Month: June 2015

Biochar Update: Soil Sampling

Since my last update on the Biochar Student Mentoring and Participatory Learning project, we’ve made a lot of progress.  First, we planted the Year 1 crop of Red Norland potatoes on Thursday, May 14.

Sarah Planting

Potatoes in the Ground

After planting, Sarah used the tilther to weed the paths between the potatoes. (Fun fact on the tilther: We also use this tool to incorporate compost or other soil amendments just below the soil, to a depth of about 2 inches.)


Once the potato plants were large enough, we hilled the plants, this time with the aid of a couple helpers.

Hilling - Chaco and Harper

Hilling - Dan and Sarah

But what I really want to focus on is soil sampling.  Professor Tamara Benjamin from Purdue  joined us last week Friday, June 19, to work with Sarah on taking soil samples, one sample from each of the plots in the randomized block design (review: 4 of the plots have a low rate of biochar, 4 have a high rate of biochar, and 4 have no biochar).  They used a soil probe to take the samples.

Taking the Sample

Sample Close-up

Sarah with Sample Bag

These samples will be sent to A&L Great Lakes Laboratory in Fort Wayne, where they’ll be analyzed for soil nitrates, or nitrogen.  We’re looking at nitrogen for two reasons: 1) to make sure there’s enough nitrogen in the soil for the potatoes 2) to see how the different rates of biochar affect how much nitrogren is plant available.  

Field ShotThis round of soil nitrate test results will offer useful information, but not enough.  However, by taking a number of soil samples over the three years of the project from each of the six Hoosier farms spread out over the state, and by testing for a variety of nutrients, we’re hoping to get reliable data that will offer clear insights about biochar’s value to soil and plant health.

Photography: Julie Oudman Perkins

Recipe: Fresh Sour Cherry Pie

My boys have spent the last two and a half days hanging out in the sour cherry trees in our front yard.  We sampled the not-quite-ripe cherries Monday afternoon, and Tuesday morning they popped out of bed and proceeded to breakfast from the limbs of trees.

Asher 1


I joined them as soon as I could, in part so they’d stop asking me to supervise their ladder climbing to the higher branches, and in part because I love to pick fruit.  Even fruits I personally don’t care to eat, like sour cherries.

Cherries in tree

My one annual goal in regards to the cherries is to make to a pie.  One pie.  That’s it.  While I’m jealous for other fruits (strawberries, black raspberries, blueberries), I’m fine leaving all but the 5 cups I need for the pie to my boys and the birds.

But this year, making the pie was a struggle.  Last year, the cherry trees withheld their fruit, so there was no pie.  A lot has changed in two years.  My life—to put it in the positive terms recommended to me by a dear friend—is very full.  This year, as I sat at the kitchen table pitting these little cherries one-by-one, my mind raced.  Over and over, I heard this question bombarding my mind: Is this really the best use of your time?

No, it wasn’t.  Not from an economic viewpoint, or a social justice viewpoint, or practical I-have-a-household-to-run viewpoint.  Maybe it’d be different if you were making something nutritious, said that voice in my head, a sustaining meal or a salad.  But a pie?  Really?  A dessert?

Theoretically, I knew to tell that voice to shut it.  To say, Today, friends, I will do something that does not compute (thank you, Wendell Berry).  To say, There’s beauty and joy in the impractical, in growing these cherries right outside my front door, in spending the time picking and pitting, in forming the perfect crust and cooking down the cherry filling and taking that first delicious bite.

Practically, my mind says, Yeah, yeah, beauty and joy, that’s great, but you’ve got laundry to do and ideas to pitch, peas to pick and invoices to email. 

Yes, I say, acknowledging the voice.  I do have all that to do.  But “right now”—in stolen moments over the course of these two days—I’m making this pie.  I’m use the filling recipe from my mother-in-law, the crust recipe from my mother-in-law’s mother.  I’m offering taste tests to my boys.

Spoons 2

I’m sharing the finished product with my parents and my in-laws and my grandparents, those people in my life who truly love this dessert.  And, for the moment, that voice in my head is quiet as I enjoy bite after bite of impractical, delicious pie.

Pie 2

If you like’d to take the time to make this lovely pie, scroll down for the printable!

A few notes about the pie:

1) Dan’s grandma’s crust calls for 2 ½ cups Crisco, but I didn’t have that in the house, so I used 2 cups butter, ½ cup Crisco.  For health reasons, I’d recommend butter over Crisco anyway, but I wanted to give the original recipe.

2) The crust recipe makes enough for two double-crusted pies.  I divide the crust into four parts before I chill them.  Once they’re cold, I freeze two for future use.

3) If you decide to make a lattice pie crust, check out The Kitchn’s post on How to Make a Lattice Pie Crust.  This was my first time making a lattice, and their instructions were illustrated and clear.

Photography and Food Styling: Julie Oudman Perkins

Fresh Sour Cherry Pie
Cherry pie made from fresh sour cherries.
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For the crust
  1. 5 cups flour
  2. 2 ½ cups Crisco or butter
  3. 2 tsp salt
  4. 1 egg
  5. 2 tsp vinegar
  6. Cold water
For the filling
  1. 4 ½ cups fresh sour cherries, with their juice
  2. ¾ cup sugar, or less
  3. 1 Tbsp butter
  4. ¼ cup cornstarch
  5. 1/3 cup cold water
  6. ¼ tsp almond extract
For the crust
  1. Cut flour, Crisco, and salt together using a pastry blender or two knives until pea-sized consistency. Set aside.
  2. Beat egg and add vinegar. Add cold water until mixture equals 1 cup.
  3. Mix liquids with flour mixture using hand or fork. Divide into four sections. Chill at least 2 hours in wax paper.
For the filling
  1. Combine cherries, sugar, and butter in a medium-sized sauce pan. Stir.
  2. Combine cornstarch and water. Mix well. Pour mixture over cherries and stir well.
  3. Bring the cherry mixture to a boil over medium heat until thick. Remove from heat.
  4. Stir in almond extract.
For the pie
  1. Roll out one section of pie crust to about 12-inches. Press into a 9-inch pie pan, leaving about a one-inch excess over the edge.
  2. Pour filling into the crust.
  3. Roll out another section of pie crust to about 11 inches.
  4. For a double-crusted pie, place the crust on top of the filling. Roll the edges together and crimp the edges to seal.
  5. For lattice, cut into ¾-inch wide strips. Lay half the strips horizontally across the pie. Fold half the strips back on themselves. Lay one strip of pie crust vertically over the pie. Lattice one side of the pie crust, then the second half. Crimp the edges to seal.
  6. Gently brush the crust with milk or egg white. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 375 and bake another 40-50 minutes.
  1. Grandma Louise's crust calls for 2 ½ cups Crisco, but I didn’t have that in the house, so I used 2 cups butter, ½ cup Crisco. For health reasons, I’d recommend butter over Crisco anyway, but I wanted to give the original recipe.
  2. The crust recipe makes enough for two double-crusted pies. I divide the crust into four parts before I chill them. Once they’re cold, I freeze two for future use.
Perkins' Good Earth Farm
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