The desert surprises me on almost a daily basis. I originally came from a rainy climate where the soil was fertile, and everything seemed to grow on its own. I didn’t fully appreciate this until I moved to a Mediterranean climate where the soil wasn’t easily coaxed into growing things. But that’s OK. Each place has its own attributes, its own pros and cons.
One big pro of our new desert home is the mesquite trees. Indigenous peoples in the southwestern United States used mesquite for many things – food and medicine, and a source of wood for bows, arrows, sewing needles, and other implements. They ground the dried seedpods into flour using a stone mortar and pestle, then mixed the protein-rich, gluten-free flour with water and formed it into cakes before baking them in clay ovens. They also made mush with mesquite flour, or mixed the meal with water for a nourishing drink.
Several species of mesquite trees are native to the area spanning Southern California to Texas, and from the Mexican border as far north as Kansas and Missouri. Where I live in Arizona, the most common are honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and velvet mesquite (P. velutina). The latter grows on our property.
Seedpods hang from our trees between June and September and are ready to harvest beginning in mid-July. Ready-to-process honey mesquite pods are light-tan in color and should be picked when they’re dry and brittle. Velvet mesquite pods look similar, but are mottled-red.
I don’t collect seedpods from the ground, because they can harbor a mold that produces aflatoxin. This toxic substance is present after the pods get wet, so I also avoid picking pods immediately after a rain. I choose pods that release from the tree easily; if they nearly fall into my hand, they’re ready to harvest. I also avoid those with mildewy or moldy coloring.
I process only pods with little holes in them, which means the mesquite beetles have hatched and departed. If there aren’t holes, beetles may still be inside – but don’t be concerned if you eat insects! A 5-gallon bucket filled to the top with mesquite seedpods will yield about 1 pound of flour.
Grinding Your Own Mesquite Flour
- Allow the pods to dry thoroughly before processing. If they’re still a bit green, be sure to dry them in the oven, a dehydrator on very low heat, or spread out in the sun for a few hours. Mesquite pods are completely dry and ready to process into flour if they snap when you bend them.
- Break the dried pods into small pieces, and place them into the grinder of your choice. A grain mill works best, in my experience, because it has the power to grind the tough pods. You can also use a food processor or blender, but be sure to start processing on low to avoid scratching the container.
- The first grinding will produce a coarse flour that contains pieces of whole pod and seed. Use a fine-mesh sifter or sieve to remove the chaff from the flour. Set aside the chaff for your compost heap. Keep grinding and sifting until the pods have been milled into a powder.
- Store mesquite flour in a lidded glass jar in a cool, dark place. The flour should stay fresh for up to six months.
Mesquite flour has an earthy sweetness. Its flavor resembles that of chocolate. Because mesquite flour is gluten-free, you’ll need to mix it with wheat flour if you want to bake bread or other recipes requiring glutinous flour. For example, a recipe that calls for 1 cup whole-wheat flour can be altered to use 1/4 to 1/2 cup mesquite flour, and the rest of the cup made up of whole-wheat flour. Feel free to experiment with your favorite recipes.
I make buttermilk pancakes with my home-ground mesquite flour by using 1/2 cup mesquite flour to 1 cup whole-wheat flour. The mesquite flour imparts a kind of chocolaty, caramelly flavor that I find absolutely delicious!
If mesquite trees don’t grow in your area but you want to try cooking with the flour, a few companies sell mesquite flour online.
A Juicy Proposition
My family operates a small jam and jelly business. Jam tastes delicious, but jelly is my favorite to make. Although producing a translucent jelly requires extra time and effort, nothing can surpass the deep flavor of red plum jelly, in my opinion.
One problem with jelly-making is that we always have a couple of cups of juice left over after straining out the fruit pulp. Because we don’t want to waste anything in our household, we pour the extra juice into canning jars and process it in a water bath. (The National Center for Home Food Preservation at recommends processing pints of grape juice for 5 minutes at sea level, or 10 minutes above 6,000 feet in elevation.) We don’t mix sugar or water into our leftover juice.
When we gather more fruit later, the previously canned juice will give us a head start on jelly-making. Additionally, you can use the canned juice to flavor homemade cakes, stir it into Greek yogurt with oats for a healthy breakfast, or simply drink it.
Water from Air
My plants and yard birds always need water during summer’s hot, humid weather. So, I place a container below the drip pipe of my air-conditioning unit to catch the humidity the unit removes from the air. The birds drink from this cool water all day long. When the container is full, I use it to water my hydrangeas. Then, I return it to its original place beneath the unit to continue to capture condensation. Nothing goes to waste on my property!
Gift from Neptune
To some beachgoers, clumps of seaweed are a smelly eyesore. But I consider them garden gold – an awesome gift from Neptune. Seaweed is a sustainable, free resource, and, depending on the type, it can be rich in protein, some vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants.
I recently brought home a basket of miscellaneous seaweed, rinsed it in the driveway with a garden hose, and dumped it into a 6-quart stockpot. I filled the pot with water, added a lid, and set it aside to ferment.
After a month, I noticed lots of little bubbles and a funguslike fuzz floating on top, so I cracked the lid to allow the flow of fresh air. The fuzz disappeared within a few days.
The seaweed had completely dissolved after six weeks. I poured the nutrient-rich fertilizer “tea” into recycled juice bottles. The odor was surprisingly mild. I apply this brew to my vegetable garden once a month. The plants seem to love it!
Next time, I’ll cut the seaweed into small pieces to speed up the fermenting process.
Morro Bay, California
Perfect Peppers Preserved
My bell peppers usually all mature at the same time. I wash and dry the best, cut them in half, remove the membrane and seeds, slice them into thin strips, place them on parchment-lined cookie sheets, and then freeze them for an hour or two.
When the pepper strips are partially frozen, I slice an onion into similarly sized strips and mix it with the peppers. Then, I transfer everything to 1-gallon storage bags and place the bags in the freezer. The frozen pepper-onion mix stays good for up to a year, and I use it in fajitas, stews, omelets, and stir-fries.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
I keep a large pail directly beneath the umbrella hole of the patio table on my back deck. Quite a bit of rainfall is funneled into the bucket during downpours, enough to water my container flowers and tomatoes most of the time. I secure a piece of mosquito netting over the top of the bucket with clothespins to keep it from becoming a mosquito farm.
Mary Veazey Clark
Southwest Greensburg, Pennsylvania
Wild rabbits like to eat my garden plants here in the Pacific Northwest. After a kind neighbor gave me several tomato cages, I upcycled them into cloches by cutting them in half and wrapping them in chicken wire. They work well at protecting young plants.
Ward Off Wasps
We’ve found an inexpensive, nontoxic way to eliminate yellow jackets from our home. We fill a 32-ounce plastic spray bottle with cool water. Next, we add 50 drops of organic peppermint essential oil and shake gently. Daily, we open each window and thoroughly spray the screen. We used to have up to 50 wasps a day crawling everywhere inside our home, including on the kitchen and bathroom cabinets. This year, by spraying the window screens daily with this concoction, we’ve had no wasps at all!
Home and Dry
I use an upcycled plastic lid from an ice cream tub to prevent debris from getting into the open top of my chicken feeder. You can do the same by cutting a slot into the center of a lid, and then slipping it over the bucket handle. This method blocks dirt, snow, and rain, and the lid is easy to remove for refilling the feeder.
The sun is intense where I live in New Mexico, at 7,000 feet in elevation. By using upcycled fake flowers, I’ve been able to grow zinnias from seeds in pots for the first time.
I place the artificial flowers in containers planted with seeds or seedlings, or I shove their stems into the ground next to new plants.
The upcycled flowers provide protection for young plants from the sun, wind, hard rain, sleet, and hail. I’ve found they also form a canopy to help with frost protection, and they’re a visual reminder to me to water my seeds and seedlings.
Tijeras, New Mexico
Hand-y Stain Remover
Here’s my technique for removing the stain black walnuts leave on my hands.
After I’ve gathered and husked the walnuts, I cut open a green tomato and rub the cut surface on my stained hands before I wash them. I’ve discovered that the juice of the green tomato neutralizes the stain and clears it when I wash up. This is a good use for golf-ball-sized tomatoes left on the vines at the end of the vegetable-growing season. I just pop a couple of them into my pocket when I go to gather the nuts.
Cameron, West Virginia
I was inspired by an article about a greenhouse that supplied tomatoes to restaurants. The staff trained their plants to grow up strings. I decided this technique could be a timesaver over tying plants to a stake.
Because I had several old, unused ladders lying around, I decided to use them to make a support system for my plants. I set up stepladders at the ends of the row, and then zip-tied an extension ladder across the top. I then tied strings off the bottom of the extension ladder for training the plants. This setup works great!
Paul S. Ward
It’s easy to make a compost bin that you can move to a garden spot where you’ll want to spread compost sometime in the future.
Simply take up an old, discarded trash container with a good set of wheels, and drill five 1/2-inch holes into the bottom and ten 1⁄2-inch holes randomly on each side. Your compost bin doesn’t need a lid.
Add organic materials to the bin and wait. When the compost has decomposed enough to be spread into your garden, simply wheel the bin into your plot and unload it. This project has saved both time and energy in my garden.
Stemming the Elderberry Tide
The hardest part about elderberry harvest used to be getting the little stem off each berry. After harvesting the heads, I’d immediately place them inside a large, clean bag and pop it into the freezer. Once frozen, the little berries would come right off the large stems. But the tiny sticks were still hanging tough.
I’ve since discovered a method for removing the little stems. I place the frozen berries in a large stockpot over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. As the berries begin to thaw and break down, the stems will stick to the spoon! I then rinse the spoon and stir again, over and over.
Newport, New York
Save Your Green Thumbs
I have a couple of ideas to improve gardening for fellow readers. To make the wooden handle on my old shovel easier to grasp, I slit a length of bicycle tube and then wrapped it around the grip area.
Also, instead of carrying separate buckets of produce out of the garden during harvest, I place the buckets onto a child’s plastic toboggan I bought for a couple of bucks at an auction.
Lehigh Acres, Florida
We bought some fruiting trees and vines to plant at our new residence, Nettlesnook Homestead. I like to label plants, but I dislike plastic tags on trees, because I think they’re unattractive, and the tree trunk quickly outgrows the tag. I decided to make my own aluminum tags instead of purchasing expensive ready-made ones. This is a quick and easy project that requires only aluminum cans and floral wire.
First, I cut open the aluminum cans with regular kitchen shears. Then, I used a ruler and permanent marker to mark where I wanted to cut out the tags. I was able to fit five 1-1/2-by-3-1/2-inch strips on each aluminum can. Following the marked lines, I carefully cut out each tag.
Next, I used the straight edge of my ruler to fold over about 1/8 inch on all edges of the tags, folding the metal toward the printed side of the can. This produced nice-looking edges that weren’t sharp. So I could hang the tags on the trees, I punched a hole on one end and looped a 12-inch length of floral wire through it.
To finish the labels, I wrote the tree name and the year we planted it with a regular pen, which indented the writing on the aluminum label.
I’m so pleased that I could make use of trash discarded on the side of the road to create something beneficial and attractive for our garden.
I usually wear my clothes well past the point of acceptability as charitable donations or hand-me-downs. As a result, the standard path has been to turn old, threadbare clothing into rags. Over the years, though – particularly as the family has grown and larger items, like sheets and towels, have made their way into the rag bin – we’ve acquired so many rags we’ll never get through them all.
So, I came up with an alternative.
Now, when my garments are just about ready for the rag bin, I toss them into a suitcase I keep on the top shelf of the closet for future use as “disposable clothes.” Whenever we travel, I wear those items one last time, but instead of taking them home, they get left behind. This frees up room in the suitcase for souvenirs and reduces the post-vacation laundry load.
Note that this trick is probably best suited for undergarments and sleepwear, unless you don’t mind presenting a bedraggled appearance on holiday.
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