On starting small


As I was making strawberry jam this morning, the estimation process I was going through reminded me that this was where I began, fourteen years ago.  I’ve made it fairly clear that I think the world would be a much happier place if nearly everyone had chickens and greenhouses in their back yards, and normally walked around with dirty knees, muddy boots and juice-stained hands.  Alas, not everyone shares my dream, but more than a few of you keep coming back here to read this blog, so…I’m going to keep blathering on about the things I hold dear, like making lots of strawberry jam.

I started small.  Granted, I started as a city girl:  each spring found me at the Minneapolis Farmers’ Market trolling the aisles for the best price on the tiniest, tastiest strawberries for my year’s-worth of strawberry jam.  For myself, as a single person, four pints was sufficient to keep myself in jam.  Repeat the routine for raspberries, green beans, tomatoes and one trip per summer down to this neck of the woods for a bushel of peaches and I had (for me) a full larder, a full freezer.  My backyard garden helped with tomato and bean preservation, but my yard was far too shady and small to really have sufficiency in mind.

Fast-forward to five years ago:  we’re on a farm now, I am married and have a toddler.  The garden is in, the local fruit farms beckon with their wares, and I have started to go a little crazier in the stocking-the-larder department.  My initial aim was to have enough “usual” stuff to can and freeze, but I had no ambitions to be self-sufficient in certain things like onions, carrots, celery or even garlic.  I had dreams of a greenhouse, dreams of chickens, but this first spring I was happy just to have 1500 square feet of raised-bed gardens.  And this first spring, I put away two flats  of strawberries in jam.  Whew!  Thirty-two pints of jam!

Today I still harbor no ambition to be self-sufficient in fruit:  I can still forage or glean or even outright buy fruit at much less cost (labor) than it would take me to grow all of my own.   But vegetables?  Certainly, vegetables are do-able, and the amazing varieties of vegetables one can grow from seed should be reason enough to turn over some dirt to grow them.  Even onions and garlic became less daunting, and geez, I have even mastered leeks!  And I don’t think I will ever be satisfied with a store-bought carrot again.

Anyway, the point of all this is to just start small.  Go ahead and try to put away enough strawberry jam to last your household until next year.  Figure out how many row feet you will need to freeze enough dinner-side sized bags of green beans for a year.  Plant enough garlic to take you through from July to April, when the first heads of green garlic can greedily be pulled up and eaten.  It’s a fun game, and it will make you feel proud of yourself, seeing all those gleaming rows of jars, frozen bags, and braided ropes of garlic heads just waiting to be eaten.

15 responses to “On starting small

  1. Oh… this post spoke to me in a way that nothing else has done in a long time. I am where you were all those years ago, learning, taking baby steps, and hoping to make it through. I like your philosophy. This year I decided to focus on herbs/lettuces, eggplant, and okra (with a couple peppers and a patch of strawberries just for fun)…. and the garlic that you mentioned. Honestly, that garlic is the simplest and the most rewarding thing – the greens, the scapes, and eventually the heads….. I felt so proud when I made it through my first winter these past months exclusively off the stored food until the new veg and fruit came through.
    My goal this summer is to get a handle on canning as a method of preservation. It is daunting, but I am up for the challenge. And the thought of those summer goodness in fruit eaten in the cold days of winter is a great motivator. Lets hear it for those jars of strawberry jam!

  2. Berry picking has been on my list for over a week now. Rain won’t go away! I did pick several handfulls from my own plants this year. Sour as can be…:)but since I grew them I ate them.

    Around here we can never have to much strawberry jam.

    Ha, on the roos, isn’t that always the way. I think one of the newly hatched Java is a roo too…

  3. Awesome advice; I am just at the starting stages now and aspire to something like what you have 🙂

  4. After all my years of gardening, canning and cellaring, I have now-at age 60-decieded to try dehydrating. This weekend fruit leather (strawberry and rhubarb) and yogurt leather. Wish me well, it is a first for me.


  5. No kidding. I think where I am now (albeit in urban form) was probably inevitable given that 35 years ago, a ten year old begged until she got a garden. I think it’s intimidating for people who are new to it when they see someone up to their ears in sustainability, but every little bit helps so much, and it’s a ladder — one step easily leads to the next et voila! the world is changed.

    Thanks for your part in the change.

  6. 1500 square feet! That’s huge! I myself am a terrible terrible gardener. I just can’t make anything grow but weeds. However, now that I have thirty laying hens, I find I can trade eggs for veggies. Now I have tons of produce to can, freeze, and dehydrate.

  7. Amen. I hope to be half as successful as you have been some day. Although with a 1000 sq ft garden the first year in our new house, I fear I may have jumped in the deep end! Ah well, live and learn, and maybe take it slower next year (did I mention the chickens and ducks this year, too?) 🙂

  8. Rock Solid - Natural Stone Planters

    Well said!! I share your vision of backyard chickens and food gardens. This year I have both!! The simple pleasures in life truly need to be experience to be appreciated.

  9. this post is really making me miss my yard… i simply adored growing carrots and tried many types. my favorites were scarlet nantes and new kuroda. what types of carrots do you grow?

  10. I admire your spirit.
    How do you think this lifestyle would work for a 50 something single women?

  11. MC, glad to be a bit of a nudge for you then! Really, canning is not so hard, it’s just cooking at a bigger scale is all. I think it helps to start with manageable goals. I do know many people like to overwhelm themselves just to see if they can accomplish “it all” and that’s fine too (I used to be that way) but things do suffer from neglect that way. Don’t worry about canning; it’s pretty straightforward.

    Karyn, yeah, our sweet cherry season just got bumped up from all the rain and then heatwave we had in the last week: am I ready for cherries when I haven’t even handled all the strawberries and rhubarb yet? Oh yeah I guess I can. And yes, isn’t it funny about those silly little bantam roosters. One likes to fly up to the roof and crow: it is quite the little stereotype!

    Jedidja: well, baby steps! Really, it gets easier the more you do, but like anything, you gotta take at LEAST that first step, right? Have lots of fun, okay?

    Linda I confess I haven’t done terribly much in the way of dehydrating either (we’re so damp here that it’s kind of hard to do naturally) but now the school’s kitchen’s dehydrator is taking up space in my pantry so we’ll see how that goes. Fruit leather is really quite easy and really quite tasty. Yogurt fruit leather!! And your climate would lead to lots of natural drying too, so look into that too; maybe you can get your handy hubby to build you a solar dehydrator with some left-over window screens and scrap wood.

    Stef my sentiments exactly. We all need to start somewhere, and whether it was at somebody’s side modeling their behavior or if it is a reaction to all that’s happened before then it does not matter: follow your own path, but do take a stab at things. Jumping in the deep end is bound to cause frustration, so…I advocate manageable tasks, at first, then really the world is open. Then the world is greenhouses and chicken coops!

    Aimee, know thy strenghts, eh? Frankly gardening is 95% observation, so all it really takes is paying attention. But hey you found such an amenable alternative!

    Sparow, well wow! I waited ’til Year Two for poultry. See how it goes before you think about scaling back: it might be that you really hit a good stride with all that’s happening. And consider this: you won’t be building chicken coops every year (hopefully) so all that time can go into other things, like, taking it easy!

    RS, good for you! I do like how having these things forces me to kind of slow down and watch, it’s really the very meaning of being “grounded.” Then I shake myself out of it and grab my hoe or run back into the kitchen with something else to can…

    Denise, I grow all different kinds. Our clay soil is slightly unforgiving unfortunately. Probably my favorite is an Italian seed called Flakee which is long and lean, but the best carrots in my opinion are ones I harvest out of the greenhouse in the winter: they’re so sweet and tender after that chill. Sorry to make you miss those gardens, though; you have what I don’t though which is great restaurants and culture in walking distance!

    Bonnie! Even better: see, here I have to juggle two other people’s food preferences and feel compelled as chief nutritionist to mix things up at the dinner table. Should I be growing just for myself then whole dinners would be nothing but a big pot of steamed broccoli with herbed garlic butter. In other words, doing for yourself is really a lot more…dare I say it hedonistically fun?? If it were up to me we would eat beets EVERY DAY. Ah well.

  12. So true, El!
    one step at a time to get comfortable with what seemed dauting before… and now, one realizes: whoa I can do this. Hey, I even like it.

    I don’t always respond to your posts, but I read them regularly and I am often inspired or “re-motivated”. Thank you.

  13. I agree! It’s so easy to make a batch of jam or plant a few strawberry plants in your flower beds. I always tell people to grow a tomato plant in a bit pot by the front or back door. That usually gets people excited about growing some of their own food.

  14. On strawberries, last year I got overenthused, brought 4 or 5 flats of strawberries back to the house from a nearby pick-your-own place. Way too many pounds! We made many jars of strawberry jam and stored boxes of frozen berries. Then found out that we didn’t really like strawberry jam very well – just too, too, sweet. And we are still trying to work our way thru the boxes of frozen strawberries. We still have a couple or so left one year later. And that’s not counting the raspberries and blueberries. Oh, yeah, we need to be a little more conservative. Way too much of our freezer was taken up with boxes of berries.

  15. Starting small is the best way to go 🙂 We got chickens this year and hope to branch out just a little bit every year from here on out. Too much too fast would overwhelm me haha!

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