Category Archives: sweat

On dreaded tasks

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Goldie tomato with two suckers:  do you see them?

It is the time of year when I think I would save myself a lot of time if I simply used tomato stem-colored towels in my house.  As it is, all human towels (as opposed to dog or car or beach towels) in the house are white, thus, my personal one has the distinction of having a rather unpleasant sage-green cast to it.

Tomato tasks (trimming, staking, tying) are one of the least enjoyed of my garden repertoire.  I’ve opined on this issue probably every year I have been blogging, but it remains the same:  I do not like the work of tomatoes.  Perhaps it’s only because of the green sap that covers my arms and person; you’d think I was fastidious in my habits but let me assure you I am not.  And I don’t need to trim, stake or tie my tomatoes to get a harvest out of them but I do, because doing so encourages a better (bigger, less sickly) harvest.  And I do like a bit of tidiness in the gardens.

Ah well.  I can solve my problem easily by using those sage-colored dog towels in the basement.  But what would I complain about then?

On being food renegades

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

Rot on the tree!

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

P1000186About a third of our harvest

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

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

On starting small

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

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

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

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

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

On finding some shade

Recently I was discussing my greenhouses with some non-gardening folk and it was brought to my attention that hoophouses (polytunnels, etc., i.e., what my greenhouses are) are…not pretty.  “I don’t think we could have them in our neighborhood,” came the supposed-to-be-softening following statement.

I will here admit I was thrown by this comment.  Word to the wise:  do not EVER tell a mother that her baby is UGLY.  She might just pop you one.IMG_1654

So, here I am, about to tell you more things that *I* can do out here in the country, where aesthetics obviously do not matter (!!).  Most gardens aren’t as blessed as my (UGLY) country garden is with all its sun.  Sun, sun I have, in spades.  It’s not the best thing for tender things like lettuces and certain brassicas because sun (mostly just heat) causes them to toughen and bolt into seed.  I do what I can to extend the lettuce season as far as I can, knowing I’m chasing a fleeting thing.  I interplant, usually growing lettuce seedlings in between quicker, taller-growing things like fava beans and broccoli.  And I seek the shade of the few tall perennial things located in the garden, like the lovage pictured above.  This tall, now blooming plant is south of this lettuce bed.  Aesthetically pleasing, no?

IMG_1652And note the ugly baby at the top right

And then I do hee-haw things that no self-respecting HOA would ever allow, like putting weed block over old political sign frames, and fastening it down with clothespins.  Effective, I will tell you!

On gardening up

It is true that some architects have…skyscraper complexes.  I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have one, but I do appreciate structures of all kinds.  And garden trellises are one functional structure that I love, skyscraper complex be damned.

I suppose I crowd my plants more than wide-row gardeners do.  Admittedly, crowded plants can reduce yields because the poor plants are stressed, thus game for predation from all manner of bugs or fungi (crowding leads to less air movement, thus creating a happier growing medium for certain wilts, etc.)  But I am a succession planter, and my soil is pretty darned good…I say this fully admitting it’s more the fact that clay is a fertile medium, and that my judicious compost, manure and mulch applications only replace what the plants suck out.  So I don’t worry much about crowding.

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Pathetic first-pick of strawberries on Tuesday.  You have to know I find this picture hilarious because she never looks like this and has only just put two berries in her mouth while I was adjusting the camera, thinking I wouldn’t notice.   But the photo other than providing humor for her mother shows a couple of the trellises behind her.

But back to trellises.  I have seven permanent trellised bed areas in the garden.  There are also a few teepees of sticks, etc. that are scattered around for effect.  Lots of verticality, in other words, mostly to support the wonderment that is the Pole Bean.  Pole beans, cucumbers, certain members of the winter squash family, peas…all these lovelies appreciate something vertical to clamber up.  And I am here to accommodate them.

I succession plant them, too:  on beds that are staked east-west, I plant peas on the north half, and once bean season starts, I plant pole beans on the south half.  Same trellis, different plants; the peas dying back gracefully when the beans go into full-production mode.  I do the same thing on the north-south staked beds, though I plant first in the east, as the west sun works better at that second planting of beans or cucumbers.  And I do succession-plant the cucumbers.  I start two batches about a month apart, one in the end of May and one late June:  two weeks after each of these plantings, I get the dill going for pickles.

Good golly that sounds like a lot of work.  It’s more work to type it up, I swear, than it is to plant these things!  All I am saying is that if you have a small garden and want more stuff, then go vertical, and share that trellis.  Happy building.

On the broken-windows theory

IMG_1495Cilantro seedlings (they can stay, for now)

Weeds in the paths:  my own version of broken windows.

The broken-windows theory in urban issues means that minor things that are otherwise easily remedied (broken windows, graffiti, trash) tend to snowball, and then the neighborhood slides into urban decay.  Its gardening parallel for me is weedy paths = quite quick chaos in the garden beds.  Does anyone else subscribe to this theory?

My solution, such as it is, is to cover the paths with woodchips.  About 20 tractor loads (10 pickup truck loads) should do the trick for a solid year, with a few poke-throughs during Year Two.  I am now on Year Three of the woodchips in the paths, so they don’t work terribly well any longer.  Sigh.

So, I am trying to figure out which is less work:  getting 20 loads of woodchips from a neighbor>>schlepping them around the paths, or weed>>paths>>with>>hoe>>every>>single>>weekend until the snow falls.

I think I know my answer.

On garden anxiety

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Fava (broad) bean blossoms:  the good thing with gardening is once things are in the ground they mostly take care of themselves

So here it is, 6:00 a.m. on a holiday morning, and I am awake and caffeinated.  Why in the world am I up and around, considering I normally need a crowbar to get me out of bed an hour later on a workday?  Well, garden anxiety of course!

I would say that we have tried to structure our lives out here in the country to be relatively stress-free.  Our city lives weren’t terribly fraught, but they were busy.  Things are certainly busy here, but it’s different in that we are (mostly) in control of our time.  And now, during the spring-busy season, my projects are beginning to outnumber my regularly scheduled tasks.  While this is a normal, even expected occurrence, I woke up in a panic!  Ah!  I gotta get up and PLANT THE CORN!

Granted, gardening for me (and for most of us who do it) is an immensely enjoyable task with a tasty payoff.  I hope it never becomes a drudgery, a point of worry, a burden.  I doubt it will:  my ambitions are manageable ones, or, well, mostly manageable ones!  I suppose I just need to have a few more 5 a.m. awakenings, and days spent getting dirty, before things are back on track.  Then comes Preservation Season, of course…

Having a garden:  what an odd way to have job security!

On potatoes

img_1162Rejects, soon to be populating the compost heap

We planted potatoes this weekend.  This is about 3 weeks later than normal:  I kind of hate to think our harvest will likewise be 3 weeks later, but, so be it.  Planting them “on time” would’ve been futile.  Our very wet and very cold spring, coupled with the clay soil here, would’ve meant rotting potatoes.

There are seriously fewer things that stink as much as a rotten potato.  I have stuck my hands in all manner of awful things, but a sodden, rotting potato is a small water balloon of horror.

Likewise, the late planting meant most of the spuds were spookily sprouting little forests of white-armed sprouts climbing from wrinkled tubers.  Every year, we consume a lot but not all the potatoes.  Every year, I plant more.  Every year, I tell myself I need to find someplace colder than my basement to store them.  Every year, this mantra is repeated.

But this year, I am glad they’re in the ground.  This year the land grab continued as I to devoted even more space to these “apples of the earth” as the French so lovingly call them.  This year kind blogging friends have contributed to the variety by generously giving me five crazy ones:  All Blues, Swedish Peanut Fingerling, Purple Majesty, Huckleberry and Purple Peruvian Fingerling:  I am really looking forward to those beauties! What a little rainbow of colors. (My typical potatoes are much more pedestrian; most are now in their 5th season of seed potatoes grown here so I at least know they grow well.  They’re russets, Kennebecs, Pontiacs, Katahdins and Yukons.)  Including the new additions, there are a lot of potatoes in the ground now.

I wonder what’ll happen next year.

For want of a nail…

A little neglect may breed mischief …
for want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
for want of a shoe the horse was lost;

and for want of a horse the rider was lost. -Benjamin Franklin, from Poor Richard’s Almanac

I have been thinking of this proverb for all the years that I’ve been a country bumpkin.  Substitute “nail” with “fence” and you’ll see what I am getting at:  many country problems are solved (magically) by fences.

However, I have…commitment issues with fences!  I just hate them.  I hate erecting  them, I hate maintaining them, I hate negotiating them, and I hate looking at them.  Would that I could let my poultry truly free-range.  They’d be happier, surely.  Happier, and probably dead.  My garden would be decimated, though, by digging chicken feet.  I would never harvest a ripe tomato without a peck mark in it.

Fences, however, aren’t all bad!  Containment helps; one of the reasons we didn’t get our dairy goats this year is we hadn’t a fenced-in area  in which to pen them.  I would be able to find *all* eggs should the girls be enclosed in a chicken-proof run.  And our turkey could sit on her eggs unmolested had her pen’s fence been tighter.  And the geese:  well.  The secret with them is to simply build something so high they can’t fly out of it.

But back to the proverb.  It’s not a fence I have been missing for all these years, it’s a post-hole auger! (smacks forehead.)

img_1154Beast, in repose

On the gardening workload

img_10661Flea beetle damage on the mustards, the little buggers

For the last two months since the snow melted I have been doing the gardener’s equivalent of thumb-twiddling.

I have limited my exertions to weeding the paths, tidying the beds, doing minor repairs, putting in new fencing, digging new beds (yes in wet clay soil bad me) and in general just fussing.  I’ve made a couple of furtive runs to a farm down the road to get some of their lovely composted horse manure.  Chicken coop cleaned, compost turned, animal fencing repaired.

Damned seedling light tuned off, freeing me from the tyranny.

And now?  NOW there aren’t enough hours in the day to garden!  How did that happen?  I thought I got all the time-consuming-but-necessary work done and out of the way!

On starting new gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On manifest destiny

img_0855One big stack of work

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

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

Wish me luck; that garden is big.

On one’s own baby steps

img_0438-1Snow’s gone:  it’s now fun to find things like these turnips

Yesterday, it got to be 65* here, and I shoveled about 3 cubic yards of woodchips despite the fact that they were still frozen.  I can’t help myself:  the snow has melted and I need to get busy!

The ramp-up to the spring planting season is usually a fairly fraught one.  The gardener experiences what I term Gardener’s A.D.D. and s/he runs around like a fool, having much to do (and seemingly all at once) but accomplishing very little, especially against that long task list and that short gardening calendar.

In my own grand garden schemes I still come up way short of my goal.  It is true.  I do.

But time, as I have mentioned before, is a gardener’s friend.  If I look at the trajectory of my own gardening path of the last 5 years (city gardener on 1/12th an acre==>country gardener with many perennial beds and a small kitchen garden==>year-round subsistence food-growing crazy person who ignores her flowers) I see that I have accomplished much.  Like Rome, them gardens weren’t built in a day.  I had to build them bit by bit, little step by little baby step.

(But I still feel guilty when I see my weedy perennial beds.)

On being an incrementalist

I am going to post a theme this week.  I will call it Baby Steps.  The reason?  One, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed by big tasks and two, I find I work better (and am less of a mental wreck) if I bite things off in small pieces.

Today, I wanted to show you  how our 5 year old baby’s stomping steps help in the harvesting process.

img_06731She loves her cowboy boots.  Might as well put them to work in shelling some flageolet beans.

img_0679Put on some music and get stomping!

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img_0702Ah, good work:  about 1.5 lbs of beans

If I had to shell all 25 pounds of the dried bean harvest at one time I would be more than a little crazy.  Thankfully, this task can be put off, done only when you need the beans.  I have about 15 paper grocery sacks filled with dried, unhusked beans that I simply harvested, tied up to dry in the shed, and bagged when I had the time this winter.  On Sunday, I looked at the contents of our pantry and said “cassoulet might be nice this week,” so out came a bag of beans and fortunately the child is almost always wearing the boots.

(Incidentally, it’s even easier to winnow beans by dancing on them between two sheets.  Then, you can take the bottom, bean-filled sheet outside on a windy day and carefully, with a friend, toss them in the air:  the breeze should separate most of the dried chaff from the heavier beans.  It is not advisable to take this step with a five-year-old, unless you want to play Bean Pickup in the grass.)

On salad

img_0557Fresh from the greenhouses, in a Michigan February

As a city-living vegetarian, I really considered salads to be somewhat overrated.  Maybe I took all those “how can you subsist on rabbit food” comments to heart, but I mostly found salads disappointing after all the preparation that went into making them.  I ate them, sure; still, my heart was not in it.

Nowadays, though?  Now I love the stuff.  I love picking it, I love washing it, I love preparing it…I love my Sunday-afternoon salad-dressing sessions.  Maybe it’s a zen thing, this time that it takes to pick/wash/dry, with some chopping thrown in.

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Green onions, Par-Cel cuttting celery, Flakee carrots, purple-top turnip, and purple kohlrabi

I really love the noise of the knife hitting the cutting board:  thock thock thock.

Maybe I’ve just got a mild case of Stockholm syndrome:  loving one’s oppressors.  Wait:  who’s holding whom hostage:   do I own my greenhouses or do they own me?

On kitchen science, and magic

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Completely hemispheric (no flat spots) antique copper bowl, from France, with brass holding ring.  Get out the whisk and go to town. I usually avoid single-use tools in my kitchen but I make an exception for this beautiful bowl.

On many things in my life, I find I am a half-geek.  That is, I am really interested in knowing HOW something happens (and will often spend hours studying how) but I often stop myself before completely knowing WHY it does.  It’s like I still wish to be caught by surprise, or at least want to still have a bit of faith that something magical can happen.  Also, it’s no fun being a geek 100% of the time (trust me).

In an effort to remove all things electronic from my life, I have increasingly gone for hand-powered tools in the kitchen.   I like stirring/kneading/whisking things by hand, and fortunately my dependency on kitchen electronics was pretty thin to begin with…so not much has been recycled/rehomed.  New things have come in, though, and most of those things were found by my husband (the household shopper) at either the antique mall in town or at various thrift stores.  Here are two items I use all the time, especially now that eggs are in seriously great supply again:  this hand-blender and this copper bowl.

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When I use my (much faster) c. 1925 hand blender, I need both hands, so I make a nest with a dishtowel, tip the bowl, and start whipping.  Loose whites to stiff peaks in less than 4 minutes.

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Whipping egg whites is what I call lots of fun.  The whole process:  separating white from yolk, setting the whites in the bowl, reaching for the blender and the tea towel…it’s enjoyable to me.  The result is fun too (meringue, souffle, roulade, even a simple cake).  That I know how to whisk, or in this case blend, and even why it’s best done in a copper bowl are interesting facts to me…but that it happens at all is where I find the surprise.

And life in the kitchen would be quite boring without a bit of magic.

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Herb and cheddar souffle

On seed envelopes

img_0066One of my manias is seeds and seed-saving.  Perhaps it’s my Catholic upbringing*, but it bothers me that so many good seeds sit in cupboards and drawers and old shoe boxes and never get planted…much less harvested.  This year I decided to winnow down my own considerable stash by doing a seed trade with a few gardening friends.  I stumbled, however, on packaging the seeds.  If I bought envelopes it kind of defeats one of the purposes (thrift) of seed trading.  Fortunately, I am married to an artist, so I put him on the home-made envelope task.

I asked for small envelopes (seed trades don’t mean “four years’ worth of cucumbers”) and I wanted them to be easily made and resealable.  He came up with envelopes made of 4″ square pieces of regular paper.  Here’s the photo tutorial below. You end up with little 2″ envelopes…perfect for, say, 300 lettuce or 6 pumpkin seeds.

*you know, the profligacy of seed wasting evidenced by Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” from The Meaning of Life.  If I truly believed it, I obviously would have more than one child.

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4×4 square piece of paper

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halvsies then quarters

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img_0024tuck one bottom edge into the other

img_0027seeds go into the center here and then the top gets folded over.  Label on the other side and voila…

On being shovel-ready

img_9746Nearly 7′ of the white stuff climbing up the sides of the greenhouse:  this crap does pile up

img_9750It makes sense to clear the sides of some of it, at least down to the 3′ level, if just to let more light in.

img_9745Hope:  while it’s +15*F. outside, here’s what it is inside.  The worst it’s gotten inside is +20* despite the deep freeze of the last week or more.

I’m one of those foolishly idealistic people who actually thinks politics is a higher calling.  Despite the fact that it’s mostly practiced by people with an inflated sense of self worth (and sycophants aplenty to encourage this view), the actual job is to be a servant to the people’s business.  I had no foreknowledge that 11/07/2000 was the start of one of the darkest eras in my life, and it is just as well that I did not.  I do feel, though, that we’ll soon wake from the nightmare that has been the last eight years.  Today is a great day to start a new dream, and it’s time to start digging.

On being stuck

img_2750Gratuitous cuteness photo

Anyone else finding it hard to pull the trigger and order your seeds/critters/thoughts for the upcoming season?  I think I am just as guilty of grinding this economy to a halt as anyone is.  I am finding it really hard, harder than usual (and that is saying something) to open the wallet!  Sigh; I know this is now a worldwide phenomenon.

Anyway, I hope this indecision soon gets, uh, decided, at least for this household.  Too many plans riding on it!

On holiday garden traditions

img_9327Inchelium red (below) and German hardy garlic

I suppose it cannot be called a tradition if it’s only the second time I am doing it, but on New Year’s day I planted some more garlic in the greenhouse.  Last year I found some nearly-sprouty cloves and said “the hell with it” and threw them in an unused greenhouse bed without really thinking much about the consequences.  They ended up being gigantic.  Seriously huge, apple-sized bulbs.  All garlic is now getting the greenhouse treatment.

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My one honest garden tradition that I have is that I like working in the greenhouses (or garden, weather permitting) on each and every holiday.  Solstice came cold and blowy and I turned the compost piles.  Christmas, though frozen, was a greenhouse weeding day!  Thanksgiving was a seed-planting day.  And New Year’s found me with a trowel in my hand.  Considering how much these gardens do for us, this tiny bit of cultivating is my way of saying thanks, of reconnecting a tiny bit with this good earth.

Then I grab what I can for a feast!!

On downtime

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Aunt Jean’s Pole Bean pole beans (a lovely heirloom soup bean): so much time on my hands, I even took time to shell them, plus about another 8 pounds of dried beans.  These lovelies were left on the vine to dry a bit too long, so they automatically become seed stock for next season.

A few days off:  it’s something we all wish we had more of, isn’t it?  (I should clarify by saying a few paid days off.  Nobody willingly wishes for days off without pay.)  I will admit, though:  days off mean trouble for me.

I suppose it’s good trouble.  I get things done.  But it’s bad trouble too as it’s in this downseason, this between-betweens, that I have time to…set lots more work up for myself!  Yes.  So I did things like begin the cure on a couple of hams, make lots more milk-y things (out of the regular repertoire of the biweekly yogurt; we made more kefir, some ricotta, even some ice cream), make entirely too many cookies and baked goods, and plant (in my head) the entire garden plus another half-acre at least.  I inventory, I categorize, I conquer.

And then I wonder why I am so exhausted in the evenings.

On home-made garden goodness

img_9036Round One of the lip balms: lemon/mint and lemon/lavender

Christmas, yet finances are tight:  how about making some home-made goodies?

Tom and I made an assortment of body care products last night.  Lip balms, hand balms, bath scrubs.  We infused a few of our herbs (rosemary, mint, lavender) but otherwise everything else was purchased and then made in our kitchen, mad-scientist style.  I am kind of a hand-balm, lip-balm fool, and Tom definitely leans metrosexual, that is if you can lean that way and live on a farm…so, this was an enjoyable exercise.  You can make all these things too; it’s actually pretty fun.  I like the fact that these things are all natural, all are even edible; no petroleum products or other unpronounceable chemicals here.

(And if you’re the recipient of these things and I am ruining your Christmas day surprise, well…still act surprised, okay?)

On new off-season rituals

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Sunday wheat berry sprouts = Wednesday nutty bread

and look at that cool lid I found at the local hippie store

I guess I never quite know how much time I spend gardening/harvesting/preserving until it’s the off season.

My daughter and I made more apple cider vinegar this weekend from some of our windfalls.  It’s really quite easy to do, and microbes are my friends, as you might well know.  Every batch is slightly different, and that is quite fine with me.  We’ve also begun sprouting edible seeds again.  I even decided to make a new sourdough starter, as my last one has lost some of its tangy oomph.

I will tell you, though, what I have begun to do every Sunday afternoon.  Both of these things take little time, and both of these things are things I need to do weekly anyway so…it is nice to set a slice of time aside, no

Small hands love small tasks like tearing the pesky peels off of shallots.  We have two salad dressings:  a vinaigrette and a buttermilk.  The child likes harvesting the parsley and chervil out of the greenhouse, and she knows where the stash of shallots is stored in the basement.  She gets to harvest, wash and peel, pour and measure; I get to chop; she gets to shake.  It’s a pretty decent arrangement.

I get to sharpen the knives, though.  Maybe when she’s a little older, she can handle the whetstone.

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ORDER UP!  BREAD RECIPE NOW IN THE COMMENTS

On the depths of one’s pantry

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l-r:  Jars of green tomato chutney, and then peach, regular and black bean/corn salsas, in their overexposed glory:  Sweat equity in small packages.

***NOTE:  Roasted Garlic Jelly and Cranberry Mustard recipes now in the comments!  Happy Thanksgiving all.

Now that we’re on the back end of the gardening calendar, I suppose I have to talk about either future or past gardening things.  There’s salad and veggies happening outside, of course, and I am sure I will continue to bore you about those kinds of harvests.  But recently, and as the calendar dictates, I have begun to raid the pantry for our meals.  It’s been an interesting trip, going down this road of harvests past.

Every year I take on a bit more canning.  It is a mild madness I have; it’s some kind of packratting/hoarding instinct certainly but it’s also pretty deeply rooted in the love of good old food.  I’ve told you before how an assessment of one’s canning season really needs to be taken when you’re done with the season:  you will find then what it is you truly shouldn’t have bothered with (beet greens) and what you will never have enough of (many, many things).  Well!  If I have one thing to share so far this season, it’s that I am really glad I put away a lot of weird things.*

The weekend before last, the child and I went to the butcher’s to pick up our half-pig.  (Next weekend it’s time to pick up the cow.)  Stuffed, now, in the new freezer is about 100 pounds of various piggy parts, from smoked hocks to jowl strips to back fat to many 3# hams (of which more later).  Our first meal was a couple of pan-seared pork chops, and I deglazed the pan with a tiny bit of local sherry and…some of my roasted garlic jelly, making a bit of a sauce.  Holy CATS!  Tasty! Then Thursday I browned a 3# shoulder and stewed it for the afternoon in the crock pot with green tomato chutney, carrots, celery, garlic and onions.  My gosh that went down easy.  And there’s leftovers!

Anyway, here’s my lesson.  I am not much of an open-a-jar kind of cook, never have been…but, now that I have more than just plain old jams, tomato sauces, and applesauce downstairs, all bets are off.  It’s time to get out a jar of homemade madness and see what happens.

*These things aren’t really “weird” so much as they’re a bit beyond the pale of the expected pantry fare.  They’re things like salsas, savory jellies, chutneys and mustards (I’m particularly pleased with the roasted pear/apple moutarde and the cranberry mustard downstairs right now: both will be welcome atop leftover turkey on Friday.)  We’re not too pickle-happy here but pickled red onions atop a salad is delightful.  There’s also stuff I haven’t canned at all, like herb vinegars and sauerkraut too.  Yes, it is quite true, I have shoved prepackaged condiments out the door with my quest for all-local, mostly homemade goodies.  Nothing beats mayonnaise, or salad dressing, from your birds’ eggs and your own vinegars.  Madness, I tell you!

Still cranking

I love this thing

Yes, still “putting things by” around here.  (Before you think I am going all OCD with the lined-up apples I will have you know the child was helping so she wanted the apples. aligned. just. so.  Who am I to complain.)

It is funny how clean the kitchen has been lately.  When I went down to get the pressure canner from the basement yesterday, the darned thing had DUST on it.  Wow:  after a month of no use!  But the adjustment period was about the same after this short food preservation break in that almost every pot, bowl, dish and scraper gets hauled out to help in the canning effort.  It’s just what has to happen, I guess…

On walnuts

The kid and I went exploring in the 100 Acre Wood on Saturday.  I swear I have seen an abandoned stand of apple trees on the property, but despite hours of bushwacking, we failed to find it.  All, however, was not lost.  We found walnuts.

These are black walnuts.  I had another batch of English walnuts: they are about half the size.  Note the dye on my fingers:  through the gloves even!

People have remarked, both in person and on the blog, that I appear to be a rather collected, cool person, someone with her proverbial head screwed on straight.  I dunno.  I wouldn’t say I am so even-tempered.   But I do think I have found the secret of my relative sanguinity:  lots of the stuff that I do on the farm allows me to blow off steam!  Case in point (or, case du jour):  shelling the walnuts.

The slag on the driveway is a great aid in shelling.  I visualize the bad things in this world being crushed under my heel as I do it.

If they’ve fallen from the tree, they’re ready to go.  One needs to remove the husk before curing and storing.  In days of yore, the husks were used as a furniture stain:  it is a ready dye that will just as readily go through gloves and stain your fingers and clothing, so…get out the barbecue tongs to handle them, and wear junky clothes.  I step-stomped on these things to crack the husk then rolled it toe-heel-toe to dispatch the rest of the husk.  Moving the husked nuts with the tongs, I agitated them further against the pebbly drive with the boots and a bit of water from the hose.  A final spray-off,  then I picked them up and set them in the shed to dry for a few days on a screen.  I will further store them in some old onion mesh bags, hanging them in the somewhat moist, not-too-warm basement.  Then I will shell them as needed.  I love toasted walnuts atop my salads!

Hosed off and ready for curing

Cranking

Very busy lately!

On note-taking

In the category of “You know it is fall when…”, I started this year’s garden notes.

Are any of you ardent note-takers?  If so, I take my sunhat off to you.  Me, well…I started with the best intentions when I moved here in late fall of 2004.  My first season’s notes were copious, with each variety of vegetable and each bed elaborately detailed.  (How I ever pulled this off with a one-year-old I still don’t know.) Now, I have settled in to creating three sets of notes per annum:  a seed inventory/seed order, seed-starting notes, and then the garden bed inventory.  The latter is what I began last night.

The bed inventory is a bit of a trick, considering I am a manic succession-planter.  My main objective is to label each bed to show what I grew in it that year, thus avoiding putting the same stuff, or same family of stuff, into it again.  Mostly, I simply remember what went where.  Having the notes is kind of a nice crutch though.

But golly:  I had 47 beds of stuff this year to take notes on.  Yipes.

On the death of summer

I spent the autumnal equinox in my car, driving home from Wisconsin.  I thought mostly about changing seasons and death.

Funny:  most of the weekend was spent wildly reveling in the strength of my body and embracing life.  And food.  Glorious food, the fuel of life itself.  But death has a way of sticking its nose in.  Fortunately, I was able to spend some time at the bedside of a dying friend.  I was able to at least say goodbye.  The rest of the weekend was living the life of the living, and living it with those who remain alive, without him now.  He died Friday morning, at home.

Ostensibly, the reason for my journey was to configure a large screened enclosure to house this thing.  This wood-fired oven has been a labor of love for my friend C on her farm.  It’s been wonderful, helping shape this dream with her:  lots of sweat, edible payoff.  The oven needs to be stuccoed yet, and the concrete legs on the side are to hold up plank tables for easy pizza assembly.  But as you can see it is functional.  I spent much of the weekend playing with its functions.

Here are the tomatoes I brought for her (with some gnocchi I made): we threw these in for an overnight roast in the cooling oven (300* down to 125*).

I adored the quick hot pizzas we would wolf down for lunch, but the oven’s greater wonders for me were in its long-term cooking abilities.  Seeing what it could do with the tomatoes, I threw in unshucked corn cobs, some glut sauce hastily made from what I could find in C’s garden, and sliced apples and pears from two neighbors’ trees.  In different pans, we let them cook all day while we labored…except the corn was just on the oven floor. The glut sauce is now frozen and the apples/pears are now butter with ginger, allspice and sugar.

Sweaty dirty working girly arms, and one should always drink out of canning jars, don’t you think?

And then after digging and hammering, wine would come out, and a walk through the cornfield, then hot outdoor showers in the cool dark in this lovely space.  Then dinner.  Repeat the next day.

Ah.  Life.

On vacation

Well, I am off for points northwest, car packed with chopsaw, hammer drill, tool belt and tools.  I’m going to help my friend C build some stuff on her farm in Wisconsin.  (I’m also sneaking a bushel of tomatoes to hand off, too.)  This is my first vacation away from my family since the kid was born, and although it will be strange to be without them, I know I will have lots of fun too.

There will be lots of photos and things to share, but C’s internet connection plainly stinks so please stay tuned to this spot next Tuesday.  Onward!