Category Archives: sweat

On working vacations

The Mother of All Colanders is holding four pounds of elderberries.  Fortuitously, the wine recipe I used had called for exactly four pounds of berries.  And yes, it is necessary to wear gloves when harvesting and destemming them; they are messy!

When you read this, my one full week of vacation will have ended and my heinie will be warming my work seat.  Sigh.

Of course my vacations involve no vacating, nor really any sitting at all.  And I almost never do take a whole week off:  I just usually dribble the two-week allotment out over the course of the year, granting myself a three- or four-day weekend here and there or as Tom’s art junkets require.  This year was different.  We did some structural work to one of our outbuildings and needed a full week to do it.

Pictured with some of its victims

It’s been years since I got out my Sawzall (reciprocating saw).  Nothing satisfies more than the polite buzz of that saw tearing through something:  without the plaintive whine of the cordless saw, the zip-zip of the chop saw or the quasi-authoritative whir of the table saw, the Sawzall just gets the job done, quietly, with spooky effectiveness.  Now I am wondering if it will again be years before it’s put to use.

Structural crap aside, I did practically wear out the knees of my work pants while weeding the garden paths.  It’s been such a year (you know the ones) wherein one must shuck all unnecessary nonsense in order to simply keep the cogs of the machine well-oiled and turning, and this summer it meant I couldn’t attend to the garden paths as I would like. (Of course, had I had the 25 yards of woodchips required to cover those paths, weeds would not be a problem, but, well, it’s an off-year for the tree-cutting crews around here.)  The garden beds themselves, though, of course are weed-free; a girl needs her standards.

Princess of Pigweed, I would say to myself while creeping on those knees.  Professor of Plantain, Duchess of Dandelion.  Shepherdess of Sheep’s Sorrel, Priestess of Purslane, Lady of Lambs’ Quarters:  the irony that the majority of the weeds I was pulling were edible was not lost on me.  Bursar of Burdock, Contessa of (inedible) Crabgrass.   Luckily, the week had been a wet one, and the weeds came out in clumps, few tools required.  And as I pulled, I marveled yet again at how strong my old arms and back remain.  I can do this for another fifty years, I thought, which would bring me to 95, sweaty and muddy and happy; more wrinkled, more gray.  I am sure lifting beams and wrangling posts and heaving rafters won’t be in my future fifty years from now, but…milking a goat and pulling some path weeds?  Not a problem, no sir.

On doing what you can, canning what you do

The jam convention thusfar:  roasted garlic, apricot, strawberry, three berry (strawberry, cherry, raspberry), and some culturing buttermilk on the kitchen counter

Gosh:  who knew taxes were the third rail of garden blogging?  What social scab shall I pick next:   Capital punishment?  Religion, maybe?

In all seriousness, these last two posts have been fun? something for me to think about, and I enjoyed your responses to them.  All I am really trying to say in both is “do what you can, can what you do,” and hopefully others can benefit from your home-grown goodness too.  So many of our problems are beyond our control.  Our weeds (mostly) and our own small steps toward self-sufficiency and teaching and wide-eyed learning are definitely in our control.  So, in the Hebrew then, amen:  meaning, so be itDo what you can.

And it is with wide-eyed wonderment that my old eyes see things when I go through the gardens or henyard accompanied by a small-ish child.  Even without such a companion, the garden world is plenty inspiring.  Add a goat in milk and the process of changing that milk into food and I am agog, and pleased.  Pleased, and worried, as there is so much!  This brand-new month of August hangs heavy with the fecundity of the farm:  the babies, the leaves, the weeds, some bugs and all that food!!  Do you have enough time to deal with it all and still sleep at night?

There’s wide-eyed, and there’s wild eyed.  Unbelievably, our flightiest chicken, Pauline, is now a mom.  Her chick brings the chick total to 38 for the year.

Mama Pauline with Jellybean

Granted, it’s new for us, Tomato Season.  It’s only Sunday that there were enough tomatoes to harvest for dinner.  Most of gardening and farm-type living is doing this exact thing:  treading water until the deluge.  The weeds can be attended to now, but soon, they can wait.   And then, all that canning.  And then, it ends.

Amen.  And let us feast.

The first tomato dish is probably also the easiest:  dump hot pasta atop finely chopped garlic, onions, tomatoes and torn basil.  Add olive oil and salt and pepper, splash of Balsamic, then mangia.

On the informal economy

Our governor signed a cottage industry farm bill last week!  No longer are small food vendors required to be licensed and have commercial kitchens installed in order to produce and sell their home-baked wares:  anything that can sit on a counter, basically, like pies, breads, granola, jam, jellies, pickles, etc. can now be legally made in Michigan.  I foresee an explosion of home-baked goodness available then for those who can’t or don’t home-bake.  The restrictions are simple.  Label what’s in it, label where it came from (your home’s name and address), and sell less than $15,000 a year in goods.

Things like dried herbs, teas, and tinctures are likewise covered in this bill.  A second bill regarding honey and maple syrup are soon to be passed and signed.

These bills (and now law) make me happy.  Granted, I always have been skirting a bit shy of the law in that what baked goods I have sold I sold before this law took effect.  Likewise, I illegally sell my milk products to friends.  I have made it quite clear to my friends that we’re running afoul of the law, but… the sheer quantity and (frankly) tastiness of the cheeses and kefir and yogurt have been their own kind of advertisement.  You have it at my house, you want it, end of story.  With hope, Michigan will come around and write a law stating that raw milk products can be sold (outside a herd share agreement, that is).

Money only seems to work with those with nothing to trade

I have been quite paranoid too about this influx of cash.  Pin money, egg money, funny money…  Yes it sits in a jar.  Yes my accountant knows about it.  I withdraw cash for things like new animals or delivery of hay or straw…and I leave a tally of what is taken out.  In general the goat has paid for herself and (at this point) 75% of her care.  Give me another two months and she’s a free animal.  The cheese/cultured milk products have paid for the capital outlay of the cheese making equipment and the cultures.  And the products of purchasing a pregnant goat: I’ve made a very even trade of three wethers (neutered baby boy goats) for one doeling…our new girl, Cricket.

Standing partially still for a change

This is a more typical picture

The egg chickens, by comparison, have never paid for themselves.  (The meat birds are not sold; we consume all of them ourselves…this is far cheaper than purchasing meat chickens of similar quality.)  I would expect the turkey I am raising for a friend to pay for himself.  And like the bunnies, the 14 surviving turkey poults were all sold or traded.

So I am now into farm barter.  I got into a heated discussion recently with the whole idea of barter with a friend of mine.  Aren’t you cheating the government?  he contended.  The sale of, say, a goat is not taxed or frankly worried about by the state of Michigan, I replied; it’s the same as if I sold an ATV or a lawn tractor that I had.  I suppose it is considered on-farm income, but then, I don’t list “farm” anywhere on my taxes.  But goodness if you think about what we’ve sunk into the living-on-a-farm project…we’re in no way being compensated by any government for living the life that we do.  I told him it’s a false way of thinking of things.  Indeed, I told him, I don’t give my architectural services away for free:  if I do volunteer, I actually fill out a form saying so.  So farming is not a professional goal of mine.  That money has entered into the equation is…not something that makes me entirely comfortable.  It helps the bottom line, surely, and helps my husband come along for the ride but…it was not a goal.

It’s odd.  I get requests from friends asking, basically, how much more work would it really be for you to bust up another half acre and supply them with vegetables year-round too?  It appears the one CSA that supplies our town friends with victuals has come waaaay down in quantity/quality (and I have seen it and agree).  They like what we do here and buy my $5/gal. bags of salad.  If I look at things THAT way, the greenhouses have paid for themselves many times over.

I am in no way saying we’re a model for a way to earn a living.  But in this post I am saying that with some little effort greater than what you already produce, you might be able to produce for other households too.   I think that without even the monetary reward you can feel good enough to grow and to make things for others:  talk about appreciation!  And even if money doesn’t change hands (it often does not with mine), you may be able to be recompensed with services.  I traded four turkeys for horseback riding lessons for the girl.  That’s so much more enjoyable than money in a quart jar.

Bell and Cricket out doing what they do as the resident Poison Ivy and Bramble Eradication Crew.  Cricket was born toward the end of April, and Bell is on the big side for an American Alpine.  Bell’s coloring is called sundgau and Cricket’s chamoisee.

How exciting! The world thinks I am hard up in Wales!

Penny is barking mad!

Sorry all.  I am not quite sure what happened but my gmail account has been compromised.  I can’t access it and won’t be able to do so for 24 hours or so.  Then, well, we’ll see what damage has been done.

Spooky stuff!  My apologies.  Even when you have high firewalls, I guess it doesn’t always work.  I have no contacts in that email account; the virus seems to have contacted everyone through dint of my emailing or replying to people via that account.

Most assuredly, I am still whiling away the days here in Michigan.  Here’s our beach two nights ago.

On summer vacation

Ripe for the picking

It requires a pair of scissors…

…and an excited and toothless child to harvest and then eat it

Get out the sunscreen, beach chair and the trashy novels!  I will be taking a break from blogging for the summer.  Expect maybe one post a week from me, hopefully every Monday.  (Psst:  put this blog in a reader if you don’t wanna miss anything.)

Of course I realize this is a bad time to quit the blah-blah if you might be in the beginning stages of making your own masonry oven, making your own cheese or making your own booze, as these are all things that are happening in real time at this little farm.  Having one’s own backyard greenhouse, chicken coop, and vegetable garden:  continue to consider me your biggest cheerleader!  Really, shortening the food supply chain to “you” and “yard” means lightening your carbon footprint considerably…and it’s fun.  Trust me on this.

I will leave you with a few favorites from the (yipes! 900-odd post deep) catalog.  As ever, if there’s something you wish to learn about I have probably covered it in some form or another so make good use of the “Search” box up above.  Make free use of my email as well as I do love hearing from you and am more than happy to answer any burning questions you might have.  But otherwise, have a fun summer!

On fear of food

On life without the had-boughtens

I am the bridge

Call me a peasant

This I believe

On constant battles

About 90% of vegetable gardening is merely keeping your eyes open.  I’d say another 5% is actual “work” and 5% is harvesting and storing but really, all that “puttering around in the garden”?  It’s entirely necessary.  It’s field work!  It’s direct observation!  Even with a glass of wine in my hand, I am WORKING, people.

And it is through direct observation that I realize my darned greenhouse seedlings are never ever gonna grow past the stubby 2″ phase unless I do something to stop the munching damage caused by the sowbugs.  I can’t do anything about the sowbugs barring absolute war so…I employ a simpler strategy.  In this instance, entrapment.

The caramel-colored blob is this year’s barrier method.  And “OB” = “Orange Banana,” a delectable paste tomato.

Last year I mounted an office-supplies war with indifferent results (the greenhouse was open-ended thus wind-riven; these collars up and flew away if not simply apart).  This year, I applied the stuff normally applied to tree whips (sapling fruit trees) to prevent girdling by other, equally hungry insects.  [It’s called Tanglefoot; it’s a gooey waterproof paste of wax/oil; used to be made in Grand Rapids but like so many Michigan companies it’s up and gone away.]  Can’t say it won’t stop the bugs from decapitating the seedlings below the point of the goo, but it’s something.  Now, I stand back and watch.  And sip.  And watch some more.

On greenhouse thanks


Time to stop and smell the wisteria

I’ve come to like this time of year.  Sure; it’s spring and there’s much to love in terms of all the natural and botanical shows going on…the weather is fine, the breezes ruffle the curtains and the mosquitoes are not yet out.  Why in world would I ever have a problem with spring, then?

I think you know the answer:  it’s called PlantItNowItis.

With the Mother’s Day holiday looming, most northern gardeners have task lists as long as their arms, and they’re plenty frazzled.  (Everyone not in the north:  Mother’s Day is the unofficial/official Start Gardening day.)  How many times have YOU lost your planting shovel this year?  (Me: twice.)  But I am somehow less flappable, more sanguine about spring.  I can pick and choose my tasks, with some being of course more front-burner than back-.  What’s my secret?  The season extension offered by the greenhouses, of course.  It’s taken away a lot of my seasonal panic by giving me, frankly, a longer growing season.

(people!  remember, I am a greenhouse/hoophouse evangelist, so…buy my snake oil or not as you see fit!)

Anyway, I have had time to attend to other things, like cleaning OUT the greenhouses of their winter contents and general tidying-up…all tasks that have eluded me on previous May 5ths.

Behold the reconstituted mailbox, for example, and the netting covering the now-open ends of the new greenhouse.  Always, a dry place for gloves, tools and lettuce-bags.

And no tomato hornworms this year, I swear, nor any cabbage butterflies!  (One makes such oaths and it becomes more realistic if one installs netting, you see, as the holes are too big for the adult moths to fly in and lay their eggs on my precious ‘maters and broccoli.)

It’s these little things, and taking (finding, making) time to do them, that make me most grateful.  If I find I have time, then what better place to spend it than puttering around the gardens with my family?  Thanks, greenhouses, for adding to our quality of life as well as our diet.

On new garden tools

I have said it before:  in matters of taste, there is no argument (De gustibus non est disputandum).

Now having said that, let me tell you about something I like!

All tools are personal things.  What works for you won’t work for me, and vice-versa.  And after early experiences, I have long maintained a Do Not Buy policy for my own garden toolshed.  I learned that I was wasting my money AND precious tool-storage space by succumbing to every short-handled tool whim.  I always used what I liked, and what I liked was never the new-fangled thingy I thought I needed to have.

Well!  After years of coveting, I broke my rule and bought this tool.

It does look positively murderous:  like the game of Clue, Mr. Green did it in the garden with the Korean Ho-mi!

It is the BOMB.  Seriously.  I have never planted potatoes faster, or planted peas with such ease.  Like all new things, you need to learn how to use it.  My only criticism is that the handle is overly large.  I purchased it from the stalwart folks at A.M. Leonard:  I can only guess (if it was they who made it that is) that those swarthy Germanic Ohio boys have bigger hands than my dainty blistered Irish ones…and certainly my hands aren’t much smaller than those gardeners of peninsular eastern Asia, from whence the design comes.  No matter.  There still is no ONE garden tool I turn to, and this one isn’t it either, so the diameter of the handle doesn’t bother me enough to have it changed.

I am glad to have added it to the collection.  And, goodness knows, it does look intimidating.  I think we can all agree about that.

On busy weekends

I am not one to take myself overly seriously.  I also gave up a life of stress an eternity ago, it seems, when I left my city job behind.  However, every once in a while I will have a bout of “get it done” farm-related insomnia!  Like, ohgosh wouldn’t it be great if I could take two days off of work to at least get caught up on my to-do list?

And then I have weekends like last weekend.  It was a weekend in which I get so many things crossed off that I realize…my list is probably not long enough!

But, two non-weekend days off does sound nice.

Hard to tell, but the grape vines are pruned:  I always seem to leave more on the ground than on the trellises.  Number One at the top; Number Two at the bottom.

The kids really don’t help much with the trimming pickup, but they think the tractor is cool.  Number Two in the driver’s seat, Number Three (bottle baby) riding sidecar.

Kids are great as dance partners with your own kid, though.  That’s little Number Three.

And there are bunnies to pet.  It’s amazing how quickly they are growing; they’re a month old.  And:  we have six of the things!

Here’s the girl holding a baby and Daddy Dum-Dum to show you how big the babies will eventually get; not big in other words, as they’re Mini-Rex rabbits…and terribly soft.

And Ruby is officially on lock-down under the Chicken Tractor, complete with doghouse and 9 eggs.  Earl is verklempt!

On family converts

Little hills of dirt marked with headstones:  graves of life, not death

Nothing like a deadline to get one motivated, eh?  Actually, this spring has been nothing BUT deadlines for me, professionally, personally, and garden-wise; throw a new hobby in there (goat milking and husbandry) and guess what?  The blog suffers!  I am sure you’ll forgive me.

Here’s the deadline.  As of two days ago, I finally planted the heat-loving crops (tomatoes, tomatillos, peppers, husk cherries, okra) under lights in the basement.  If these were all just for ME, then I could’ve continued my seed-slacker ways, but no.  Many of them are for other people.  I have the school gardens to grow for, and then there’s my mother to consider.

Mom was out this weekend, and when inspecting the greenhouses’ contents, she said to me:  “You’re going to think I am completely crazy.  Please consider what I have to say before you say anything.

I want my own greenhouse.

To which I of course said HOORAY!  So I ordered her up a 10’x12′ kit from the same outfit where I got both of mine.  I ordered a couple of other things for it over and above the kit, but…come Easter weekend, I should be pounding stakes in the ground in the back yard of her house in the dunes.  I will of course document it to show you how easy it is, even considering how she has no real soil to speak of (maybe 3″ deep).

This woman wants her homegrown tomatoes, tout suite!  Thus, my “rush” to planting.

On new hobbies

Like I don’t have enough to do, I have decided that 2010 is the year I will make wine too.

In my aim to make this a full-service farm, wine has intimidated me.  I have said for years that indeed I will do something more readily enjoyable (for grownups anyway) with those 50 grapevines.  And wine as we all know certainly doesn’t start and stop with grapes:  dandelion wine, anyone?  Strawberry, blueberry?  Plum?  Well.  The process intimidated me, that is, until another D.I.Y. someone I’m getting to know kind of stopped, looked me up and down and said, well, why AREN’T  you making wine, considering everything else you can do?  It’s easy, he said.

Easy!  Well, we’ll see about that.  In the meantime, Craigslist is again my friend, this time with finding glass carboys.

(Now I am wondering if anyone’s ever made wine out of winter squash….)

On appropriate technology

New milk stand with recycled materials:  reused 1x4s, old metal base from the basement’s concrete washtubs, and our daughter’s old table’s top.  It is wider than it needs to be:  I intend to sit on it to milk her.  “Scootch over, sister!”

I got an interesting technology request the other day from a reader.

She’s trying to do more things herself, whether it’s growing or preserving or just looking at lifestyle choices.  Considering that many people reading this blog are on a similar path, I must mention that where she is making this quest is a little different:  it’s in a now-peaceful, war-ravaged country, and she’s not completely at home in the language.  She doesn’t have the liberty of being able to choose which big-box store to shop in for her greenhouse plastic or her canning jars or gardening equipment.  She can’t just go to the local library to read up on these things.  And simply ordering goods over the internet is not exactly something one can do in a not-fully-operational state.  Even considering her circumstances, though, there are many parallels we can draw to our own quests:  sometimes it’s money that’s the limit, sometimes it’s time, sometimes, it’s know-how.  But always, we should consider what’s appropriate.

The great equalizer, thankfully, is the internet!  So much information found “out there,” some of dubious value certainly, but if you have your own bullsh*t-o-meter pretty highly tuned, you can find some gems.  What I recommended to her is that she’s got the great good fortune to be living in an area that’s not as cold as Michigan (!) so there is a lot open to her, greenery-wise.  You don’t need a lot of technology to grow your own food:  a hoe, a shovel, maybe a garden fork and a decent hand tool can be found in any corner of the globe.  Seeds are cheap.  And compost happens everywhere….even north of the arctic circle.

So grow more of your own, and try to grow it year-round.  Build your own cold frame or greenhouse to extend the season.  Use scraps!  There’s no shame at all in recycling; you’re making a better environmental choice by reusing what you can find.  My first cold frame was a transparent plastic sweater box, frankly, the first winter I lived here:  that’s where I sprouted my first salads and hardened off my tomato plants.  And you don’t need to can things if you can try to figure out a way of growing year-round.  Swear off tomatoes for half a year if you have no way of preserving them, but…drying the small ones is something most people can do in their ovens or on the roofs of their buildings in the summer sun.  Pickling, lacto-fermenting, and salt-curing are other methods of preserving one’s harvest.  As is a root cellar:  that could simply be a box in your basement or garage, it doesn’t need to be a proper cellar.

I think so much of this…whatever it is I am doing (homesteading? DIY?) is simply a mindshift.  I could not duplicate what I was eating before, so I switched our diet.  (I can no longer walk to get sushi, for example, or a cappuccino, or that delivered-to-my-door CSA, or get Thai food delivered; but I can get fresh eggs and fruit and garden produce.)  It’s not the same; it’s different.  And it takes longer, and I have less time.  (I am a parent now too so I’m dividing that time pie into pretty thin slices, come to think of it.)  But I am far happier for learning these new skills, for choosing to live this life, financial challenges, failed harvests, blisters and all.

Here’s a few sources of decent information:

The only thing I had to buy was the hook and eye to keep the head gate locked.  This was her maiden voyage so I hadn’t set the eye yet.  Appropriate technology:  no milking machine, just me and a bucket and a milk stand.  Oh and a goat!

On the hidden costs of cheesemaking

Last week’s (top) and this week’s yogurt made from our milk share

Over the years my husband and I have had a bit of a tussle over finances.  This of course is the typical marital story.  Defining our particular story is my yen to DIY, and almost every little project I undertake, financially, has a big start-up cost.  It has a start-up cost (mainly in materials) that almost always requires no huge outlay of later cash…no bubble, as it were; only maintenance money.  So I have been able to persuade him that my *needs* are, well, inexpensive if you amortize!  At this point he trusts me.

The things I am thinking of are the chicken coop, the chicken tractor, the greenhouses, the goat(s), the (so far unfinished) masonry oven.  Smaller things likewise can be considered:  the pressure canner, the grain mill, the chest freezers, the tiller.  The orchard.  Raised beds for the gardens.  All of them have paid for themselves or will do so within the first year or so of owning them.  And any of my kookier ideas also have an out, financially:  2010, to name one example, will be the first year I don’t have to order chicks because we have roosters and a tom turkey, thus, self-sufficiency in egg and meat birds.

But cheesemaking.  I mentioned a while back how I found life as a single vegetarian to be much less expensive than omnivory…mainly because I almost never bought cheese!  I adore cheese, but it was rare that I would shell out for it, despite my love of the stuff…good butter being the one exception.  NOW there’s a goat in the shed, and she’s bagging up quite nicely, and within about a month I will don the bonnet of Resident Milkmaid.  And fresh milk means cheese.  And homemade cheese means…damn, another start-up cost!

A few years back when the homemade cheese bug bit me, I purchased a starter kit from Hoegger Goat Supply.  It’s served me nicely and I haven’t gone back to that well, but then again, I didn’t try to make hard cheeses or aged cheeses.  Now, though, now I have printed out little plans for my husband to build me a cheese press (he likes to feel handy) and now I have finally purchased and read Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making.  And I am discovering that that woman is a pusher.  Seriously:  is she any different than the guy on the corner who’s giving you a little taste for free so you can keep coming back to feed your habit?  I read the recipes and I think:  hmmm, thermophilic culture, I need that; how about a bag of penicillium candidum, and might as well get a bag of p. roquefortii while I am at it.  And then, well, use it up and keep coming back for more.  Yogurt sure doesn’t have this problem:  make it once, always have it (like sourdough).

Man!  What would Ma Ingalls do?  She’d culture her own.  Something else to figure out, I guess…stay tuned.

On the art front

Pine (Remembering Andrew Sie), by Thomas Allen, 2009

Not much happening on the garden front, so I thought I would share art stuff.  Tom’s got a portfolio in the January issue of Harper’s.

You can see more of his work here.

On manual labor

Until the weather turned “normal” late last week, I’ve been obsessively building something outside.  It’s something that will bring a lot of my efforts together, not necessarily effortlessly, but certainly enjoyably.  We should all aim to get a lot of enjoyment out of life.

But I wanted to talk about the process of building.  I have mostly LOVED getting extremely sore:  I enjoy this about gardening, too.  Certainly, I haven’t strained myself into a hospital visit, but solid hours of lifting anything is not part of my normal day:  at most, I lift my laptop and piles of drawings, sometimes a book…my normal work is not exactly physically demanding.  But construction!

I am trying to puzzle out what it is about manual labor that is so immediately appealing to me.  We discussed something similar to this over the Thanksgiving table.  My father in law seriously believes I should go into pie-baking as a sideline.  “But once you do it for a living, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it,” he said, taking another bite.  So:  is it the novelty of construction?  I build things all the time for a living, and though the same kind of thought process goes into it, doing architecture on the computer isn’t the same as constructing architecture with my hands.  But I think I have figured it out, why I enjoy it so much:  it’s the time required.

I believe I get more accomplished in 3 hours of laying bricks than I do in 3 hours of computer time.  It’s actually productive time, well-spent, with progress observed and felt.

Don’t get me wrong:  if it wasn’t for computers, I wouldn’t be able to work from home.  I wouldn’t have all of you in my life, and life would be a lot less easy in so many respects.  But computers are A HUGE TIME-SUCK.  Really!  This is not a unique observation, nor certainly is it new to me, but this contrast between outdoor work and computer work has been very jarring.  Computers steal time from our lives, minute by uploading minute, autosave by refresh by page load.  Somehow, we’ve acquiesced to this, we’ve agreed to spend a large portion of our lives allowing our asses to grow ever larger, sitting in front of a screen, all because we think these tools are indispensable, and helpful.  And so muscles atrophy, brain synapses misfire.  I’ve always thought the television was bad but now I am reconsidering this damned internet connection, seeing it as the black hole of time that it is.

All the more reason to pick up a hammer.

On late fall non-food harvests

Sunday found me dodging the raindrops of a late autumn thunderstorm.  What’s with the fireworks, I ask that cloudy sky, don’t you know there’s outdoor work to be done? I got doused for my impertinence.

Plan B had me harvesting the last of the calendula blossoms for another batch of balm.  “Make balm while the rain falls,” then, became the activity of the afternoon.  I upped the quantity of beeswax considerably in this batch:  I enjoyed the easy spreading of the first recipe but this batch is solely for gifts, and I don’t like complaints about greasiness.  (Unbelievably, yes, people tell me to my face that they didn’t like to use that last batch, as it didn’t melt into their hands with the rapidity that alcohol-based commercial products will do.  This either means that I am the type of person who won’t take offense, or this means I have some loose-lipped, patently unworthy friends:  you be the judge.)

Really, there’s nothing easier than growing calendula:  once you have it, you always will.  And if you can melt oil in a pan and grate a bar of beeswax, this, too, can be yours.

And the consistency:  it’s up to you, so…no complaints!

On losing the island, gaining the continent

P1010876Showing his niece the well-prepared garden beds

This weekend, for the first time in a long time, I got to spend a lot of time with my brother, all by ourselves.

Life intervenes and sometimes it will be a long time before adult siblings do things with “just” themselves, no spouses or parental units or children around.  He and I had a great time.  This wasn’t always the case when we were children in the same house, certainly, but we both really looked forward to his spending the weekend on the farm, and we both thoroughly enjoyed the visit.

It is with much happiness that I recently read that the DSM-VI, due to come out in 2012, will focus on the Autism Spectrum Disorders as just that:  a disorder that has a wide spectrum.  The world of shrinkdom and the general medical, educational and, indeed, American people will then just concentrate on this one thing.  Autism.  It’s a big flipping tent, people, with a strong emphasis on “spectrum.”  Gone will be the categories of Asperger’s and P.D.D.-N.O.S., little islands in the field, one stating a putative intellectual superiority, the other a not-quite-square-peg-but-close-enough nondiagnosis.

You see, my brother is autistic.  Not Asperger’s, not P.D.D.-N.O.S., not retarded, not a savant, but autistic.

One of the things that has irked me terribly is that most discussions of autism have tended to focus almost entirely on the cute, young, odd, mostly male children affected by it.  It’s a communication disorder, and I find it entirely ironic that it has been communicated to be a developmental disorder solely found in very young children.  My brother is in his early 40s, folks; though it showed up when he was a toddler, it’s still here!   Thank goodness for Rain Man, is all I can say, as people might never know that autism affects adults as well.

What is entirely interesting to me, in watching my brother, is that the disorder has ebbs and flows itself:  it, indeed, also follows a spectrum along any individual’s life.  Many of his autistic peculiarities have receded with time, residuals of a different way of being.  Gone is the hyper-number thing he had, gone is the full knowledge of the commuter train schedule, gone are many of the odd other parlor tricks he could pull.  What remains is an encyclopedic knowledge of certain events in his life (e.g., “Sister, on May 11, 1975, you said this to me,” etc.) and a somewhat odd ability to be able to tell you what day of the week anything happened.  This latter remains in parlor-trick status, as his one icebreaker is “What’s your birthday, and the year,” and he’ll spit out that you were born on a Wednesday.

P1010838Some aftermath

He’s still the best help I could ever have around here.  Uncomplainingly, he helped me winnow over 50 pounds of beans, and move about 70 wheelbarrowloads of mulch about the garden.  He’s shelling Christmas Limas with his niece as I type this, while I’m in a kitchen redolent of dehydrating cherries and roasting chicken and bread.

He’s no island-dweller.  He’s just who he is, and he lives under the big tent that is Life On This Planet, with all its wonderful, wildly varied human forms.  And I am so glad he’s in my life.

On late fall garden tasks

P1010769Little Edie for scale:  bean bed with monster weeds

November!  It’s time for stews, simmering stock and lots of roasts. It’s also my last chance to put the garden to bed.

We have about a month before we can expect snow in earnest, which is good:  that garden is still a weedy mess, I confess.  Despite my usual routine of grass mulch and close plantings, the perennial weeds like dandelion and thin-leaved plantain will take hold between plants, and it is only now that the plants are gone that I notice.  So I am on a rigid routine of hand-weeding beds and paths, about 6 a day, before I cover them deeply in compost and grass clippings and leaf mulch.  All 26 outdoor beds will be covered about 5-6″ thick with this stuff, and some beds, like the cardoon/artichoke beds, will be covered by a foot or more.

Deep cover on the beds serves two purposes.  One, for the beds with winter crops on them (leeks, root veggies), the mulch prevents frost from settling in deeply…at least for a while.  The second reason for deep mulch is for the benefit of the soil itself.  The worms and other creatures will consume the mulch, tunneling through it, tilling it into the soil.  My thick soil has vastly improved these five years by doing this one thing:  mulching in fall, slightly tilling in the remaining mulch in the spring.

The best possible scenario is we get a few light frosts between now and mid-December and THEN blammo we get a foot and a half of snow, which most likely will remain (and get deeper) for the rest of the winter.  The mulch will stay in place that way.  Wait:  did I just say I want it to snow?

On winter squash

P1010729-1The girl with a pink banana squash while Mary Ellen the rooster looks on

There is a good reason I don’t normally flaunt the harvests around here, and yesterday’s squash post demonstrates why:  I tend to harvest things by the wheelbarrowload.  I kind of don’t like showing off how crazy I am so I try to keep things under wraps.  (It’s probably not working, though.)

I did, however, get a few serious questions about winter squash yesterday.  It has taken me a few years to figure out what makes them grow well, so I thought I would share with you the secrets of a successful harvest.  Barring my local conditions (fertile clay soil, lots of sun, lots of rain) here are my tips:

  • My first tip?  Compost!  Ever since my best harvests of cantaloupe and birdhouse gourds came from volunteers in the compost heap, I realized that compost is a squash plant’s best friend.  Last year I moved the compost pile to a different location and I allowed a few volunteers to pop up in the former location, as well as nutrient-hungry corn and popcorn.  I had never been terribly serious about winter squash before last year, because the squash bugs made sure that there was never a serious SUMMER squash harvest.  Squash bugs are vile creatures, bent on the destruction of any squash plant, but crookneck yellow squash (my personal favorite) is its primary target.  I have always succession-planted summer squash (once when the ground warms, the second once the squash bugs hit) and have usually beaten them that way.  But I never figured winter squash was a viable crop until I literally planted them in compost.
  • My second tip is vigilance against vine borers and the aforementioned squash bugs.  Vine borer damage is obvious, and quick; squash bug infestations are slow but sure.  Daily examination helps both.  I got over my “ick” reaction and began squashing squash bug eggs as soon as I could find them, whether I had gloves on or not.  (I seem to be able to handle any vile thing if there’s a protective layer between me and it.)  As long as any one plant has only ONE colony of eggs on it, the plant will live, albeit in a reduced capacity.
  • My third tip is compost tea and a steady application of new compost, especially where the vining plants dig into the ground again (this happens with pumpkins, not with butternuts).  Compost tea for me is just compost sitting in a bucket of water for 2 days; I pour it and the wet compost onto the plant’s roots and  new runners.  No aeration, no straining, nothing fancy.

Geez this sounds like a lot of work.  And I suppose it could be but the winter squash season is a long one, the bug-infestation season a short one.  For the most part I just stand back and watch them grow.

And as to what I am to do with all this?  Well, we’ll eat maybe one or two squash a week, in various guises.  I tend to tuck puree’d squash into anything (breads, mashed potatoes, soups, pies) but honestly only one dinner a week will feature “obvious” squash (as soup, roasted as a side dish, tucked in with some pasta or in risotto).

The Art Report

foley_allen_epilogue-12Epilogue, by Thomas Allen (c-print, 2009)

We’re off again on another art junket!  This time we’re bound for the old stomping grounds of Minneapolis.

We’d love to see you at Tom’s opening on Sat., October 24th, from 6-8 p.m. at Thomas Barry Fine Arts, 530 N. Third St., Minneapolis.

au revoir!

Happy harvest!

P1010358Tomatoes and peppers and popcorn (oh my)

If everyone is as busy as we seem to be lately then you’ll easily understand the lack of posts!  We’ll be back soon…with harvest news.

On tomatoes (a mini-confession)

P1000738The near-nightly occurrence.  The handmade knife was a surprise (read:  off-registry) wedding gift, and I SO love it.  It’s by a metalsmith somewhere in the Cascades, in Washington or Oregon.  If anyone knows the maker, lemme know:  I adore the thing.  It is stamped “MH”,  and it’s a foot long, with a 4 1/2″ high blade.

Coming to the end of the season, I do feel like I have spent the last four months chopping up tomatoes, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating.  Between our own garden’s output (extreme), the school garden’s output (dimmed by late blight but still prolific) and the gleanings from some local farms, the tomatoes were absolutely crazy this year.  I believe we made close to 100 quarts of salsa and chopped tomatoes and pasta sauce *just* for the school, and then there’s our own larder that I am too scared to list.

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Brandywine tomatoes ripening on the kitchen window

For a woman whose family members won’t even EAT a raw tomato (salsa’s the one exception) it is a bit crazy that I grow as many as I do.  Considering the 2008 tally was likewise as big and there were still quarts of juice, sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce and plain tomatoes downstairs when I began to harvest in 2009, I am beginning to believe I am slightly crazy.  Tomatoes *love* the greenhouse conditions, and I *love* growing tomatoes is my only excuse.

I think the blight elsewhere also got me going.  Well, I thought, at least they’re working for ME. Some kind of survivalist tendency or something, some ghost of Depressions past.

I am kind of happy to see the tomatoes go, though.

Except there IS this last bit of green harvest that has yet to ripen:P1010352

Chop chop!

On fall foraging

P1010392Evening foraging trip to the pond behind our property

There is something about winter, you know?  Passing through this harsh and food-free season makes me eager to shake off winter’s traces with a rash of spring-green foraging.  I do it again now that fall breathes winter’s foreboding breath.  I seldom forage in summer.  Spring, though, and fall, and I am in kneeboots and gloves, briar-wicking clothing, knives, pruners, bags and baskets on my person.  Sometimes I cannot wait until I am past the age of respectability and can go about my business looking like a bag lady at all times a year; as it is, it’s only when it’s time for a free harvest that you’ll find me, wild-eyed and eager, tromping through the woods and fields.

Some years are good, some not so good.  What often holds true in the garden holds true in the neighboring fields, deserted orchards and woods around here.  This, despite the cold, was a good year.

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The boletes are in.  And it was a great year.

I am not about to tell you how to find wild mushrooms, or where.  Consider the world of mushrooms to be a bell curve:  at one low end, the edible mushrooms; those in the hugely humped middle are inedible; the other low end are mushrooms that will outright kill you.  The ones that you can eat, though, well:  woodland heaven.

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The Art Report

UnreachableThomas Allen:  Unreachable, 2009

We’ll be stepping away from the gardens, pets and poultry for a few days.  Tom’s latest show, all new work, opens in New York on Thursday night.

He’s had a review in The Daily Beast!  Check it out.

“What, you’re going away during Tomato Season?” came the incredulous query from a friend.  YES!  Not that I can spiff up enough to get all the dirt out from under my nails, but indeed, it’s time for a trip to the city.  And our daughter, ever the budding naturalist, is itchy to see rats in the subway tunnels again.  “There are no rats in the country,” she said.  (Only because she hasn’t seen them, surely.)

So:  if you are in town, come to the opening, 6-8, at Foley Gallery in Chelsea!

On secret gardens

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Boothby’s Blonde cukes in the all-volunteer garden

For the last three years, my daughter has had her own garden bed.

Never one to force the issue, I figured she’d either like the idea of having a space to grow her own stuff, or she wouldn’t.  Either way, whatever is growing in that bed is “hers.”  And, for the third year in a row, she hasn’t shown much interest beyond the initial seed-starting frenzy begun last winter.

That is okay.  The compost yields its gifts quite readily, and this year, in that garden bed of hers, there are: two prolific Costata Romanesco zucchini, four pie pumpkin plants, three butternut squash plants, four tomatoes, and one (at least one, can’t tell) Hubbard squash.  Oh:  and the above cucumber.

She has been delighted with these “finds.”  She considers herself quite the successful gardener.

Who am I to tell her that the garden planted itself?

On work

P1000584The school’s Verde Puebla tomatillos and Riesentraube tomatoes

I have so many irons in the fire now I can’t think straight!  But that is okay.  I feel like things are getting accomplished.

But you should see how weedy the garden is…

I will be back to post later in the week.  Until then!

On squash vine borers

P1000544Uh oh!  Trouble in squash paradise!  Amish Pie Pumpkin looking peaked

If your squash plants appear perkily green one day and wilted and yellow the next, a squash vine borer might just be your nemesis.  This year has been a productive one for squash vine borers in my garden, so I thought I would show you the signs–and maybe cures–to slow down this pest’s rampages.

The adult moth, which looks something like a red-legged wasp, lays its eggs on either the base of a leaf or the base of the plant’s stem.  The larvae, then, either chew their way through the leaf stem and down to the base of the plant or they just have a prime banquet at the base.  So, one way to prevent the moths from laying is to cover the plants until they start blooming (most squash plants rely on insect pollination and need to be uncovered).  This works fine for small summer squash, but for me, well, my 30′ long pumpkin vines are really not going to be covered in row cover any time soon.

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Crap!  Frass!  (But frass IS crap…) Plus, the stem is no longer green; all bad signs

So, I remain vigilant, checking the stems (right about where they go into the ground) for frass (the chewed pulp of the stem:  it looks like sawdust) and for squishy spots.  Out comes my utility knife and a piece of wire.  I cut the plant where I find the hole or the soft spot, and I excise the larva, hopefully whole for the chickens, or squished up with the wire if it’s in an impossible spot.  I make sure to run the long way with my cut (that is, in the direction the plant is growing:  like a tree, most of the moisture flows around the outer diameter of the stem) so I make sure my cuts are vertical, not girding it at all.  After surgery, I bury the whole area where the stem was cut, add more compost to the roots, and water the plant well.

P1000551Little white grubby-looking larva:  this stem was a veritable nursery school of them.  I don’t know if it will recover.

Another thing I do is to make sure the vining plant has more than one rooting spot, so I bury the growing canes anywhere they hit the dirt:  the plant won’t die this way if it is really struck hard by the borer.  Most vines will do this by themselves, incidentally, but it’s nice to help them out.  Another trick I have heard about but not practiced is to wrap the base of the plant in tinfoil to discourage the wasp from laying.  I am not sure this would work, so my roll of tinfoil remains in the pantry.

The one bad thing about my method is it’s not exactly proactive, it’s reactive.  With the exception of burying the branching vines, it’s a daily diligence to verify the borer’s presence.  Another thing on the task list, that is.  But that’s okay.  It’s gainful, rather gross employment!

On balms

P1000405

There was a time when I had beautifully manicured nails.  That time has passed, as has the time of business attire and an obsession with shoes.  I don’t necessarily miss my dry cleaning bills or shoe habit, but my hands could use some help.

Our little Christmas gift experiment was fun:  we made lots of lip balm, bath salts and hand cream for friends.  The kitchen got messy, but canning season sees a lot more general untidiness and stickiness, so I knew I would eventually get back to making more salves and balms.  And vegetable preservation season (also known as Tomato Madness) has not begun in earnest, but the flowers and herbs are truly exploding out there.  Time to mess up the kitchen!

Calendula (pot marigold, Calendula officinalis) is one of those self-seeding wonders that I allow into the vegetable garden.  Their seedlings are readily identifiable in the early spring, and they’re easily removed and/or transplanted to where you might need more color.  They’re not quite the pollinator-attracting darlings that, say, borage is, but selfishly, I love gold and orange, so these guys are allowed to stay.  They have many wonderful properties, too:  the petals are edible, and they contain antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and rash-healing magic within them.  In fact, I had used a calendula-based diaper rash cream on our kid when she was a bulky cloth diaper-clad babe.  Huh!  Well, now, I D.I.Y., with an olive oil, shea butter and beeswax salve.

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Pretty, huh?  Will it bring me back to those lacquered nails and perfect cuticles of my city days?  Doubtful, but…it’s a step.

On accepting help

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Meadow-encroached long bed now grass-free!

On Saturday, three of Tom’s students came to work in the gardens with me.  Considering my recent revelation of (duh!) how much more work gets done with help, I gladly, readily accepted!  And I am so thankful.

It took me a long time to come to this realization:  sometimes, I cannot do it all.  Sometimes, it’s quite nice to have help.

I would say my hesitancy to either ask for or accept help comes from that nagging sense of obligation that attends the help itself.   Would I be willing to return the favor, or would I always feel indebted?  I expect help, for example, with the school garden:  its objective is not so small (feeding the school) whereas my personal garden feeds my personal family.  And maybe that is it: my garden is selfishly mine, whose output feeds me and mine, plus a few other souls as serves my need for dispensing largesse.

We got a lot accomplished Saturday, whatever my feelings are toward accepting the help.  I will say I was rather surprised when a student made the offer, and even more surprised when two other students offered to join.  We shared a happy garden-supplied meal, ate a yard-supplied chicken, drank elderflower cordial and grape juice of the property, and finished with an egg-based dessert from the girls with our strawberries on top.  It was fun, we were dirty and sore.

On gardening friends

P10003162 of 8 garden zones, plus greenhouse, at my friend’s house

Having gardening friends is wonderful.  It is quite true, I do love all of you virtual friends, but having a flesh-and-blood person walk around your gardens with you “is so very much more better,” as my daughter might say.  I am quite envious of those of you who garden with partners, or have relatives or good friends with whom to weed and share tall gardening tales.  Gardening should be shared!

I have gardening buddy who has the idea that, between the two of us, we can figure out every single crop that can grow in southwest Michigan.  He’s got a few years up on me trying to figure this out.  He’s a weekender, coming in from Chicago; they bought their property in the dunes in the late 1980s and have been battling the deer, woodchucks, raccoons, and sandy soil ever since.  His gardens, frankly, are Fort Knox compared to my wide-open plain:  because he’s in the woods, he has 7’ high electrified chain link fencing running around each set of gardens.  I would guess he has twice my square footage under direct cultivation, all in raised beds.

He also has a greenhouse.  His is a “true” greenhouse, not a hoophouse but a proper building with supplemental heat.  Indoors he grows 16’ tall fig trees, as well as bushes of capers, bay, various citrus, curry, allspice, epazote, guavas. Outdoors, it’s much the same as I grow, plus a whole lot more fruit trees.

But before this year, he didn’t seed-save, and he didn’t use his greenhouse to grow salad stuff and vegetables in the winter!!  I will say I have shamed him into doing both these things now.  And soon, he’ll be putting in a hoophouse of his very own.

Because our gardening interests are different, they complement each other:  I am learning so much from him in terms of fruiting things, he from me in terms of…I don’t know, me being a stick in his side about using less energy and seed-saving.  But it is so fun to walk around and say, “has your zucchini ever done this?  What do you think it could be?” and getting a good answer.

I encourage you all to find someone with whom to garden, or at least from whom to learn.

P1000319Friends are also good for buckets full of poison:  rhubarb leaf tea, a general insecticide (oxalic acid kills sucking insects)