eco footprionts

Sweet potatoes are typically grown from sprouts or "slips".

Slips are shoots from a mature sweet potato tuber. There are a few different ways to grow slips, but my favourite is to grow them on the windowsill where you can watch and learn.

To grow your own slips, you need organically grown sweet potato tubers – either from a store or a previous harvest. Conventionally grown sweet potatoes may have been treated to stop them sprouting.

You can leave your sweet potatoes whole or cut them in half. Place each tuber in a jar or glass and use pins or toothpicks to keep tubers suspended above the bottom. Fill with water, making sure that at least half of the tuber is out of the water.

Now comes the important bit: add faces. Forget this step and you will only grow shoots and roots – not character.

Place your tubers somewhere warm. The windowsill is ideal. Within a few days, you will see roots start to bud. Then after a week or two, shoots and leaves emerge. These are your slips.

How to grow sweet potato slips 3. Little eco footprionts

Once a slip grows to at least 10 centimetres in length, carefully remove it from the tuber by pinching and twisting at its base. You can continuously pick off slips from a tuber for months.

How to grow sweet potato slips 4. Little eco footprionts

Place slips in a jar of water to develop roots.

Once the slips have a good set of roots, they are ready to plant.

Choose a sunny spot in your garden where your sweet potato vine will have plenty of space to spread.

Prepare your soil a few weeks before planting by adding plenty of compost and a little aged manure. Ensure your soil is loose and well-drained. Avoid nitrogen-rich fertilisers and too much manure, as these will promote leaves at the expense of tubers.

Plant slips about 20 centimetres apart. Position the slip in the hole so that at least half the slip is buried. Carefully fill hole with soil and press down. Mulch and water thoroughly.

You’ll be harvesting your first sweet potatoes four to five months after planting.

Sweet potatoes need a long, hot growing season to get a good yield. Here in the Hunter and further south, start your slips as soon as possible to ensure you have a long enough growing season.

Foodie fun for kids (& adults)

For those of you with young children, your windowsill sweet potato garden provides a great nature study opportunity. Discuss the different parts of a plant (roots, stems and leaves) and sketch and label one of the tubers.

Ask your child to list all the other root vegetables they can think of.

For the more adventurous, drag all your vegetables out of the fridge, and then ask your children to name what part of the plant they are eating: root, stem, leaf, flower, seed or fruit. Given our disconnection with the production of our food - I’m guessing a few adults may even benefit from playing this game. 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 27th October 2014.

Grow your own manure: How to grow and use green manure

How to grow green manure. Buckwheat. Little eco footprints

An easy and frugal way to improve your garden soil is to grow green manure. Green manures are plants grown specifically to be composted back into the soil. They build organic matter and increase the availability of nitrogen and other nutrients. For me, their main appeal is they suit my lazy gardening style. Sowing a handful of seed, and turning the crop into the soil a month later, is far easier than bringing in barrow-loads of compost.

Green manures are a great way to help prepare your garden for a hot and dry summer.

They increase the amount of organic matter or humus in the soil, which in turn increases moisture retention.

Green manure crops can also send roots deep into the soil, opening it up and helping later crops obtain water from deeper.

My spring garden includes a patch of buckwheat and a patch of cowpea and millet combined.

How to grow green manure. Buckwheat leaves are also edible. Little eco footprints

The buckwheat was sown primarily to quickly build organic matter in a new extension to my garden. As a bonus, I’m using the leaves as a vegetable and the flowers will attract pollinators into my garden.

How to grow green manure. Sowing millet and cowpea seeds. Little eco footprints

Pairing millet and cowpea is an example of combining a grass with a legume – a common approach when growing green manures. Millet is a fast-growing grass and adds bulk organic material. Cowpea is a legume and increases nitrogen availability in the soil. Its roots form an association with soil-borne bacteria that can grab nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn into a form that can be used by the next crop.

Other warm-season green manures that can be sown now include mung bean and soybean.

Come early autumn, I’ll sow some cool-season green manures. My favourites include broad beans, mustard, vetch, rye and oats. I’m also going to try lupins for the first time. I love the idea of having a patch of this beautiful tall blue flowering plant.

To sow green manure seeds, cast them by the handful on to freshly cultivated ground.

Cover seeds lightly with a thin layer of compost or use a rake to move the soil around until all the seeds are covered.

Harvest timing is important for green manures.

Harvest just as plants start flowering and before they set seed. Once a plant produces seed, it directs all its energy to the growing seed. Given it is the leafy green growth that will help build your soil, you want to harvest when the plants are still putting most of their energy into the leaves.

Letting a green manure go to seed also risks it becoming a weed in your garden. I regret letting amaranth go to seed in my garden. It’s a useful green manure, but I’m now forever weeding it out.

There’s a range of ways you can harvest your green manure.

You can pull it out or slash it. You can leave it to compost on the soil surface, cover it with a layer of mulch, or dig it into the soil.

One of the main limitations of green manure is that you need to wait until it has broken down before sowing your next crop. This can take one to two months, depending on soil temperature and whether you bury your green manure. You can speed up the composting process by covering your green manure in mulch or digging it in.

Better than buying by the bag. 

Growing your own green manure is far more environmentally friendly than buying compost or fertiliser by the bag. Growing your own manure is the ultimate in DIY gardening.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 20th October 2014.

How to make sourdough bread from scratch

How to make sourdough bread from scratch. little eco footprints

There's a seemingly endless array of sourdough bread recipes and techniques. I found the diversity overwhelming when I first started. Sourdough baking seemed complicated and regimented. But it doesn’t have to be. Baking a loaf of sourdough can be simple and flexible.

You don’t need special ingredients. Just flour, water and a little salt. You don’t even need to buy yeast. You can capture and cultivate your very own wild yeast – typically called a 'starter'. A starter is a mix of flour and water teaming with wild yeast and bacteria.

How to create your own sourdough starter

How to create your own sourdough starter from scratch. Little eco footprints

To create your own sourdough starter from scratch, mix two cups of flour and 1.5 cups of warm water in a large glass bowl. Cover the bowl with netting and leave outside or on the kitchen bench with the window open.

Whisk at least twice a day.

Bubbles should eventually appear on the surface, indicating that you have captured wild yeast.

At this point, mix in a cup of flour and enough water to maintain consistency. Do this every day for up to a week until your starter is bubbly and a layer of foam forms on top.

Tip out some of your culture to make room when space becomes tight.

Sourdough starter. Little eco footprints

Store your starter in a jar (with lid placed on loosely) in the refrigerator and feed it each time you make a new loaf of bread.

Think of it as an ecosystem in a jar. With proper care, your starter culture should last forever.

Here are the basic steps for a simple sourdough loaf

Step 1. Make a sponge and feed your starter

Pour one cup of starter into a large bowl. Mix in two cups of flour and enough water to return to a thick batter consistency. This is your sponge.

Before putting your starter jar back in the refrigerator, feed it. Add around three tablespoons of flour and enough water to maintain the batter consistency. Leave it on the kitchen bench for a couple of hours and then return it to the fridge.

Cover your sponge and leave at room temperature for at least two hours. (It will be fine on the bench for up to eight hours. If I havn't found time to make dough within eight hours I simply feed it again, giving me another eight hours up my sleeve.)

Step 2. Make a dough

Add 3 to 5 cups of flour (depending on how large you want your loaf to be) and one teaspoon of salt to your sponge. My favourite flour is a mix of wholegrain wheat and rye.

Mix with your fingers and slowly add water until you end up with a sticky dough. 

Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth (at least 10 minutes).

Place dough in a bowl, cover with a damp tea towel and leave somewhere warm for at least a couple of hours.  

Step 3. Shape your loaf

Shaped sourdough loaf. little eco footprints

Form your loaf, tucking the edges of the dough underneath itself so that you have a smooth surface on top. Place on a tray covered with a sheet of baking paper (can be reused again and again) for a free form loaf, or into a loaf tin.

Sourdough loaf damp teatowel. Little eco footprints

Cover with a damp tea towel and leave somewhere warm for at least a couple of hours.

A short prove will result in a fluffy loaf with a mild flavour. A long prove (for example 24 hours +) will produce a dense loaf with a sour flavour. 

Step 4. Bake

Sourdough loaf slashed and ready to bake. Little eco footprints

Slash the top of your loaf using a sharp knife. Bake in a hot oven (200 to 250 degrees celcius) until your loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow when you tap its base (around 40 minutes).

Simple sourdough loaf from scratch. Little eco footprints

Leave to cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before slicing.

Experiment. Make mistakes. Learn. Enjoy.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 13th October 2014.

Last week I wrote about lessons in simple living from sourdough baking.  

Simple living lessons from sourdough

Kneading relaxation. Sourdough and simple living. little eco footprints

I've fallen in love with sourdough baking. I resisted regularly baking bread because I thought it would be a time-consuming hassle. But instead of complicating my life, sourdough baking has nourished and improved it.

Sourdough baking is similar to simple living in many ways.

Here's six lessons from sourdough that can be applied to simple living.

1. Convenience comes at a cost.

Supermarket bread is a shallow imitation of traditional sourdough bread. It's made quickly using baker's yeast - a single species of yeast selected for speed and stability. In contrast, sourdough is made slowly using a diverse mix of wild yeasts and bacteria. This diversity and time creates bread that is easier to digest, more nutritious, and has a flavour and texture that is more complex.

When we're motivated by convenience, we miss out on depth, nourishment and diversity.

2. More isn't necessarily better.

Sourdough is traditionally made using only flour, water and a pinch of salt. Whereas supermarket bread often contains a long list of ingredients. Emulsifiers are added so that dough can be processed on a large scale and not stick to machinery. Vitamins thiamin and folate are added to compensate for using refined flours. These processing aids and additives and are used to compensate for the inadequacy of factory-baked bread.

Something that's good and wholesome doesn't need additives. A person living a wholesome and meaningful life is unlikely to think that they need a whole heap of stuff be happy.

3. Be kind to yourself.

When I first started making sourdough, I used a kitchen appliance to knead. I was overwhelmed by having to learn how to maintain a starter, mix a sponge, shape, proof and bake. I didn't start kneading by hand until I felt comfortable with all the other steps.

When trying to simplify your life - be kind to yourself. Don't expect drastic change overnight. Take it slowly, one change at a time.

4. Find meaning in the doing.

Kneading dough is now one of my favourite ways to relax. Kneading provides an opportunity to meditate and strengthen my core. I focus on my posture and the dough - nothing else. I often find myself kneading at the end of a busy day when I might otherwise have been tempted to collapse in front of the TV.

Rather than search for meaning and happiness in stuff - look for meaning in doing and creating.

5. Be inspired by others - but discover what works best for you.

There's a seemingly endless number of ways to prepare sourdough bread. Everyone does it differently. I started out trying a few different recipes (I especially like the everyday sourdough recipes at Cityhippyfarmgirl and The Witches Kitchen). I then combined techniques and refined until I settled on a recipe that suits my routine and my family's current tastes.

Not everyone's simple life will look the same. Be inspired by others - but make sure your simple life reflects your priorities.

6. Experiment.

Simple living lessons from sourdough. Experimentation brings rewards. Little eco footprints

I've experimented with many aspects of sourdough baking. I've tried different combinations of flour, proof duration and baking temperatures, to name a few. I even tossed a couple of potatoes in with my loaf one day and discovered that they helped to create a beautifully baked loaf. Presumably the potatoes release steam as they cook. I now add potatoes to the oven every time I bake bread.

Experimentation is how you discover what works best for you. Don't be afraid to deviate from rules and recipes.

Next week I'll share my recipe for simple sourdough from scratch. 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 6th october 2014.