Category Archives: sweat

On farm still lifes

P1110264Coat, in situ

While emptying the pockets of my barn coat before its regular trip through the wash recently, I thought about what an odd anthropological study its contents would make.  Between all the lint and straw, dirt and crushed bits of eggshell (whoops), what does all this junk say about, well, its owner?

There won’t be any study funded, surely; no penniless grad student shall pick through its contents; and unless Etna were to magically appear nearby, blow its stack and bury me in ash on my way to the goatshed with pockets still full, no future somebody is bound to wonder either.

Its contents:  Tiny box of strike-anywhere matches.  Box cutter.  Pliers.  Right garden glove (left missing).  Various bits of wire, T50 staples, small measuring tape, safety glasses.  About 5 types of screws, a few rusted nails, a large permanent marker, a few pellets for the pellet gun.  The aforementioned dirt and junk.  A penny.  A snack-sized plastic bag.  A twist tie.

(Sheesh, but honestly, no independent study would be needed.  Imagine I allowed ads on this blog:  The sidebar would now be filled with targeted ads of Daisy guns, home supply stores, tool companies, and poultry supplies.  Yep, you are welcome.)

Now, I wash this coat with extreme regularity.  You would too, I would hope:  owning such a cover-up is fairly sensible thing to do if one is often called to pick up something muddy, poopy or bloody.  It is a knockoff of a Carhartt canvas coat, with a zipper, probably three times larger than it needs to be, cloth lined, and it sports a few holes.  And EVERY time I wash it, I find practically the same things burdening its pockets.

What an odd life this coat has.  It never leaves the property, unless it accompanies me on trips to the butcher (poultry often are muddy, poopy AND bloody, poor things).  But it is part of my uniform.  Interestingly, I never leave the property in the uniform, either.  So it’s a secret uniform, wherein I transform from mild-mannered white collar El to Super Farmer El.

Not that I don’t think I look fabulous in such dowdy he-man-wear; I do.  I find it helps to have a bit of an attitude, especially when one is prone to slip in chicken poo, fly dramatically through the air, and land firmly on one’s rear end.  May as well dress the part of a superhero.

On closing the harvest gap

Spanking new potatoes with herbs for tonight’s roast chicken

Well, that’s good:  it was for only six short weeks that potatoes were off the menu here.  These Yukon Golds made a fine accompaniment to the roast chicken we had to celebrate Father’s Day.  Potatoes this early in the season can only mean two things:  one, they had to have been volunteers (indeed), and two, the freak-warm winter had a lot to do with their early maturity.  So into a parchment paper envelope they went with butter and salt and…a stapled edge.

In order for me to repeat this gap between one potato harvest and the next, I just need wacky hot weather and to miss harvesting all of last year’s potatoes.  Uh, no thanks.  Keep the weather; Ill work on my harvest skillz.

But everything’s a mite early.  Cherries, first blueberries:  normally strawberries alone command our fruity attention at this time of year.  Roses come and gone.  First garlic pulled.  Peas done (thankfully:  we harvested 3 gallons (!) of them this weekend).

All this earliness doesn’t mean I am any happier that the new greenhouse remains a month behind my schedule.  But it’s now planted at least.  I suppose I ought to be glad the scalding temperatures of February killed my first tomato, eggplant and pepper seedlings off because it’s the second round of the same that are planted here at what fortuitously was the perfect size for transplanting.  Small mercies.


And yes, it’s only I who could think that 76 tomato, 15 eggplant, and 6 pepper plants (and 6 artichokes, 4 sweet potatoes and dozens of chard and basil plants) mean the new greenhouse is underplanted.  It’s the layout that’s throwing me off.  The other greenhouses are oriented N-S and this new one is E-W but the beds are continuous (and all point E-W in all cases).  These beds are all 4′-0″ wide, running the greenhouse’s 32′ length.  The beds in the other greenhouses are wee 3’x6′ things for the most part with lots of paths between.  I still think the E-W orientation of any bed is best at this latitude; had the other greenhouses been planted like this one there’d be too much shadowing of the crops in the center beds.

Greenhouse building aside, mid-June is actually a not-too-busy time in the gardens (pea picking excepted).  I’m just watering and weeding now; first crops are coming out and new ones follow in the empty spots.  It’s a nice pace, frankly, just standing with the hose in one’s hand, watching things grow.

On looking for shortcuts (and not finding them)

A new garden day dawns over Greenhouse #3.

One of the (perhaps not terribly) surprising things that happens to new gardeners is learning how long it actually takes to accomplish something.  What appears straightforward (harvesting and then shelling fresh peas) is actually a sneaky time-thief that makes a person sigh with exasperation.  A half HOUR to shell two cups of peas?

It sure makes you think about the industrialization of our food system.  Frozen peas, either in baby form or those starchy large ones, are a bit of a modern miracle.  Who are all those people bent over those pea vines?  How DO they do that, if not by hand?  And how in the world do they shell them all?  If you think about the true labor involved if you were to pick and shell them by hand, no child’s plate would ever have uneaten peas.

Lincoln shell pea

But yes, that’s my back bent over the pea patches.  I grow the main 3 types:  shell, snow and sugar.  I would say shell were my favorite…by far, even if they take forever.

Lots of things take forever.  That greenhouse in the foreground of the top photo is a perfect example.  I often find my happiest days generally have me either eight feet up a ladder or on my knees in the dirt somewhere…and it’s a bonus day if I end the day having done both.  But even those days get tiring.  I was on the ladder one 90-degree day recently with the hammer drill setting the wire-lock channel to yet another greenhouse bow and it occurred to me:  is there an app for this?

An app for pea-picking might also be in order.

On small feasts

Five year old greenhouse globe artichokes actually produce flowers of a decent size

Interesting:  I hadn’t intended for two weeks to pass between postings.  Could it be a long weekend, a new greenhouse, the end of school or something else life-changing and/or burdensome that I can blame for the radio silence?  Eh, well, check off “all of the above.”  Ahem.

I am appreciating the garden just now.  Surely, if you home-grow, you work mainly from famine to feast on any one vegetable, and no matter how you try to time it, those famines/feasts between vegetables seem to work in concert with each other.  Everything must somehow ripen jointly.  (Must work on this, says the Machiavelli in me.  Where are my garden puppet strings.)

But the other wonderment that has occurred to me as a gardener is that almost every vegetable can be eaten at any point of its growth.  Why wait for the proper harvest?  My gluttonous binges on perfectly-ripe vegetables are tempered by the not-insignificant fact that I am Impatient.  (Yes, capital-I.)  So when I first see the (first of the garden to ripen) English (or shell) peas, I am eager to pull off a few to eat as mange-touts, or snow peas.  Why not.  My labor, my benefit.

And so it is that these young peas are joined with the everbearing asparagus (maybe a month left to go for my daily raids), some fresh favas (greenhouse-grown, pulled from the spots of the first “done” October-planted lettuces), the newest spring onions, and the current representative of the garlic crop (the scapes).  Everything is really flipping seasonal here.  Why not a pilaf, with some (effing) garden mint and thyme and a pinch of pantry cardamom and cinnamon, thank you Nigel Slater for the inspiration (a pilaf of asparagus, fava beans and mint from his inimitable Tender).

I think often of capturing these meals.  But they are a dime a dozen here, frankly; why brag.  My point in all of it is to get it to be de rigeur for YOU.  (Tell me:  is it working?)

On thankless tasks

Perdita and Puck joined the herd at 8:40 Friday night

They say that 95% of goat births are uneventful.  My percentages stand at 80%…Sabine’s birth was not fun at all.  Less than two weeks after that fraught event, Cricket calmed the waters by delivering these twins.  As a goat midwife, my job should simply be to wipe their faces, dry their bodies, trim their umbilici and back off to let the mother do the work.  And in so doing Friday, we stood witness to the nonevent, the simple wonderment that is animal husbandry.

2012 is the year of the white goat, apparently.  All our other goats are either chamoisee (brown w/ black legs) or sundgau (black with brown legs).

So the weekend may have started with a bang, but the rest of it felt like I was stuck in a thankless-task loop.  Another round of weeding of invasives like bindweed and bamboo grass, another grubbing with the spade to uproot the deep roots of dock, another wheelbarrowload of straw mulch to cover the potatoes and strawberries, and an assortment of other icky tasks left me feeling fairly done in come Sunday night.

I have to tell myself it’s all of a piece.  You may want to compartmentalize, but gardening, like most worthwhile things, has its fun and unfun tasks.  The overall picture is the one you’re aiming for.  A big harvest requires I grub out that bindweed, like having a baby requires I change a diaper or two (or two thousand).

But then I look around and see the fruits of my labors (the full milk pail, the delectable harvests, the funny and accomplished child) and I really don’t mind the thanklessness of it all.

On spring progress

Old” greenhouse (built 2007)

I have to laugh though because I felt so proud after a morning’s work in the old greenhouse above.  We cleaned out 2 of 9 beds!  12 bags of salad from 2 beds!  But certainly you can’t tell–at all–in this picture.

I always wonder what I am thinking when I take on a new task.  Is all my sparse free time going to simply reappear when I do something eventually worthwhile like build a third greenhouse on the property?  Is that laundry ever going to get done?

Greenhouse #3–or its beginnings, anyway–is located outside the garden proper.   Sod’s a-busted, base frame set (and dug, which is not terribly obvious by the photo) but not assembled; this one will be 16’x32′.  Those are 2x8x16′ untreated #1 pine boards.  My poor brother gets to pick rocks.  The chickens are pleased with the earth-turning, and I have no idea what Penny is doing:  supervising?  And Ruby the hen turkey is sitting on 14 eggs within the doghouse under the chicken tractor at right.

Actually, I truly enjoy these bouts of frenetic activity.  The winter was mild enough to keep me in fine digging form so I do feel like the other two greenhouses and all the outdoor beds are on schedule, maintenance- and plant-wise.  (The freak-warm weather enabled me to do infrastructure repairs and a bit of ground work much earlier than normal thus I avoided the usual early-spring work overload.)  So technically I can build a new greenhouse and not worry about the rest, right?

Part of this new greenhouse is located atop an old roadway, so my brother’s picking its old stones, lucky guy.  Tom’s on the year’s first Grand Mow beyond, and the chickens help dig.

But then I realize we’re where we should’ve been last week.  Eeps!

On sap, and mycelia

Perhaps it’s laziness, but this household’s married couple tends to use Christmas for getting we’d-buy-it-otherwise presents for each other.  This past holiday was no different in that regard, but it had an odd exception:  the favorite household tool (the cordless hammer drill set with a 7/16″ bit) would be put to good use in aiding both of our presents.

2012 has two brand-new projects on the edible agenda,  you see.  We’ll be maple sugaring and cultivating mushrooms.  The drill’s duty?  It gets to tap the the trees for their sap and riddle holes in hardwood logs and pine stumps for the spore-drenched plug spawn.  (The mushrooms will be addressed closer to Fungi Season.)

Tom got a big box of goodies from Sugar Bush, a Michigan syruping supply house.  I am keen to support Michigan companies and these folks were very helpful.

The sugaring has been an interesting prospect in this odd weather year.  We actually did a few cautious taps to our trees in early February, but the ups and downs in temperature have started and stopped the flow accordingly.  Ours are not sugar maples; we have silver and red and both will work for sugaring but aren’t as “easy” (read:  you have to collect and boil more sap) as sugar and black maples.  We use sap collection bags, not the traditional pail, because they clean up and store more readily than do metal pails…and they’re cheaper.  Once we collect enough sap, I’ll show you the boiling-off process.  There is fire involved, heh.

Soule hook

And our daughter reminded us once again of the maple-sugaring passage of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods:  Laura, her sister and cousins got to drizzle their soft-boiled syrup into the snow to make sugar taffy.  Maybe we too will get a sugar snow and can try that ourselves.

Side view of bag hung on hook

Coastline Children’s Film Festival: Feb. 3-12, 2012

PDF download:  CCFF BOOKLET (schedule, films shown, etc.)

This is a shout-out to you locals and near-locals.  The Second Annual Coastline Children’s Film Festival is due to begin on 3 Feb in seven locations in Southwest Michigan (90 minutes from Chicago, 45 from Grand Rapids, 30 from South Bend and Kalamazoo).

The mission of the Coastline Children’s Film Festival is to bring high quality independent films and animation for children and young adults to Berrien County and to present them – on the big screen – as shared theatrical experiences for the whole family and community. Recognizing that film and animation are still among the most accessible and innovative media for the communication of stories and ideas, both historical and contemporary, the CCFF also sees the provision of educational opportunities as central to its mission.  Alongside the screening of animated and live action films, features, shorts and documentaries, our festival participants will have the opportunity to learn about the history of the medium, as well as the craft of filmmaking through hands-on workshops and filmmaker presentations.

And:  all the films are FREE!  Over 50 films (full-length, short, and in-between…animated, documentaries, films) for children aged 2-18…in seven different venues in Berrien County, Michigan:  Benton Harbor:  ARS Gallery and at the Citadel Dance & Music Center;  St. Joseph:  Krasl Art Center and at the Box Factory for the Arts;  Bridgman: Bridgman Public Library;  Three Oaks:  Acorn Theatre; and New Buffalo:  New Buffalo Performing Arts Center.

Two of the films are quite well aligned with what I try to do here on this blog:

There are workshops, too, for older children:  they’ll learn the structure of a story, storyboarding, visual story telling, film vocabulary, writing, directing, cinematography, & editing. They will also learn the vocabulary of each film, as well as different roles in the art of filmmaking, e.g., cast, crew, & director’s roles, etc.

This is all very exciting for us, and for children in general.  I will admit to an aversion to most modern movies aimed at kids:  every single one seems to have the same plot (bunch of mismatched characters on a mission from point A to B) and the same annoying hypertalkative sidekicks.  This film series is a bit of a pushback against the standard fare; perhaps it’s more highbrow, but then again shouldn’t we expect more for our kids?  I know I do.  So come join us if you can.

On home-grown flour

Painted Mountain flour corn, seed gifted generously from Mike.  Riffing off my last post:  One cup medium-fine corn meal in four cups boiling water equals polenta; one cup medium corn meal plus three cups boiling water equals grits.  See how easy this all is?

One of the things most surprising to those considering a “local” diet is how truly dependent their normal diet is upon flour.  Though flour can be made of any grain, it’s wheat we Westerners are terribly dependent upon…surely there’s a way to grow one’s own?

I suppose there is; in point of fact, on commercial farms, spring wheat and regular rye are commonly grown between vegetable rows where I live (the wheat grows quickly, and its roots hold down the soil between the plastic-mulched crops of tomatoes, peppers, squash, etc.).  But wheat is not the normal commodity crop ’round here (ugh, we plow down our vineyards and orchards to grow corn and soy with shocking regularly here because–get this–we can’t find enough people to pick the grapes and fruit! sigh; this is a staggeringly sad factoid in a state with chronically high unemployment).  I’ve tried my hand growing hull-less oats and rye and buckwheat; all grew.  Dang, though, you need LOTS of grain to feed your own humble self.  My grains simply aren’t grown at that scale.

Child amongst the dent corn, August 2010.

However.  I do grow corn.  Armed with a handful of seeds in spring and with a $20 corn grinder in winter, whammo:  I am self-sufficient in dried corn and corn flour.

Can I just say there is NO good way to photograph this thing in action, at least not by me, not in this kitchen.  It is a corn grinder, and I do not lie that it cost $20 plus shipping: do the googles or the amazon to find it your own self:  I got the one with the deeper hopper.  BE WARNED it is not good if you’re looking to grind your own wheat flour:  it’s great, though, if you just want cornmeal on occasion, or wish to crack some corn for your chickens.

I grow dent corn, flint corn, and popcorn.  (I don’t grow sweet corn; it’s too easily had locally to make it worth my while.)  All can be ground; all make a decent flour.  Southern Exposure Seed Exchange both offers all kinds of corn AND gives a whiz-bang what-for lesson of which type is used for what:  go see for yourself.  And because I am a fool for polenta, I bought a packet of SESE’s Floriani polenta-specific corn to try this year.

This cheap thing is great for home use.  After about five passes, the meal is perfect for a good polenta; after four, it makes great grits…and I’ve used it for bean flours (garbanzo, black turtle) too to good effect.  Oh, and I’ve ground up rice in it too:  rice mush makes a great breakfast!

Give corn-growing a try this year, or, barring that, use your muscles and grind your own.  Trust me, the taste of freshly-ground corn is worth the turn!

On the one-cup cooking lesson

October-seeded radicchio, slowly forming heads in the newer greenhouse.  Winter requires lots more patience than summer gardening.

Since the gardening tasks are rather light right now, my time and efforts have naturally moved indoors.  And my favorite place to be indoors is the kitchen, that careworn farmhouse kitchen which drastically needs an expansion to make it truly inviting and efficient.  Though I may find it wanting, I do enjoy working here.

One cup.  She likes wearing her hospital bracelet (shrugs).

And since she’s been able to stand, I have involved our daughter in the daily cooking and making that takes place in this kitchen.  It started small; she could pour and stir at 2-1/2, of course.  Now that she’s nearing 8 (!!) she is able to cook certain things, start to finish, like eggs many ways or roast chicken with minimal involvement from me.  But now I am requiring her full mental abilities in cooking:  I am having her memorize recipes and formulas.

Before you call social services, let me simply state that I am having her do things she likes to eat.  And because I am leftover-phobic, I have her make the small portions of bread-y things for the daily dinner.  This stress on “not too much” is where one-cup cooking comes in.  And because our winter meals tend to be soup or stew, the added bulk of breadstuffs helps weigh out the meal.

Like most kids, she’s a carboholic (and like most parents who watch their weight, her parents are carbophobic), so that one cup usually means flour.  One cup of flour (semolina or AP) plus one egg plus one egg’s worth of both water and olive oil makes a mean pasta…plus, she loves the French rolling pin.  One cup of flour plus one cup of milk plus one egg and some melted butter makes a nice crepe batter, shaken up in a mason jar…she’s good at flipping them.  One cup of flour plus two cups of cooked potato make a lot of gnocchi, enough for two dinners for us.  One cup of whole wheat flour plus a little salt and dried herbs, even some grated parmesan and enough water to hold it together make lovely crackers in the pasta roller.  And one cup of flour plus half a cup of chopped cold butter plus an egg’s worth of ice water makes a great crust for her favorite leek tart.

The one-cup rule applies to lots of other things too:  one cup of beans soaking overnight.  One cup of rice and two cups water in the rice cooker is plenty.   One cup of ground meat is enough to flavor any sauce or chili, or to make mini-meatballs (with a half cup of breadcrumbs and an egg to bind it together).  I could go on.  Basically, my goal is to have a child who is actively engaged and confident in the kitchen…and teaching her to be thrifty along the way shouldn’t hurt her.

I am always surprised when parents shoo their kids out of the kitchen.  Granted; she’s not interested in cooking every day, but I do encourage her to stick her head in to see what I am doing.  She does have setting/clearing the table duties, so she’s never without something to do, meal-wise.  But how else are they going to learn unless they break something or make a mess or burn something?  It’s how we all learn, and yes, it’s messier and slower.  Allow some time, and take a deep breath.

(Now, if only I could encourage my husband to cross the kitchen threshold on occasion…but that could be a slippery slope leading to his wanting to garden.  Uh, maybe not.)

On home-crafted gifts

NOT our soap:  our camera is lost somewhere amongst the kitchen clutter.  Image from here.

Normally my kitchen and my garden are my queendoms:  places where I reign supreme, and often quite solo, in my tasks.  This holiday season however I have company in the kitchen, and it’s welcome, it’s crowded and sometimes it’s a bit loud with our quarrels…as queen, you see, I am not very used to challenges to my authority.

We make all kinds of goodies this time of year.  This year, we’re experimenting with goat’s milk soapmaking.  I used one cooked/heated recipe with beef tallow that I found in the back of my favorite goat-y book (Goats Produce Too), and Tom made an uncooked one with cocoa butter and olive oil.  Soapmaking, despite its outcome, is a sloppy endeavor.  Tom made wood box frames for the molds: you unscrew them once the soap has hardened.  Oh, and one thing we hadn’t considered?  Soap needs to cure for about a month before use!  whoops.

My daughter and I have been making gifts for the CSA and for her teachers.  Our weekend task was chevre truffles and spiced chevre balls (okay, the latter needs a better name; basically they’re my regular herbed chevre rolled in a powdered spice/salt mix, bite-sized, entirely too edible).  We also made more cajeta (goat’s milk caramel) and we canned it so it doesn’t need to be eaten right away.

In point of fact, I find that it helps if not all gifts need to be eaten right away:  like the canned cajeta, the truffles and (cough) balls are frozen.  So is the chicken liver pate and the goose rillettes; hiding under their layer of clarified butter and gently frozen solid, these jars’ contents won’t expand  and break upon freezing.  It also helps a tired queen stage her production throughout this busy season.

I like sharing my kitchen for this gift-making.  But does it mean I need to clean up twice the mess?  Uh, yes it does.  Happy crafting, all.

On the hidden farm

Anything hiding in the new greenhouse?

In one of his books, Eliot Coleman (my winter gardening guru, often mentioned here) talks about looking for “the hidden farm” on his own organic farm.  His land is in Maine, and they grow intensively (great soil plus close-spaced plantings and quick cycling of crops).  How can he possibly squeeze more production out of the land he already has?  Is there another farm hiding there somewhere?

How about the old still messy one?  Tomatoes (back left wall) in mid-November count I think…

One of his thoughts for “the hidden farm” is to set low hoops on outdoor (normally dormant) garden beds, sowing them with cold-loving quick lettuces and the like outside the bookends of first and last frost, like right now.  The advantage of low hoops are fairly obvious.  With cheap and easily moved materials, he is able to eke out more crops on land that was otherwise dormant.  Another thought is turning one of his cold (unheated) greenhouses into a cool greenhouse:  minimal heating (to 35 degrees at night) means he can get three crops in the time that a cold one gives him two.

Even if we’re not bent on feeding the masses or making pots of money, it behooves us all to consider “the hidden farm” within our own gardens.  Granted, Coleman mostly speaks to professional growers, though his Four Season Harvest remains the exception for “I should try that too” accessibility.  You might not on your own need to cycle three crops in one garden bed.  But what about two?

Listen:  I come at succession planting mostly out of thrift.   I am thrifty with my time, and thrifty with my seeds, and very generous with beneficial, free(ish) things like compost, mulch, rain water and volunteer plants.  It only makes sense that I yank out a plant that’s on the slowing side of production:  more stuff needs to grow, right now!  And (there’s always an “and” when I enumerate my garden tactics) more plants in a tighter space means less weeding and mulching for the time-pressed gardener.

That big thing in the back is cardoon.  It and its close relative the artichoke love the greenhouses.

So I often look for my own hidden farm, and this year I’ve begun to capture some path space between the greenhouse beds.   Shoot, things want to grow there anyway, why not make it official by closing off the last two feet or so of the path?  Oh yeah:  the one problem is that half of both greenhouses are prone to flooding, west to east, and blocking off the water’s flow isn’t my best lightbulb-y idea.  But the north halves of both greenhouses are mostly game.

And here we are on the bed opposite.  See what I mean about standing water?

Another hidden-farm idea I have put into practice is not a terribly radical one.  It just has to do with my compost pile location.  Granted, my “pile” occupies a space 10’wide and 15′ long and 4-5′ high…it’s kinda big in other words.  But I have been moving its location annually, and sowing nutrient pigs like winter squash and corn in its former location.  Those ground-based beds have the best soil on our land, I tells ya.

I also appreciate a vertical farm and grow lots of things on trellises, even if they’d rather flop all over my precious horizontal real estate (I’m looking at you, butternut squash and sweet potatoes).  My trellises range from simple teepees out of twigs to structures made out of recycled irrigation piping to repurposed cattle fencing.  I am also a huge fan of this netting: weave it over the top rail that of a 2×2 wood frame and you’re golden.

Anyway, the off season for many of us gardeners soon approacheth!  Time to start noodling around, trying to find a hidden farm or two of your own.  You’ll have lots of hours before the shovels come out again.

Does global warming count as a hidden farm?  This is by far the latest I have harvested tomatoes.  The bread just came out of the hot oven, now the toms and the cauliflower will join the pot of beans in the medium oven.  It is odd doing all this work in a t-shirt this late in the season.  I could even still hear the tree frogs.

On fall planning

Half bushel (with chickens):  good year for apples here, 7 bushels out of one tree alone

The one redeeming thing about the end of the growing season is that it is the end.  If your harvests were banner or bupkis, Next Year remains perfect–and perfectly successful–due mainly to your experiences with this current one.

So, onward, planning.

Should I remind you again that now’s the best time to make garden beds?  (I am such a nag, I know…that, and I am prone to ignoring my own advice.)  The winter’s freeze/thaw action will sweeten that soil, erasing some of the damage that making the beds does to soil structure.   (Tip:  feeding those soil creatures with lots of compost then tucking them in under a thick bed of mulch will make the new soil quite a hospitable place to the microorganisms, worms and insects that help make soil fertile.  Feed them to feed yourself.)  You can also save yourself some shoveling by doing a lasagna bed:  atop a patch of lawn, put down cardboard or newspaper, rake on some leaves, grass clippings; throw down some compost and maybe a touch of soil to hold the whole thing down…next spring you can plant in it.

One of a dozen new trees in the side 40

Also, now’s the time when many garden supply stores are trying to unload unsold products, like fruit trees.  One of the biggest obstacles to the success of young fruit trees and fruiting bushes is inattentive watering during their first year:  when getting established, the trees require weekly waterings…something a forgetful gardener might miss if she’s planted her trees in the spring (trust me here).  Planting them in the fall is actually easier.  Trees quickly become dormant, and fall/winter/spring precipitation will eliminate most of the need to water.

We’ve recently had a prolonged Indian Summer with its deep blue, perfectly clear skies and wonderful exuberant colors on the remaining leaves.  The leaves literally rain down:  all windows being wide open, we hear them pinging the house’s metal roofs ticktocktick.  We wait for them all to fall, perhaps not quite so patiently, before we do the last lawn mowing.  This one is the best for the compost pile:  so many mulched-up leaves, so much long grass, so few weed seeds.    It’s a great garden mulch too…and even those new trees could use a touch of the stuff.

I like the pace of the garden in the fall; I like fall clean-up.  There’s something satisfying about knowing I don’t need to weed for the next few months ahead…that, and my spring garden still looks perfect….

On listening to the harvest

You certainly don’t need it, but this laser-operated heat gun is a nice thing to have. 

It’s another In-Between Sunday.  Sundays are my busiest:  four of my six CSA subscribers get their deliveries on Monday, the Loven is firing, and there (as ever) seems to be a lot that needs harvesting and processing.

It’s a full-on sensory experience, the weekend harvesting and cooking.  The smells and sights are sometimes taken for granted.  Other things, though, require the ears, and some actually require a bit of sensory deprivation.

So I stand at the butcher block, goggled eyes and gloved hands separating about 20 red serrano peppers from their seeds and membranes.  Today I’m making this year’s hot sauce.  This year, it has peaches in it, because, well, why not?
I stand, listening to Harry Shearer, and think about how much busier I will be next weekend.  I haven’t sat down all day and it’s 4:30 in the afternoon:  it’s, in other words, a fairly typical Sunday for me.  Next week, though, the apples and the grapes will be ready.  I need to put the little crops away like all this hot sauce.  There won’t be time when the juicing and the cidering and the saucing starts.

We grow in pairs (Asiminia triloba)

Little crops:  it was a bit of a surprise, but our pawpaw trees are producing fruit!  Never heard of a pawpaw?  More of us should grow them.  I lovingly took our one ripe fruit to a group event yesterday, passed out some of the creamy flesh, then promptly ate the rest of it myself.  Supposedly they take about 14 years to fruit but ours have been in the ground for only 5.  Black blossoms graced its midsection this spring; I held little hope.  Don’t doubt a native tree, I guess.  We harvested three Hass avocado-sized pawpaws this year.  I can’t begin to tell you how lovely this one fruit was.  They should be more widely cultivated, though I can see why they are not:  the beautiful seeds took up most of the cavity.

As I sit listening to Shearer’s weekly outrages, I am listening to the Loven’s fire crackle.  Five loaves are rising in their pans:  I am thankful it’s cool, slowing their expansion, because the wood is taking a long time to burn down.  There’s not much you can do to hurry that wood, though my husband has stuck a small fan in front of the open oven door.  It happens on occasion, but sometimes the loaves fall before the oven is ready.  Sigh.

I also listen to the Close-Enough Cassoulet bubbling in its pot.  Six types of nearly-dry beans got harvested from the garden early this morning, making a trip in the cast-iron pot with bacon ends and onions/garlic and bundle of fines herbes.  Now it’s almost time to drop in the chicken legs and locally produced Mettwurst.  I set it on the stove to a light boil:  this Dutch oven will get topped with breadcrumbs and stuck into the Loven for our dinner.  It will go in the back, behind the loaves, with dinner’s two baguettes hogging the front section.  It’s a nearly empty oven.  Two pans of tomatoes are waiting to take their overnight turn.  Even if it’s not too busy, it’s still a good day.

Pre-bubbling cassoulet, fallen loaves, and overexposed sourdough baguettes.  Awfully hot to actually adjust a camera, I must say.

On ripening harvests as the sword of Damocles

What can I blame it on, the weather?  food ennui?  or perhaps the lack of a deadline?  I am talking about my sincere disinterest in canning this harvest year 2011.  Maybe it’s the CSA (sure, I can blame them, those blameless people who pay me to consume my food) but I haven’t felt the normal pressure I feel at this time of year to can. freeze. dry. and pickle.everything in sight.

Striped Romas, ready

That’ll change this weekend, though:  it’s Peach Season.  Oh, and the tomatoes are here too.  Oh, and the corn.  OH!  Pressure!!  Better get moving! Here’s wishing you all bountiful harvests.

Incidentally:  I am trying a new method of tomato staking this year.  In each of the 3×6′ greenhouse beds I usually grow 6 plants and have hated doing 2 individual stakes for each one (that’s 76 plants, or 152 stakes, if you’re counting) so this year I tried Shepherd Ogden’s method of hanging them, vertically.  Basically, you tie twine around the base of the plant and hold the plant upright, twisting the twine around the stem to some jerry-rigged overhead support.  My overhead supports are tilted (4′ at low end, 7′ at high) because, well, the greenhouse roof is curved.  Upside:  I only drive 2 stakes for 3 plants!  It’s working very well so far:  no real work for the gardener once they’re up.

Update:  The meat chicks are a bit more than a week old, so they spend their day outdoors in the mini tractor (an old chick coop I rigged for my first chickens five years ago now:  they lived in it until we built the Taj Mahal).  Nights are spent in two big plastic storage tubs with 60-watt incandescent bulbs in the brooder lamps:  no need for real heat overnight, and hopefully in a week no light at all.  And I still have them on bath towels in those overnight tubs until I can trust them not to eat their wood-shaving bedding (another week hence).

On more waste management (or, Mulch 101)

Here you see Tom’s Friday deposit to the compost pile:  I was at my office on Friday so I couldn’t spread all this grass.  The bed in front of it is 3’x8′, if you’re curious about scale.

Most days, I consider myself more of a Mulcher than a Gardener.  I should give you a little background, though, to explain this.

Mother’s Day, 2005:  my second mother’s day, frankly.  And what did I ask for?

What do all new farm-owning new-ish mothers ask for?  A gas-powered, rear-tine tiller*, of course.  Silly question!  So I spent that day busting up the sod.  Then I built raised beds and filled them up with the resident clay soil.

It took me no time at all here as a small-g gardener that this clay here is baaaddd, but also surprisingly fertile.  Fertile, and that fertility does not discriminate:  those weeds were so happy that I had made lovely compost-filled raised beds for them.  (Did you ever truly wonder how I came up with the name of this blog?)  If I wanted ANY time to enjoy my new gardens and my toddler, I needed to figure out how to get ahead of those weeds.

And my answer was quite literally under my feet.  Grass!  Sears (and its Craftsman products in particular) sure came to our rescue those first two years as country dwellers.  To help me battle the weeds, we bought mulching blades and a badass rear bagger for Tom’s lawn tractor.  We could now capture and use all those grass clippings.  Well, not *all* those grass clippings, as 4 acres of grass clippings is, uh, quite a lot.  Half the acreage is wooded and seeded quite readily with poison ivy, so…I gladly ask for and receive about two acres’ worth of mulched grass (and fall leaves) from the non-poison ivy portion of lawn every time Tom mows.  It’s a bountiful resource.

First, though, the worry.  As a new mom, my worry was likewise indiscriminate.  I worried that our soil would become too waterlogged if I had mulch on it 24/7, but that worry was silly because the raised beds drain quite well.  I worried too about weed seeds:  cutting those dandelion heads and then spreading them on the gardens, what, was I crazy?  No crazier than letting them simply be wind-blown onto it…weeds just ARE, if you ask me.  I likewise worried about the bugs it would harbor, but 99% of them are more beneficial than harmful.  If I lived in someplace damp and forested where slugs or snails were a problem, I might reconsider my love of mulch…but I don’t.

I am so glad I don’t have a grass allergy.  Spreading those bags around is a dusty, pollen-filled business.  But spread I do.  Excepting the seeding beds (where I direct seed, let the babies grow big, then move them around) every bed has at least 3″ of clippings on them all year long.  Nature abhors a vacuum, of course, so any open patch of soil is sure to sprout a weed or six.  It’s best to keep it all covered up.

Mulch isn’t just great at suppressing weed growth.  Our clay soil turns rock-hard if exposed.  Keeping a blanket of mulch on it helps its friability…and helps the worms and millions of other soil dwellers use the soil all the way to the surface.  I really don’t water the garden at all once the seedlings have taken off.  Planting into that soil is likewise a dream:  I part the mulch, dig, and plant.

The green, green grass directly out of the bags is easily spread if it’s not allowed to mat up, so I try to spread it as soon as it’s cut.  Its bright color is handy:  because it turns brown after a week, I can readily tell where new mulch needs to be applied.  If I can’t spread it immediately, this isn’t a problem.  It mats up but those mats are quite usable, jigsaw-puzzle wise.  It becomes a stinking slimy mess though if it’s wet…and so if allowed to sit, it needs to rest, often for weeks, before it’s usable as mulch.  But all excess bags get thrown on the compost pile to help speed it along.

Anything that grows can be mulch, of course:  wood chips, straw, leaves, pine needles.  Cardboard, newspaper.  I wanted a renewable, constant, homegrown source free of industrial chemicals, so compost and mower clippings work well for me.   Mulching takes so much less time than weeding.

So, if you want to water less, weed less, have happier plants and build a more fertile environment for your soil’s biome, find yourself some mulch.  It works with clay, it works with sand, it works with all soils in between.

(*And incidentally I am very anti-tilling as a general practice.  For large new gardens and the impatient gardener, though, they’re great.  I only till now if I need to make a lot of new beds…which isn’t that often.)

One should always try to avoid injury, too.  Should I blame the 1.5 pre-prandial glasses of wine for me slicing part of my finger off, or general farm tiredness?  Either way, it’s a drag weeding in a latex glove, and even harder milking 2 goats with one hand!

On the value-added CSA

It’s been about a year ago now that some friends* convinced me they needed to pay for my food.

(This food of course was a gift before that date.  Yes, I have some dumb friends.)

There was a tipping point, though.  Excess vegetables are something most gardeners experience at one point or another (case in point:  zucchini), and even four chickens can produce more eggs than three people can reasonably consume per week.  But if you combine large gardens with year-round greenhouses, a lot of laying hens and then throw a milking animal into the works, well…excess is not the proper term any longer.  It’s something else.

Over the last year I have formalized the process of purchase.  I have a somewhat small a la carte list wherein other friends purchase items individually.  But my stalwart “customer” friends get a box of goodies per week.  A typical box-scheme CSA is usually where a set fee is paid upfront for a season of weekly boxes, and you get what you get, fresh, of what is harvested.  My setup is  different than the typical model.

I maintain the “get what you get” thing because I am truly not a masochist, despite years of blogging evidence to the contrary.  But I do it with a weekly fee, usually paid by the month (and the month has either 4 or 5 weeks in it, so the fee fluctuates accordingly).  And because my gardens are big but not huge, the food that goes in the weekly boxes is not all what’s harvested per week.  Instead, that’s where the “value-added” label comes in.

So the typical year-round share is:  a quart of yogurt and about 10 ounces of herbed chevre.  A quart of vegetarian soup or a quart of veg ferment (sauerkraut, kimchi, sauerruben, lact0-fermented beets) and a loaf of whole-wheat sourdough bread.  A gallon bag of salad (herbs at the bottom) and a gallon bag of other greens.  A dozen eggs.  And finally one canned good item (jam, chutney, salsa, tomato sauce, beans, peaches, applesauce, etc.).  Year-round fluctuations are in the vegetable/fruit kingdom: more garden-fresh to less, more stored-veg (squash, potatoes) to less.  It works, my friends are happy.

And my gardens and animals pay for themselves now…in fact, they’re creating a profit.

*”Friends” is completely accurate.  I would not do this with people I do not know and trust.  The sale of raw milk and its products is illegal, and indeed, my friends know the risk of consuming it.  They also help around the farm.  The payments help them (they know the value of the food, and therefore think it’s only fair) and they help my hobby’s bottom line.

On being busy

Sometimes life’s a bit too busy and running around with a camera is just one thing too many.  On occasion, though, it’s a good documentary tool for what happens, even in its minutia.  I’ve gotta try to remember that.

On sitting down

It’s also hard to take pictures if your goats make you laugh so much.  Here’s Cricket demonstrating her permanent milk mustache.  Does she look pregnant to you (due date 5/25)?

It’s hard to slow down sometimes.

With so much to accomplish, the very act of sitting down seems mutinous.  Yet I am sitting down in between tasks to type this, and to force myself to pause and reflect.

Pausing, indeed.  I am still reminded of time passing: the metronomic wet drips from both bags of cheese curds hanging above the sink are hard to ignore.  Surprising, really, how equally timed those drips are; the bags aren’t the same size.  And I’m listening to the crackling of the loaves of bread behind me.  Just out of the oven, their crunchy crusts are reducing to size.  The pot of stewing squash (the last of the pink banana) emits a burble here and there.  And through the open window, I hear the buzz and angry twitter of two hummingbirds fighting for the feeder.  Even when you put two feeders out (as we do) they still bicker.

It’s spring.  I am muscle-weary yet still anxious to move.  Better get up and get going!  Much to do yet.

Bell says get busy already, and is that camera edible?

Uh oh

After two years of saying “I think I have enough of a garden”  I have changed my mind.  Seven new raised beds and a new (chicken- and deer-proof) fence are in my future for this weekend.

Crazily, I am also planning a new greenhouse (for this fall).  Whee!

On hot beds

I have two 6’x3′ beds in the new greenhouse that are destined to get the hot-bed treatment.  Shovel Season is quickly approaching, so I might as well take this opportunity to get in shape for it, too.  Heave ho!

First step is to evict the resident lettuce, arugula, endive and escarole.  Potato onions at bottom of frame get to stay.

By halves, I remove the top shovel depth level of soil in the bed.  Notice I have left a ledge on the perimeter:  I am kind of making a tub

Third step is to lay down 3-4″ of mixed poo, including a bit of bedding from the rabbits

Fourth step is to replace the soil

Fifth step is to give it a good soaking: I didn’t need to do this, everything was wet already, so let’s skip to the Sixth step is to lay in some rows of seeds

Seventh step is to cover the bed to keep in the heat

And now I wait.  The microbial action of the mixed turkey, chicken, bunny and goat poo eating up the brown bedding material should happen quickly.  The point of this is to raise the temperature of the soil to a level that the seeds spring with life.  Ambient greenhouse temperatures range from 50-90*F in the daytime, with nighttime lows in the 40s.  The “normal” soil temperature, untreated, is around 55, which is quite fine for seed sprouting.  I expect this hot bed to jump to about 70, which means quicker germination.

This bed has been seeded with quick crops (turnips, radishes, spinach, arugula, lettuces) and transfer crops (broccoli, cabbages).  Nobody gets a long stay, in other words.  They’ll all be in and out by the first week of June.  Then, the bed gets the hot stuff (tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and okra).

You don’t need a greenhouse to do this, of course.  As long as you don’t have heavy, wet soil, you can do this in an outdoor bed.  I would tent it with plastic, as long as you vent it in the hot part of the day.


On pottery

About two years ago, I signed up for my first ceramics class.  I had stifled a yearning to play with clay for years, and finally embraced it.  So I have taken continuous classes at the local museum, taking the summers off, but otherwise making lots of useful things.

I still suck at it, frankly.  It’s a good feeling, this lack of control.  I suppose I am getting “better,” but just barely.  Frankly, I like my wobbly cups and bowls.

However, the pièce de résistance has been my new pickle crock.  It does not suck.

so deep!

At 12.5″ high, 11″ wide at the top, it holds a bit more than three gallons.  It’s coiled, not thrown.  Cone 6.  And:  it’s currently making its first batch of wonderful fermented magic (a mixed veg greenhouse clean-out:  cabbage, chard stems, escarole, carrots, kohlrabi, green onions and herbs…and from basement storage, onions and garlic).

I also made a couple of sets of weights to fit inside and weigh down the stuff.  This set fits my other crock…but they work fine in this one, too.

Anyway, it’s fun!  Learn from my experience:  Even if you’re afraid of producing things not up to your own personal high standards of craft and capital-A Art, you should go out and try, whatever it is.  You might just surprise yourself, producing usable things beyond any price.  And that, my friends, is beauty.

On good art in the great Northwest

Seattleites! Washingtonians!  All you all up there!  If you’ve got some time on Thursday March 3rd, go attend my husband’s opening at the Gail Gibson Gallery from 6-8pm.  He’ll be there, glad-handing; I will be milking a goat and shoveling snow, alas, back home.

Here’s a link to the gallery, and you can see more of his work there.  It’s his newest gallery, and they’d love your support!

On tips for beginning gardeners

Potato flower, which looks a lot like a tomato flower:  it’s all in the family after all

Over the years I have served as garden coach to many a newbie gardener.  Strikingly, most pitfalls to a new gardener’s success have much less to do with what you would suspect (bad weather/bugs/blight) than what you might not: namely, a beginning gardener’s blinding ambition.

It’s true.  Somehow, so many gardeners (new and old) hear the officials’ calls of Onyourmarks, getset, GO! and they’re off, planting way too many seeds and plants in one way too big garden on one way too dirty, sweaty, tiresome weekend in May…and have shot their wad, garden-wise, finding themselves overwhelmed by June’s bugs, July’s weeds and August’s tomatoes.  With the exception of places with constricted growing seasons (less than 50 frost-free days), caring for a garden shouldn’t be a race at all.  And everyone:  there is no point in the spring rush.

Sacrilege alert:  What I am trying to say here is that spring is not what it is cracked up to be, garden-wise.  Beautiful spring days are often accompanied by chilly, damp soil and cold, windy nights.  If you want true success, you might want to look at the back end of the season:  the days of autumn are often crisp but the soil is warm and the nights aren’t nearly as bracing.  And the light levels in April and September are the same.  So take some pressure off yourself this spring while you extend your mind and your growing season.  You have a lot of learning ahead of you so it’s best you study up now, in January!

Here are my Top Ten Tips for Beginning Gardeners:

  1. Read up! Try to get your mind around plant families:  in more cases than not, the growing conditions and requirements across a family of plants is the same.  (Cheat sheet:  Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed.  Even if you’re not growing for seed, it’s good to know this information.  Regional guides appended at each section.)
  2. Curb your enthusiasm! Start with a garden half the size you were thinking, or even smaller.  This means starting with fewer seeds and plants, too.
  3. Read the *$^@ growing instructions! Do not, under any circumstance, empty an entire seed packet into a row.  Most reputable seed suppliers (Baker Creek is the lone awful exception) handily stick this growing information right on the envelope:  sowing distance, depth, germination percentage, days to emergence, days to harvest.  This is fabulous knowledge, people, right at your fingertips.  Bring your glasses and read it.
  4. Bring a yardstick with you into the garden! If a plant requires an 18″ square space to do its thing then give it an 18″ square slice of soil to do it.  Look to its vertical needs too.
  5. Don’t plant all the seedlings in the grower’s pack! This is a subcategory of #2.  Do you really need all 9 Scotch bonnet pepper plants?  Trade the rest with a friend but do not plant them all, no matter how tempting.
  6. SUCCESSION PLANT! Radishes (21 days) can be followed by lettuce (25 days: do a mesclun mix and use them small) and then by longer-lived bush beans (wax, 53 days) and then by rapini (42 days) and then some cold-loving lettuce again.  (LOOKEE:  you succession plant, you don’t need a big garden!)
  7. Grow what you will eat! This should be obvious, but if you don’t care for zucchini, don’t grow them.
  8. Be a tireless observer! Visit your garden, often, in as many different times of the day as you can.  This is not a chore:  gardening should be enjoyable to you.  And if you visit it often, you’ll be on top of its needs (water, weeding, bugs, etc.).  Say hello to the garden before you dash off for work in the morning.  Bring a glass of wine and a friend in the evening after dinner with no plans to do any gardening work at all, and just enjoy sharing what you see.
  9. Mulch! You don’t want to weed?  Then lay down mulch, thickly, around all but your seed rows.  I use grass clippings and I keep them 2-3″ everywhere.
  10. Let’s say it’s mid-July, you’ve followed steps 1-9, and you’re not getting “enough” out of your garden.  Make new garden beds, expanding to your original idea! Grow bush beans (dried or fresh) in your new beds or start some fennel, kohlrabi, kale and broccoli seeds for fall eating.  And give some consideration on this hot July day to thinking about covering one or two beds to grow through the late fall and winter.

The vegetable garden season, like its yields, should be savored slowly over the whole of the season.  Consider it a long multi-course dinner with some fascinating people you’re just getting to know.   And starting small, with appetizer-sized garden beds, is a great way to avoid being discouraged.  You won’t be overwhelmed, and your desire to garden will only grow.  And by understanding how seeds and plants grow, you’ll be an expert by the time fall garden planting comes around…!  Fresh peas and favas in September, radishes and spinach in October!

On digital housekeeping

Bantams for some reason really like being on the coop roof.  This is a hen.

Hey:  I am quite sure a lot of you all read this blog through a reader, but…I wanted to point out that the hosted blog has had a few changes made to it.  Come on over to the site and take a look.

I feel compelled to mop things up at this time of the year.  (Either that, or I’m motivated by chaos, at least temporarily:  that kitchen renovation that I mentioned is hobbling along…and it’s still needed as a kitchen.)  So.  Above, I have redone the pages (those little tab things at the top of the blog) and have done a little more ‘splainin’ about things that make this little homestead a bit unique, like Loven and the goats and the greenhouses.

There’s a tab, too, about 2011 and what it portends, farm-wise…it’s not a list of goals, just a list of the other bits of craziness that we’ve signed on to for this year.

And lastly:  I often get asked if I teach classes.  I have, but I don’t do it often enough to make it worth anyone’s while.  Fortunately I know a really wonderful woman who is a natural teacher, and whose enthusiasm and openness is a great thing to experience.  Her name is Shawna and I will have a running list of her farm’s offerings in my sidebar this year.  If you live in the area, sign up!

Different day, different bird:  Michael Jackson, daddy to the hen above, mid-crow in the morning.

On time off

garden plan 09

click on that link above.  I’ve never published it, but…it’s the gardens.

“You should take some days off,” my boss said.  So here I am on the last week of the year, in that in-between, get-no-work-done week, wondering what I should do with my time.

Should I create?  OR should I destroy?  This is always my dilemma, on those odd days when I have time off (and it is seldom that I do).  Today I am vacillating between going to the studio and making pots, or stay in my kitchen and unmaking the cabinets (i.e., demolition).

I seem to remember most of my construction projects in my old Minneapolis house started this way.  Specifically, I can see my pajama-clad self sitting and sipping coffee at my kitchen table, saying out loud “I hate this floor.”  Boom!  That’s all it took, and for the next three weeks I was on my knees pulling wire staples where the subfloor was held down to the “real” floor of raggedy bird’s-eye maple.

Will this kitchen demo take as long?  Uh, probably.  Perhaps even longer.

Or I can organize my seeds and plan my 2011 garden.  That won’t take as long, and it might actually be a good use of my time.

p.s.:  It’s 4:30 and I have opted for kitchen demolition.  Yay!  Chaos, inside!!

The laughing Buddha smiles at the mess so far (8:00, the night of the morning when I wrote up this post…dusty, dirty, and yeah, I’m happy too).  “You should get rid of this fluorescent light here over the sink, too,” he says.  “But first, find a safe place to put me!”

On the harvest

Of all the years, this was not the best one to start a CSA to sell my surplus vegetables.

It wasn’t a bad year, weather-wise.  In point of fact, this year was fairly normal…being just a touch hotter and drier than what I have come to expect.  So I can’t blame the weather for my lack of planning.  Indeed, this lack of planning?  It is 100% on me.  I have been a GARDEN SLACKER.

You see, normally I am a succession-planting fool.  “No Earth Unplanted, Ever” is the m.o. that I have worked under for years.  Likewise, I rapidly pull and replant areas where harvests wind down (lettuce out, bush beans in; beans out, broccoli in is the pattern for a typical bed).  But this year, because of my goat-y and oven-based distractions, the garden has suffered an amazing lack of attention by yours truly.

One of two.  Last year, I think I had 4 wheelbarrows’ worth.

That’s not to say it hasn’t been productive.  Nope.  Exhibit A:  This year’s winter squash harvest.

I did not plant one seed of this.  These are all volunteers from the compost.  And yes:  I was lucky:  the Queensland Blue squash at the bottom left seems to have not been crossed with anything else; same too with a couple of kabochas buried in the ‘barrow.  The monster pink banana squash though?  They’re a bit…bigger than normal, so obviously there was some cucurbita hanky-panky going on.  Not seen?  Pumpkins, and zucchini, even more butternuts and more than a few mutts that did cross.

It’s not to say that harvesting has been, exactly, easy this year.  Witness my poor hori-hori, whose handle was a victim of our tough clay soil while unearthing the sweet potatoes.   Crack!

I do scratch my head and wonder what the point was to my spring plantings.  I believe I had a notion that I should grow as many starch crops as possible, because, frankly, you plant potatoes in March and harvest them in October with nary a care in the months between.  So I hope my CSA folks like potatoes and sweet potatoes as well as winter squash…there’ll be plenty to eat.  There’s also a lot of leeks out there.  I think I misread a label and planted out, instead of a flat of onion seedlings, one of leeks:  I must need glasses.  The seedlings aren’t THAT similar had I been paying attention.

Well.  It will all work out in the end methinks, but if I am going to have paying customers, I probably should get more serious about this venture.  Eeeks.  This means I need to…plan.

On morning mental math

Sunday evening harvest at a neighbor’s apple orchard:  it’s all who you know.  The girl was so excited for a ride.  We got 8 bushels, gratis.

In the gray half-light of a predawn Monday I am madly pulling Blue Coco pole beans off their vines.  I am puzzling a math problem in my head that goes thus:  If it takes me x time to do something and x+y+z=the time I have before I have to leave the house, why is it that if I shift x with z I am late?  The time is the same.  Yet late is what I will be if I don’t get these things harvested.

Yes, I think I have it all figured out, this harvest, these tasks, but I didn’t quite figure that it’s still REALLY too dark at 6 in the morning after milking to harvest said beans.  And they’re blue (dark purple, actually) beans after all, which makes them even harder to see.  So here I am, running around the garden with hair quite wet from the shower, an hour later than I thought I would be out here.   Mondays are a delivery date for two of my CSA customers, and I need to bring the beans and the boxes to our daughter’s school with us.

I am doing other math in my head too.  One is a simple check of the status of three nappa cabbage (big enough, even though I can barely see them) and the carrot row:  I have just cleaned out the small fermentation crock so I think kimchi is next-up for cooking.  Do I have a knob of ginger, I wonder, as I nearly trip on a hose in the darkness.  Another is a mental calculus about how quickly meat birds grow in relation to the hen-raised birds.  I do believe I need to call back the butcher’s wife and bump up The Date With Destiny I had slated for the Freedom Ranger meat chickens out in the tractor.  I have just let out the yard birds (regular chickens) and two of the dashing young roosters have followed me to the garden gate and have commenced a crowing session.  It’s more like throat-clearing, actually, with a touch of teenaged bravado.  The meat birds in the field are responding, which is amazing to me because they’re a full six weeks younger than these two scrappy creatures at the gate.  I wouldn’t call it outright crowing but I do give them all an A for effort.  And I am doing a mental check on how much freezer space I have.

Beans, zucchini, and tomatoes now picked, I run into the house and bag them up into waiting paper lunch bags.  The share for these two customers is as follows:  one quart each sauerkraut and yogurt, one small chevre, two servings of savory bread pudding, a monster red pepper, the aforementioned vegetables and a dozen eggs.  And a good dozen apples.  I would say that’s a decent harvest.  And I am late!

On plans

So, for the summer, I thought I would lighten my load by posting once a week.  You know what?  I *like* only posting once a week!  I am going to continue the trend.  It just seems sensible, what with all I have bitten off.

School is back in session for us, and with it a shift in the flow of the day.  It’s fun and good:  we’re all earlier to bed, earlier to rise.  Okay, maybe “fun” is the wrong word as we all seem a bit more harried, but that could simply be us adjusting our schedules.  And with a new year comes homework (!) and more nightly music lessons and projects of interest.  One project:  Learning to spin.  And knit what we spin.  Oh boy.

Me doing the usual bite-lip-in-concentration thing

Another new-ish thing for the late summer/fall is that I have begun an informal CSA.  I only have five subscribers but goodness, I didn’t plant my summer garden thinking I was to harvest enough for six households…in other words, it’s a stretch!  Fortunately, it IS informal, and the mix of goods is broad (yogurt/kefir/cheese, eggs, veg, fruit, bread, and canned goods, as well as fresh ferments like krauts and kimchi as I make them.  And leftovers.  My subscribers aren’t picky, and actually appreciate a quart of bean soup.).  We all just figured on a weekly dollar amount and I will scare up enough victuals to hit that number.  So far, it’s been working.  The summer CSA will focus more on veg and the fall/winter more on salad…and oven bread and beans and the like.

Next year is projected to be a Year of Meat.  We will be raising meat chickens for the CSA members.  I am also going to get into meat rabbits, and Tom wants to do bees (which are not meat but, you know, honey is wonderful).  We are also toying with the idea of a fiber animal or two (either one angora goat or two sheep…we don’t want to do angora rabbits as the brushing sessions seem too time-intensive).  It’s all part of a piece, really, about learning, sharing, and doing.  For us, doing is being, and when we’re growing and learning new things, we’re happy.

Everything is an evolution, whether one is adding to one’s workload or reducing it.  Right?

On a quick end to the canning season

Look at all that empty space!  It makes me so happy!

For the first time ever, I have all my major canning* done before 1 September.

And even more importantly, I have done less of it than in years past.  What is up with that?  Shouldn’t I be, you know, squirreling away as many canned goodies as I am able for the future?  The answer I am coming up with is “No, not necessarily.”

I suppose a bit of background needed for this seemingly contrary stand.  One, I have assessed with the years what it is exactly we eat out of the canned goods and have adjusted accordingly.  Pickles are virtually nonexistent, for one example, and I will never again can beet greens for myself, as I ate them only grudgingly.  Two, I began to do a lot more root cellaring of certain vegetables, but even that has waned in the last couple of years to just potatoes, apples and onions.  And three, most importantly, I am now growing food year-round.  And considering the nutritional superiority of fresh produce over the canned stuff, I feel less compelled to run to the basement for a jar than to grab a basket and go harvest something for dinner.

The majority of the jars you see on those shelves above, then, are convenience items needed to put together a quick meal.  The bottom shelf holds stocks and beans and bean soups.  The next shelf up holds salsas, chutneys, and mustards:  these will continue to be filled as I find the time.  All of the second shelf down from the top is tomatoes and tomato products, from juices on the left progressing to sauce to sauce with stuff to ratatouille and glut sauce to barbecue sauce and ketchup.  The top shelf is fruits to butters to jam.

And the holes in the shelves?  It’s not apple season yet so one of those shelves is destined to hold apple sauce.  And, hah, the bottom-most shelf is either going to hold bottles of home-bottled wine(!) or a rack for cheese-curing later this fall.  Whee!

*I only use a pressure canner, which is how I can get away with having chicken stock and bean salsas and the like. And, produce-wise, the freezer only holds fruits, chevre and meat now, no veggies at all.