Category Archives: school garden

On winter squash…in winter

Congratulations!  8lb, 1oz and 18 1/2″ long…pink banana squash!

One astute commenter noted that my family’s probably not hurting for Vitamin A in our diets, what with the monster winter squash harvest this year.  And it’s true, we’re awash in the things.  It’s okay, really it is, especially since the school garden’s squash patch was a bust (deer predation) so I have a…somewhat willing population to whom I can feed the things.  AND:  happily:  all our animals (except T-bell the goat) eat squash.

Surprisingly easy to slice, especially when you have a great hand-made chopper like this one

I do love squash, always have.  But I find that, as a gardener, my esteem of any one vegetable goes up or down in direct proportion to how well it grows for me.  Squash is quite the flatterer, so…I love it.  I’ve got a very fox-and-the-grapes attitude about things that don’t grow so well for me (i.e.,”bah, Brussels sprouts, who needs ’em) and it proves to me that if nothing else I am terribly…human.

The now-indispensable food mill.  Usually reserved for separating tomatoes from their seeds and peels, and stewed whole apples during the saucing sessions, I realized how handy this thing was once I killed my immersion blender.  It’s now out all the time, especially to cream hot soups and hot squash.  And, unlike the damned hand-held stick blender, I could never break this thing.

But my family is on the “likes” squash part of the spectrum:  it ain’t “love.”  I therefore only feed them one squash per week, if that.  Mostly, we love creamy squash soup (with a splash of curry), but it also finds its way into baked goods.  Only butternut is tolerated in other forms (pan-roasted, say; or candied) and luckily I planted plenty of those, too.

5 cups of puree for us people!  The basement worms get the skins, the poultry and bunnies vie for the seeds and pulp…a true no-waste food.

Sunday, though, I brought out one of the pink bananas.  They were one of the first escape artists of the squash patch (up and over the fence, 16′ away) and one plant put out, what, three squash total of similar size to this one.  They’re really easy to cut up (bonus!) and I found the chickens and turkeys appreciated the seeds and pulp if I chopped it for them.  I baked these, cut-side down, arranged diagonally across my two largest rimmed cookie sheets.  Scooped, run through the food mill, and sweet!  Its great advantage appears to be its readiness to be cut into rings, and baked a la most acorn squash.  It did take a bit longer to fruit out than many of the other winter squash I had, and Fedco says it is not terribly reliable in really short summer areas but, well…if you like winter squash, you might want to try to grow this one this year.

Dark Days challenge, week one

To start off this challenge with a big bang, how about a local dinner for 50?


Granted, this dinner was in the works long before I signed up for the Challenge.  As some of you may know, I am very involved with food and food issues at our daughter’s school.  We have a garden, we source local foods, we spend the entire summer (or so it seemed) picking and freezing fruit, canning jams and salsas and pickles for the school’s Slow Snack program.  This dinner was a big “thank you” for those intrepid tomato-stained volunteers as well as for our darling teachers and students.  Mid-morning every day, the classes have Snack as an appreciation of sharing, the courtesy involved with it, and the appreciation of food.  It’s really just a bite or two of something good, but the big news this year is  Snack now includes Friday Classroom Snack.  On Thursday afternoon, the teachers come to our full pantry to get the foodstuffs and equipment (electric skillet, crockpot, toaster oven, bread machine, etc.) to prepare the day’s snack with the children.  Stone Soup is often an option.  Dal, chili, applesauce; corn pudding, whole-wheat bread, pumpkin cheesecake; zucchini muffins, colcannon, hummus have all been made in the classrooms this fall.  Whew!

_DSC9943We held the party at a 1930s lodge in a local park.  Beautiful day in the 60s, everyone played until supper

This dinner was a bit more simple.  Mostly, meat was on the menu.  I roasted one each of our geese and chickens, a friend roasted a local organic turkey.  For the vegetarians, I made two frittatas with eggs and goodies from our home gardens (red pepper/potato/garlic with Wisconsin cheddar, leek/chard with EverGreen Lane Farm goat cheese).  Kielbasa sausage from an Amish farmer across the border in Indiana went on the grill.  Two butternut squash got sacrificed for some soup.  I made two loaves of whole-wheat bread (hard red spring from Ferriss Organic Farm, Eaton Center MI) and the middle schoolers made rosemary foccacia with flour from the same place.  Salads weren’t local but were made in the spirit of “Slow Snack,” as were the roasted sweet potatoes and cornbread.  Local wine, some even homemade, for the adults; local cider from Grandpa’s.

I’m sure I am forgetting something!

But…it was tasty.

On Moving Day

P1010692Yesterday was Move the Squash Day.  I left them to ripen/cure in the greenhouse for a couple of weeks, but the mice have developed a serious affinity to those of the pie pumpkin family so it’s in to the house they all go.

P1010695Here’s a closer pic of the wheelbarrowload of blues.  In here you’ll find the Oregon heirloom Sweet Meat (bottom left), the familiar Blue Hubbard (dead center, top right and middle right), and the unfamiliar folded-over three-lobed Triamble, from seed from this crazy woman in Oakland.  The little green squash is actually an unripe Triamble.  Not seen, but buried, is a Jarrahdale Blue, an Australian heirloom.  Having eaten none of them, I was most impressed with the Triamble; the Jarrahdale and Sweet Meat were all hat and no cattle, if you know what I mean.  The Hubbards were volunteers.

P1010698Next up is the load of orange squash.  The big ones are Galeux d’Eysenes, surprisingly wart-free; the greens are unripe pie pumpkins and there are also a couple of kuri/kabocha squash in here too.  The yellow one in the center?  That’s (seriously) an eight-ball zucchini.  Whoops!

P1010706Last up is the butternut squash.  It was a good year for butternuts.

We had an early-ish frost here, followed by lots of rain:  both conditions seriously disrupt a winter squash’s ability to live a long sweet life in storage, so I harvested everyone about three weeks ago.  Many, many people will tell you that “a little frost” will not unduly injure your squash, to which I say either they are compulsive liars or that the sole exception to this rule is (and only is) my one small squash-growing patch on this planet.  Therefore, I harvest once the temperature drops, the stormclouds threaten.

I like squash, as you can see.  It’s not all for me, though.  The deer got our garden at school, so many of these beauties are destined for schoolchildren’s tummies.

On Erdkinder


Grape harvest with the Middle Schoolers

Maria Montessori, when studying early adolescents, realized that there was much in the way to teaching them academics.  Rapidly growing bodies and minds and the distractions associated with both made for some tough going book learning, so she figured out a way to “teach” these children by radically changing their environment.  The environment she selected was Erdkinder, “earth children,” in reality, farm school.

_DSC7383Middle-school aged children, therefore, were to live and work on a farm.  Under the tutelage of adult farmers, the children would be able to see how the business of a farm worked, and thus learn the math, chemistry, biology, marketing, and various skills associated with a productive farm livelihood.

_DSC7451Early adolescence is a tough time all around.  Frankly, I do not think I learned a thing between 12 and 14, except how to get into trouble. Becoming aware of yourself in the scheme of the world, the great “what do I do, what do I know” abstraction that is oncoming adulthood:  it’s tough, especially when you have one foot still firmly planted in childhood.  Erdkinder removed that abstraction, because earth children were valuable assets to the farm. The responsibilities assumed by the children were adult ones, thus creating an immense sense of accomplishment, and an immense boost to the children’s self-esteem.

_DSC7425And strategizing the picking, figuring mechanical things out (like the grape squisher above), working together to accomplish these tasks, getting over one’s fear of bees and bugs, and then figuring out how to market their harvest of juice:  granted, they’re not LIVING at our farm but they certainly learned from it.

I have a feeling they’ll be back.


On being wrapped up


Some of the 150 pounds are dehydrated, some in salsa, some in jam, but most are still frozen for future snacks

Passion is a curious thing.  Its pursuit, on occasion, excludes all other things, and this can be a problem.

I’m not doing any on-the-couch time, no analysis here, but my passion for good, real food has led me to be a bit nutty as far as volunteering for our daughter’s school goes.  I am not at the point of needing an intervention, but doing the school garden and rethinking how the school supplies, cooks, and distributes its food to the children has been a rather time-consuming affair for me these last few months.

Both gardens are weedy, but both populations (home and school) are well-fed due to my efforts, as well as the efforts of many others.

Here’s the passion:  I feel absolutely HORRIBLE, and sorry, for people who aren’t eating the way my family eats.  Is this some kind of epicurean snobbery?  No.  Simply, we eat fresh, whole foods, year-round.  Minimal processing, minimal transport, tasty simply by the fact that it’s real food, not too far from its origins.

Here’s a typical snack rundown for a typical school week:

  • Monday:  Fruit day.  Apples, pears, peaches and blueberries are in season.  These are served raw.  We’ll have apples throughout the year, but we have applesauce, peach and pear butter, and lots of frozen fruit for the rest of the year.
  • Tuesday:  Vegetable, Parent-instigated food day.  Roasted potatoes from the garden are next Tuesday’s snack.  Hummous and classroom-made pita, our jam with school-made crackers or oat cakes, etc.
  • Wednesday:  Muffin Day.  We make the muffin mix (actually, the kids make it and bag it) and a child from each classroom takes the bag home.  The basic mix requires you add two eggs, a quarter cup of oil, and some water.  You can add fruit or nuts or a crumbled topping as you wish, but the mix is nice by itself too.
  • Thursday:  Chips and Salsa Day.  We’ve made salsa for the year at my house.  Black bean/corn, regular, tomatillo (salsa verde), peach, and cherry salsas are in the pantry and in the freezer.  The chips come from a reliable manufacturer in Chicago, where our students practice their Spanish when they make the monthly order.
  • Friday:  Classroom-supplied Snack Day.  We have given each class suggestions, and the school has crock pots, hotplates, toaster ovens and electric griddles to use.  So, classes might make Stone Soup (where each child brings in something to add), or even make tortillas from scratch (or at least a bag of masa harina) for quesadillas.  Either way, this is a way for the children to directly participate and also to really see what it takes to produce a small snack for the entire class.

We have other irons in the fire, too.  We are getting a milk share, and will be using the milk to make yogurt, yogurt cheese, kefir and smoothies for Monday’s Fruit Day with the older kids.  The milk will also be used for baking.  (It won’t be directly consumed because it’s raw and we don’t want the hassle.)  Trips to a beekeeper and a cider maker and a maple syrup maker (sugarer) are scheduled for October.  I have a 20-gallon crock in the Upper School’s classroom (grades 5-9, 9-14 year olds) that is currently filled with brine and cucumbers, and in three weeks will be filled with shredded cabbage for kraut.

Where is your passion taking YOU?

Mine has been keeping me away from the blog, unfortunately.  I’ve been thinking of you lately, though.

Sometimes the grass is not greener

P1000702Galeux d’Eysenes and Triamble winter squashes

I have now seen how the other half lives and I have decided I like where I live just fine, thank you.

What could I possibly be talking about? It seems I complain, in about every third post, about my clay soil.  Never again!  I have had direct experience, in the form of the school’s garden, with soil that is not majority clay and…no thank you.  Nope.

I wouldn’t say the school’s garden has been an abject failure, because it has not!  NO, we’re harvesting all kinds of things from it.  It is rather loose soil, pretty sandy, so seedlings barely have a chance and you can almost forget about planting seeds unless you cover them with wet burlap OR can count on a wet spring.  But between that sandy soil and the *($%# deer, it’s been a…learning year in the school’s garden.

Fortunately, I realized quite early that the garden could be troublesome, so…I planted extra stuff here at home.

On school snack: salsa

Last night, two of my friends and I jostled for space in my small kitchen and made salsa for our children’s school’s snack program.

P1000529In the foreground are six quart-sized bags of tomatillo salsa concentrate:  they need another quart of chopped tomatoes to make salsa in the heat index that schoolkids will tolerate.  Tomatillo-based salsas don’t can well:  it’s better to freeze concentrates like these and add stuff later (plus, our school’s freezer isn’t terribly large).  The 23 quarts and one pint you see in the back row are black bean/corn salsa.  These have been pressure canned, and having noshy tidbits like corn and beans in there means the salsa comes through the rigors of the canner quite well, no mush.

Salsa is one of the kids’ favorite snacks.  In the bad old days, they got by with a gallon of the stuff from Gordon’s, rather abominable.  How is it, you ask, that store-bought jars of salsa DON’T turn the tomatoes to mush? They go through the same canning process, after all.  Well, they use unripe tomatoes that have been put into chambers of ethylene gas to cause the red color (but not the ripeness).  I don’t know.  I don’t want my kid eating that.

So:  the school (about 135 kids) will go through two quarts during salsa snack, once a week.  (It’s a small shared snack, not a meal:  one of the principles of Montessori is the grace and courtesy required of a shared experience, like a communal snack.)   The tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, onions, and garlic were grown by us; the corn is local, and the beans are from the Thumb (of Michigan, northeast of Detroit).

As things ripen, we’ll have a lot more canning to do, and at least another two batches of salsa-making.  And then it’s on to the other days of the week:  one snack day is Pizza Day, after all…lots more sauce needed!

On being food renegades

P1000178The U.S.D.A. in its infinite wisdom pays farmers to NOT produce food.  To keep the prices high, the consolidation of growers of (let’s give a relevant example) sour cherries all stick their fingers to the wind and decide how MUCH of their harvest to pick on a given year.  This year, it’s 60%, which means that 40% of your crop is not to be sold and must rot on the tree.

Rot on the tree!

Well, we fruit renegades did a bit of patriotic tea-dumping and picked 150 pounds of cherries on the Fourth of July for our school.  We in no way even dented that 40% of this particular farm’s trees. Having the full support of the farmers, we pickers had to be surreptitious about it, parking our cars way out of view and picking in the dead middle of the orchard early in the morning.  At one point a plane flew over and I had a true Goodfellas moment, getting somewhat paranoid.

P1000186About a third of our harvest

So for the price of pitting them at another farm, we have a nice huge stock of cherries to make into snacks for the school.

P1000193KathunkKathunkKathunk:  This 1937 pitter can process a ton of cherries in an hour

Food preservation season has begun

P1000064Daikon radish pickles: RECIPE NOW IN COMMENTS

Yes, it is that time of year again:  big pots of boiling water on the stove, zero counterspace available due to all the green and fruity produce coming in the door.

Interestingly, however, the preservation being done today (Saturday) is not being done for this family.  No:  the school garden is just as busy as our home gardens, and many of those lovely Asian vegetables planted in April are ripe and ready.  Likewise, it’s strawberry and rhubarb season around here, and we are on the cusp of the sweet cherry season.

The one thing I have discovered (and you will all probably laugh at this) is that WOW having lots of hands doing the work makes any task go so much more quickly.  I say this admitting that for today I am elbow-deep in making the second batch of kimchi and the first batch of radish pickles all by myself, but it is quite amazing how much fun, and how productive, those Thursday Weed and Feed evenings in the garden truly are.  So much gets done!  Makes me think I should have a team of my own here on the farm…

Other than working in the garden, another volunteer opportunity for the school community is what we’re calling “fruit tithing.”  One of the fun things to do with your kids in the summer is go to one of the myriad pick-your-own fruit places in the area: there are many, verging on hundreds, of these farms.  We are asking parents to set aside some portion of that fruit for the school.  We are having organized picking sessions with the school community too, but if folks want to go ahead and pick on their own, we’re giving them instructions on how to process and freeze these fruits to give back to the school.  It is all part of our Slow Snack initiative wherein we source local, organic, nonprocessed foods for the school-wide snack.

But what to do with all that fruit, of course, is yet another volunteer opportunity, and through the summer we are having canning parties at a local cafe/shop owned by a parent at our school.  So every two weeks, we will be jamming, jellying, pickling and sauce- and salsa-ing the contents of both our garden and these fruit-y gifts from the parents.

All of this is so exciting, I must say.  What started as a simple “let’s make the school snack a little bit more nutritious” a couple of years back has now blossomed into a greater notion that Food Does Matter, especially the food consumed by our youngsters.  Having them participate in the complete foodway that is seed-to-table eating is a knowledge base that we hope will serve them their entire life.  Will it discourage them from grabbing a Twinkie and picking up a spotty heirloom organic apple instead?  Well we shall just see.  We do know, though, that all habits (good AND bad) start early.

On starting new gardens

3408013991_7a179fc0e5Planting red set onions.  Set onions (little bags of seed onions you’ll find at garden stores now) can be eaten at any size, and the greens can be eaten at any time too.  They’ll never get as large as onions you grow from seed but they’ll do in a pinch.

I thought I would give a bit of a primer on garden-starting, considering that we’re starting our school gardens from scratch (and have great plans for them soon).

Whenever you start anything, of course, there’s a bit of an up-front investment you must make in time and materials.  Before that first seed can sprout, some earth probably needs to be turned.  In our school garden’s case, we had a working garden: it produced pie pumpkins most recently, so the whole garden was covered first with weed-suppressing fabric and then a layer of woodchips.  To start our beds, we needed to build the beds (each bed required (2) 2″x8″x8′-0″ boards and (1) 2″x8″x6′-0″ boards cut in half), rake away the woodchips, cut the fabric away, and do a bit of weeding.  Our soil at school is rather nice, but raised beds are nicer:  they warm up/dry out earlier in spring, they’re easier to weed and water, and–probably most importantly–are off-limits to little running feet!  We dumped some semi-composted sheep poop and bedding onto the bottoms of the beds, then we filled each bed with about 4-6 loads of topsoil.

(The above steps assume you have:  1. a saw, 2. a drill, 3. a rake, 4. a shovel, and 5. a wheelbarrow.  Having access to sheep poop is a bonus, and topsoil is the dream but not reality for many gardens:  raised beds do NOT need to be filled to the brim, especially not with topsoil.  Do what you can with what you have.  I certainly do!)

We expect to end the school year with a Harvest Festival sometime during the third week of May.  Our last frost date here in chilly Michigan is somewhere between May 1st and May 15th:  and yes, I am expecting a harvest of goodies 2 weeks later!  Am I crazy?  Nope.  I am simply working with things that don’t mind the cold.  Some of these things I am starting from seed both indoors at school and inside the semi-warm confines of our home greenhouses.  Many of the seeds, though, are being planted in the beds now:  peas, carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes, set onions, lettuces.

3408764690_5723b3109eLettuce seedlings can take a bit of frost, and the smaller they are, the hardier they are.

Our garden’s focus this semester is Asia.  Fortunately for us, many Asian countries grow things that appreciate the coolness of a Michigan spring, and have a very short (under 40 days) growing season.  I ordered a large portion of our seeds for things like mibuna, pak choi, flowering Chinese broccoli, Napa cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, daikon radishes, etc. from the esteemed Kitazawa Seed Company in California:  they specialize in Asian goodies AND have both a fantastic selection and really wonderful literature supporting each seed variety.  At $3.50 a seed packet they’re running nearly double what you’d find at a garden center of your local big-box retailer, but the seed quantities are generous AND you can’t expect to find Oka Hijiki (seaweed mustard) on a rack at Home De(s)pot.  But say you’re not that interested in Asian vegetables.  You can still easily start your garden now by planting many of the other things I listed.  And don’t stop at the big-box stores for sourcing cheap seeds!  Get out of the city and suburbs and find a feed store in the country.  Most farmers still have kitchen gardens out back and it is at their local farm/feed store that they often get their seed potatoes, carrots, and beans.  Most feed stores sell seeds out of a bin, cheaply:  expect to pay 40-80 cents for more carrots than you could ever eat in a year.

Your gardens needn’t be (16) 3’x8′ raised beds to be productive.  A family of four could easily do quite well in trimming their grocery bill with four raised beds of such size.  The key to a great harvest, frankly, is constant production.  If I were such a family of gardeners, I would use approximately 1/4-1/3 of one bed as a seeding bed (i.e., using it to start seeds and then move the leafy seedlings around to other beds as they get big); I might even place an old window on top of this area to heat things up and hurry things along.  Most root crops (carrots, turnips, potatoes) like to stay where they’re planted, so having a seeding  transfer bed mainly helps leafy greens.  To save space, tomatoes and pole beans can be trellised, as can certain kinds of vining melons and squash; going vertical does save lots of precious growing area for other things.  There are many great get-started-gardening books out there:  I would recommend Square Foot Gardening or Ruth Stout’s method of Lasagna Gardening to get you thinking about both how to maximize a small garden and how to garden without breaking your back.  My absolute favorite beginning-gardening book is Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer:  she’s very approachable, and she covers more than just veggies.  I also worship her husband Eliot Coleman and have used his Four-Season Harvest to get my own greenhouses up and running.

Get digging, everybody!  Spring is here in half the world, fall in the other:  both are great times of year to start new garden beds.

On school gardens


That’s me pushing the wheelbarrow

We’ve been busy lately, leaving me too busy to do much blogging!  The school’s garden is up and running.  This Thursday we had our first “Weed and Feed” event, which is simply a dinner picnic/gardening session.  Some wonderful parents, teachers and their children helped to fill our 16 raised beds (3’x8′, made of untreated 2x8s) with the school’s sheep poop and bedding, and then beautiful topsoil.  We avoided the raindrops!  And the snow!

Our school has always had a garden, but some years it has been tended more lovingly than others.  A few years back I’d joined up with some other parents to rid the school of prepackaged foods, especially in the school’s daily snack, by starting a Slow Snack group based roughly upon the principles of Slow Foods.  This group has become something of a Trojan horse:  by committing the school to slow down and source healthful, organic and mostly local edibles, our food-is-important agenda has taken root.  It has meant quite a bit of work on the parts of some parents and teachers, but it has been very popular with the children.  Food IS important.

3407976507_1c135b5350Wheelbarrows do hold more than just topsoil

We decided to further close the loop and utilize the gardens as a tool for both learning AND easy food.  My model for this was simple.  Each semester, the whole school studies one continent:  this means 3 year olds and 13 year olds are studying the geography, history, peoples and food heritage of a particular corner of the globe.  The garden, I decided, shall study that continent too and will wrap up each semester with a big harvest festival.  This spring’s area of study is Asia.  Asia!  HUGE!  Fun!  We’ll be growing everything from mibuna to bok choy to daikon to chrysanthemum greens:  quick, easy greenery for a nice spring harvest.

3407950687_693097efacEgyptian Walking onions

The summer gardens will supply the school snack’s Salsa and Pizza obsession (two big hits as ever with children) and we’ll be growing and freezing the bases for both so we simply thaw it and add more canned tomatoes as required to feed 150 children.  The fall gardens will be planted both in the spring and summer:  this Fall’s area of study is Europe (thankfully) so things like celeriac, leeks, cauliflower and long-season winter squashes will soon find their place in the beds.

Frankly, it feels really great to be putting my knowledge to use.

On manifest destiny

img_0855One big stack of work

I told myself this weekend that I had no real expectations of garden-ly accomplishment.  Instead of having this huge mental task list, I thought:  why not ease up a bit on yourself and seek to strike off a few projects, and NOT get sad if you fall short of doing it all?

Well, that worked!  But the downside is I still have lots to do.  And now I am facing a bit of anticipatory dread:  I have taken on our daughter’s school’s garden as a project too.  Considering I have worked with some other stalwart parents for years on eliminating processed foods at the school, it makes a huge amount of sense that we practice what we preach and grow more of our own.

Wish me luck; that garden is big.