Tuesday, December 30, 2008

End of the Hoophouse and the Garden

We took the hoophouse down today. Heavy snows coupled with high winds wreaked absolute havoc. The plastic ripped in a number of places along the sides, the doors tore off the ends, and the pipe forming the ridge pole snapped leaving a jagged end flailing about the interior of the remains. The makeshift cold frame we created inside collapsed as well in the wind, rain and snow.

Miraculously, the kale from the summer carries on despite all, and even some of the little sproutings from the fall remain standing and brilliantly green. Even some of the swiss chard wags a brilliant stem and leaf in a last glimmer of fresh, homegrown goodness. We'll be happily sharing them this evening with family and friends in for the holidays.

As unsurprising as this moment is, it is still a bit sad. I had hoped to eat from our garden until the day we left for Japan, and that my neighbor would share in the bounty of it after we had left. And in some ways that will still be true. Our larder, despite overflowing gift bags to family and friends in Michigan and Wisconsin, is still quite full. The pickled beets we enjoyed last night with our soup and salad were a delight, and I confess the jar in the refrigerator is still on my mind. As a friend once told me, that pop as you open the jar is one of the most satisfying sounds. I immediately harken back to the moment they were canned - the heat, the sun, the smell of the spicy brine, and sometimes even the field where they were picked - and relish the thought of their sweet and sour taste.

We will, of course, resurrect the hoophouse and cold frame when we return from Japan. The design will be tweaked for a stronger structure, and the use of plastic will be reviewed. We have been giving some thought to an A-frame. And the cold frame, at the very least, will not have cardboard sides. Both were a joy to us and made sense in many ways for how we wish to eat and therefore live. It has been a good learning experience.

This marks, as well, the near final farewell to the garden. Whatever kale we receive now is bonus material, and our primary focus will be on redoing the paths and priming the beds for a good rest. I see truckloads of manure in my future along with landscape cloth and newspapers. That, along with whatever agrarian and vegetable adventures I have in Japan are something to look forward to in the new year.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

More Hoophouse Blues

When it rains, it pours. Or in our case, it snows a ton.

Right on the hoophouse. Causing it to cave in.


And then temperatures drop to Arctic-like levels.

So, we've decided that the hoophouse is coming down after the holidays. It's been great, but the design is not ideal for snowy weather. It would be better if the the ridge pole along the center had supporting poles - two on either side of the center of the arch - to help keep it up during a snow. The doors need some refining as well, as do the clamps. The clamps are painful to work with, and it makes opening and closing the doors an unwelcome proposition. Under consideration for the next time around are hard sides with actual doors and actual windows at the top. The seal would be better and the overall integrity of the structure would also be improved.

On a happier note, the cold frame inside the hoophouse did well. (And it wasn't crushed in the collapsing!) This will carry on in future structures, but most likely with a more organized approach. I'd like more frames and not made out of cardboard at the last minute. There's no shame in such things, but it is still less than ideal.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Sybil's Cabbage Soup

My friend Sybil bills herself as a science geek, but she's one of the best story tellers I've ever met and incredibly creative. She's brought more than one plant or tree to vivid life for me as we've walked in the woods or simply sat talking, and shared with me many a tale of her plant and garden adventures. Both she and her husband are terrific cooks - his focus is Lebanese and hers more traditional American and Polish with Lebanese influence - and a dinner invitation to their home is simply never declined.

We were at her house the other night, and she casually brought over a small cup of soup. "Oh, I just made this cabbage soup, and thought you might like to try it," she said in an off-hand manner. We took the cup and took our dutiful spoonfuls, and then fought over who got to eat the remainder. I don't even like cooked cabbage, for heaven's sake. This soup, though, is changing my mind.

A little zippy and full of seasonal foods it was hearty, warming, and heart-warming. And it tasted good the same day she made it from some leftover cabbage from cabbage rolls. (We didn't get any of those this time, but I'm hopeful for the next round.)

Sybil's Inspired Cabbage Soup
8 cups of cabbage, sliced up somewhat thinly
10 cups of water
2 teaspoons salt
3 bay leaves
3 medium carrots or 1.5 cups
1 medium onion
4 large cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 (or more) teaspoon pepper
2 teaspoons dried mustard
1.5 (or more) teaspoons dried spearmint
2 cans Northern beans
3 shakes Tobasco

My adjustments based on current availability in my pantry:
- I used a leek instead of an onion.
- I used mustard seed instead of dried mustard.
- I cut open a bag of peppermint tea and used that instead of dried spearmint. Two very different flavors I now realize, and that minty flavor isn't floating by in each mouthful as it was in Sybil's original version.
- I used dry beans not canned.
- I shook out some chipotle in place of the Tobasco.
- I threw in a couple potatoes for extra fun.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Rescuing the Swiss Chard

The Swiss Chard needed help. A little bit of frostbite turned parts of the stems brown and some of the leaves looked more than a little wilted. These now short plants still manage to push out some brilliant leaves that I gratefully harvest every so many days. But this situation could not last much longer.

We tackled the long talked of cold frame idea this past Saturday. We looked up a few different diagrams and plans, and settled on two possibilities. (There were tons more but these seemed the most helpful to us.) This cold frame description is helpful and describes what to watch out for and how a cold frame can be used. By far the simplest and most straight-forward explanation, this is the one we eventually decided to follow.

The Savvy Gardener offers a very nice description of cold frames and hot beds along with an assortment of building plans from the electric to the old window kind. I'd never heard the term hot bed before, but now I know that's what we were aiming for somewhat when we hauled in the horse manure. The site does a nice job explaining the wide variety of ways plants can be protected from the cold and how great a job each device does.

The cold frame is meant to go inside the hoophouse to add an additional layer of protection for the Swiss Chard. Eliot Coleman, author of The Four Season Harvest, inspired this idea. (His cold frames and hoophouses are near works of art, whereas ours are a bit more equivalent to cheap knock-offs of name brands. They may not last as long, but for now they get the job done.) By having a cold frame inside the hoophouse the growing season for things like swiss chard, parsley, and other semi-sensitive greens is extended in some cases right through the coldest weather.

We fashioned our cold frame from an old window a neighbor was throwing out, some old pipe insulation, and a cardboard box. We cut the cardboard to fit the window dimensions, angled the sides to drop and allow sunshine in, and used the insulation to offer a tighter seal between the window and the cardboard. We used cardboard because we were in a hurry, and we wanted a relatively safe test run before committing to wood. Plus, inside the hoophouse the cardboard won't break down very quickly at all.

We chose a spot where we could fit in the most Swiss Chard, and snuggled the frame into the dirt. I scooped in some of the horse manure to help seal the base further and offer a little additional warmth. The insulation went around the top, and the window went on top of that. Ta-dah! Cold frame in a hoophouse. Now we just need to rescue the Dinosaur kale, and the seedlings...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stone Jar Molasses Cookies: A Vegan Classic

My cousin Gail celebrated her twentieth birthday yesterday, and this post is in her honor. For if Gail (also known in some circles as Holly) had not gone vegan, I would never have made these cookies. Well, I might have made them since they contain molasses, a personal favorite, but she was a greater motivation than my own sweet tooth.

These cookies are part of the Heritage Cookie section of The Betty Crocker Cooky Book, 1963. A book I remember fondly from childhood, it contains some of my personal favorites. This section focuses on hearty cookies made by our foremothers, and offers some tasty options of which Stone Jar Molasses Cookies are one. These make excellent cutouts, especially for fall. I sometimes make them in the shape of leaves or whatever cutout suits my fancy. They are unbelievably tasty, and to make them vegan just use an alternative for the shortening. The dough does need to chill, so a little extra time is needed.

Stone Jar Molasses Cookies from The Betty Crocker Cooky Book, 1963.
1 cup light molasses
1/2 cup shortening
1 teaspoon soda
2 1/4 cups flour
1 3/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons ginger

Heat molasses to boiling point. Remove from heat and stir in the shortening and soda. (This can be a messy point, so do it near a sink or easily washable surface.) Blend remaining ingredients together; stir in. Chill dough.

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Roll dough out very thing (1/16") on lightly floured board. Cut in desired shapes and place on a lightly greased baking sheet. Bake 5 to 7 minutes or until set.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Hoophouse Harvest

The plants are still small in the hoophouse, and it does get a bit chillier in there than I would like; however, it is so satisfying to still be able to go down to the garden and gather some greens for dinner.

I picked this pot full as I wasn't sure how things would fare during a cold spell and we hadn't built our cold frame yet. Since then we've also tightened and tidied the sides and I think the temperature is holding better. I whipped them up into a salad that evening; threw them raw into wild rice "casserole" with olive oil, cumin, canned tomato sauce, and a little soy sauce for the neighbors; and then sauteed the rest with olive oil and garlic for our usual favorite dinner.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Ginger Cookies with a Well-Worth-It Tummy-Ache

Now that the garden is essentially done I've got a little bit of time on my hands. The canning is basically done (except for a little bit of sauerkraut), the garden is mostly tucked away (except for the hoophouse), and the bulbs are planted (except for a few stray garlic bulbs that I still think I'm going to put in). What better time to bake?

As I perused my grandmother's Settlement Cookbook, I took down three recipes. One was for Chocolate Toffee Bars, and a second was for Ginger Cookies. My Grandma Wegner had an x by these, which means she used this recipe. My mother had no particular memory of them, but since I'm a big fan of molasses anything - cookies, gingerbread (nothing better with vanilla ice cream, oh my!) - I forged ahead.

These cookies did not disappoint. (The plate pictured above is the first of a few, and I don't want to discuss how many I really ate. Let's just say the voice of my Grandma Lambert saying "You're going to to get a tummy-ache." rang in my ears.) I don't actually like making cookies - too much work and I get a bit bored by the last tray meant for the oven which then burns - but I sometimes find a recipe I can't resist. And my efforts - actually paying attention to how long I left them in and keeping true to the recommended size - paid off. They are almost all gone now, but they were so lovely that snowy afternoon.

Ginger Cookies from The Settlement Cookbook, 1951.
3/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup dark molasses (generous)
1 whole egg
2 cups sifted flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cloves

Cream butter and sugar, add egg, molasses, and the remaining dry ingredients, sifted together. Form into balls the size of a small walnut, roll in granulated sugar, place far apart on greased cookie sheet to allow for spreading. Bake at 350 for 10-12 minutes.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Gardening Book Recommendations

The New York Times Book Review ran this review of an assortment of gardening books. Well-written (as one would certainly expect) by Dominique Brown and entertaining in itself, this review is quite useful. I confess I'm getting ready to see if my library can scrounge up a couple of these.

Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition by Robert Pogue Harrison (University of Chicago Press) sounds particularly good, and Open Spaces Sacred Places: Stories of How Nature Heals and Unifies (TKF Foundation) by Tom Stoner and Carolyn Rapp sounds inspiring.

Monday, December 8, 2008

In Praise of Michigan Holly

Organic Gardening sent out this great little article in their latest e-newsletter, and I couldn't help but think of Michigan Holly Ilex verticillata. Also known as Winterberry, this deciduous shrub offers delicious fruits help tide birds over until spring. Its leaves turn and drop off shortly after the first frost, and those berries keep the show going all winter.

A nice addition to any yard or garden, Michigan Holly would make an excellent living fence or replacement for non-native shrubs. Keep in mind to get the berries a male and a female plant are needed, so you'll have to purchase at least two. At home in a wetland it will also settle nicely in drier sites and create a lovely spot for nesting birds in the summer. It can grow to as much as ten feet tall while keeping a nice upright shape.

It's a wee bit late to plant now, of course, but in the spring visit one of the Michigan Native Plant Nurseries and see what you can find!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Another Useful Link

I swear I'll get back to the hoophouse with the camera and more information on our repairs, but I got an email recently letting me know that The Stewardship Network podcasted their monthly Webcasts.

These monthly webcasts are just full of great information and ideas relevant to anyone interested in restoration, native plants, or simple ways to control invasives (or overly friendly natives like deer!), and a bundle of other topics, too. Experts from around Michigan and the Midwest get together to discuss strategies and how to recognize problems as well as successes. It's good stuff! Check out the new podcasts and see what you can learn!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Victory Garden Posters

The Library of Congress offers a treasure trove of information and images in their By the People, For the People: Posters from the WPA 1936-1943 collection. These beautiful posters encourage participation in bond efforts, advertise WPA funded plays, and so much more. They are fascinating to explore. The poster at left is one of a handful you can see about gardening.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided jobs for the millions of unemployed Americans during the Great Depression. It also funded arts and literary programs across the country. A separate program from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the WPA did a great deal of infrastructure development such as building highways and offered adult education courses. Both programs were integral parts of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Mother's Garden

I'm digressing a wee bit here again, but I feel it's well worth it. Today is my mom's birthday. I won't say her exact age as I think she wouldn't appreciate that much, but she's in her early seventies and doesn't look a day over 60. She's one of those super spry older women - out doing her own yardwork, gardening and canning, chairing committees at church, fixing random things around the house - that we all hope to be.

It is in my mother's garden that I got my first taste of caring for the land. I remember planting corn with her using a rusty old hand plow, and being firmly told that I could NOT eat those seeds. (I must have tried or had that look on my face of wanting to try.) It was there I saw my first tomato hornworm, and watched while my mother threw it out of the garden to fend for itself. (I still practice this unless a really hungry looking chicken is walking by.) Here I met zinnias and cosmos and immediately fell in love. She introduced me to rhubarb, squash, potato plants, sweet peppers, marigolds, cucumbers, green beans, and homegrown tomatoes.

She served thick slices of tomato, which we then sprkinkled with a bit of sugar to enhance the flavor. Cucumbers came out not just as some of the best pickles ever - dill and sweet slicers - but in little dishes with a touch of onion and either vinegar or cream. Green peppers got stuffed or sliced to be eaten like candy. (I don't actually like green peppers much, but I still eat them and immediately taste summer.) Corn came in on the cob, and turned into one of my most favorite things ever - corn relish. New potatoes bathed in butter disappeared so quickly they almost seemd a figment of our imagination. Larger potatoes with some of the creamy cucumber went down pretty easy, too.

I won't say I was her best helper in the garden. I'm pretty sure I was the worst. I hated gardening then - hot, dirty, gross bugs, boring - but love it now. I wish I had paid more attention and been more patient while working with her. She might not admit it to me, but I'm pretty sure I got to go back inside because I was better at whining than assisting. It was not for a lack of effort on her part, and I give her due credit for trying.

I believe that much of what is best about me is from her. As we all are, I was raised and influenced by a number of people - family and friends - but it is my mother who instilled in me a firm belief in helping others, to be kind and civil in the face of adversity, to believe in myself, and that homemade is best. These all sound rather trite, but I have found them sound guiding principles as I move through life.

You could say she planted those seeds in me (and my brothers) long ago, and has tended them ever since with patience and love. It is her example I try to live up to and learn from to this day. I'm not there yet, but I'm so very glad to celebrate her today and the gift she is to us. Happy Birthday, Mom!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Kitchen Gardeners International

A recent stroll around the internet led me to Kitchen Gardeners International. Chock full of great information, articles, recipes, ideas I could be here for hours. A great way to pass a snowy winter day (or at least part of one) and learn loads.

Gnomebody Home

I'm not sure how or why I found this little fella, but I have to say I would ALMOST be tempted to get this for inclusion in my garden. In fact, you could get a whole bundle of them and set up a series of dioramas in your yard for the super observant passerby to enjoy...UM gnome vs. Michigan State gnome. The dreaded Buckeye Gnome sneaks up on the Michigan gnome!

Oh, the possibilities...

Hoophouse Minor Catastrophe - Details

I finally went down to the hoophouse with a camera to document some of what's going on in there. The close-up of the bent pole is quite impressive in its way, and effectively illustrates why it's a good idea to get the snow off the roof as soon as you can. (You can see the roof sagging with the weight of even a small amount of snow.) I also noticed a hole in the roof from where it must have landed on something.

A positive note is that the little Russian Kales are coming up nicely and looking strong, and the corn salad is, too. I harvested a goodly handful of swiss chard, kale, and some beets, too, for dinner. We're slacking on the cold frame, but hope to get that and the roof squared away soon.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Hoophouse Blues

I just investigated our hoophouse for the first time after our return from Wisconsin. We got a fair amount of snow while we were away, and the weight of it caused one of the "ribs" to bend and the roof to collapse. Our friends at Ambry Farms stopped by to check out our dilapidated barn, and quickly moved to remedy the situation. They propped up the bent rib with a board, but we'll have to fix things up a bit.

All seems well inside, but I can tell folks are chilly in there. I think I'm going to have to harvest the bulk of the Swiss Chard tomorrow unless we build a cold frame over it. The seedlings, strangely enough, don't seem to be suffering much. Perhaps I can't tell because they are so small, but they look good. The chives and parsely? They look like they could use a hug and a warm cup of tea - compost tea, that is!

Photos tomorrow after I clear off tonight's snow. Fingers crossed for the folks in the hoophouse.

Old Recipes, New Memories

We traveled to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving this past week to celebrate with my family. This year we gathered at my oldest brother's home. It was the first time my mother did not host and therefore first time in many years that she did not have to do everything. Three generations of us gathered around two tables (and in one baby jumpy thing) to eat, talk, and catch up. The past two years have been a bit rocky for us all, and it was nice to simply be together. Dessert even brought in my father and his wife to round us out. Odds had it that a few were missing and missed, but we carried on.

Since my mother wasn't running about like mad trying to make pies, mashed potatoes, stuff the turkey, remember the pickles from the basement, find the inserts for the dining room table, and sort out appetizers she and I had time to sit down and talk. I asked about her past traditions (they always had goose or duck - never turkey), the garden at the farm (they had one by the marsh and one by the woods), and dishes her mother used to make.

The last one is where we really got down to it. She pulled out two old cookbooks that were my grandmothers. One was The Settlement Cookbook, 1951, compiled by Mrs. Simon Kander. The title page states that these are "tested recipes from The Milwaukee Public School Kitchens Girls Trades and Technical High School, Authoritative Dieticians and Experienced Housewives." This is apparently the thirtieth edition, enlarged and revised. The first came out in 1901.

My grandmother's handwriting is peppered throughout making notes on what she added, increased, or left out. Recipes she tried and liked got a nice x next to them, and the inside cover is littered with notes of full meals. I spent about an hour or so simply paging through and letting it all wash over me. I was immediately transported back to the kitchen at Cold Spring Farm, and tried to imagine what it was like with my grandmother there cooking and feeding the crews that came to work. My mother says the farm had a reputation for good food, and I believe it based on her notes.

The most surprising outcome of all of this is the discovery of a long-lost, much-beloved recipe that my other grandmother made each hunting season. The family believed this recipe to be lost after her death, and at least once a year an inquiry goes out to each household to see if anyone found it after all. I made them Thanksgiving morning and took them to the dinner. I forced my overstuffed family to try them and see if they were indeed the ones. I still feel weepy when I think of their faces and how excited they were to taste them again. Corny as it sounds I felt like both of my grandmothers - one I never knew and one who was like a best friend - were with us again. That was something to celebrate.

Chocolate Toffee Bars from The Settlement Cookbook, 1951.
1 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 cups flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
1 egg
2 bars milk chocolate (I think dark chocolate is what my grandmother really used.)
1/2 cup ground nut meats (Totally fine without these, as you can imagine.)

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add flavoring, well-beaten egg and flour sifted with salt. Stir well. Spread on oblong shallow pan. (I used a cake pan but next time I'm going for a cookie sheet or jelly roll pan.) Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes. Remove from oven, cover with melted chocolate. Sprinkle with nuts. Cut at once into bars.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Hoophouse Update - Maturing Manure

So far, so good. The smell is not overwhelming when one enters, and there is a pleasant sort of humid feel in there when you enter. The overall draftiness of it is still slightly problematic in terms of keeping the temperature high enough for the plants. They are starting to show a bit of wear and tear from the low night temperatures we've been having. I think we need another load. I'm giving serious thought to bringing in some tires, stacking them, and filling them with fresh manure. It would be an easy way to contain the manure, and still get the benefit of its decomposition.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Power of Poop

We're hopeful it's powerful, anyway. Things are a wee bit chilly in the hoophouse these days since winter started really moving in, and a neighbor suggested manure for a bit of a heater. The relatively fresh and therefore "hot" manure will give off heat as it decomposes. It will nourish the soil (depleted by our lovely tomatoes and eggplants this summer) at the same time it helps keep our swiss chard, broccoli, kale, and parsley cozy during these long winter nights.

Since this is an experiment, I mixed some in with the soil and some I left only lightly mixed in to the soil. Some we plopped in a corner. And since it's horse manure there's plenty of straw still...well, visible...so that may help with composting/decomposition. Horse manure is not the ideal choice for your garden it should be said. Word has it that since many things (i.e. seeds and grains) simply make their way through the horse and out again that you end up with lots of extra weeds. I do battle some weeds I have seen in the horses pasture at our friends house, so I suspect there is a grain of truth in this.

A book I'm reading at the moment talks about how fresh manure gives off amonia as it decomposes, but my thought is that the hoophouse is fairly well ventilated by nature of its construction it shouldn't really be a problem. We use this practice for our chickens to help them stay warm through the cold weather. We just add a fresh layer of litter periodically to keep things fresh for the girls, and the heat given off by the composting process of their droppings and the bedding keeps them snuggly. And since the door is open all day while they roam there is no risk of anyone getting asphyxiated.

We'll see how things fare. When I went in today to get some greens and check on the plants I did notice that things looked like they were suffering a bit from the cold. Hopefully, this helps until we get the cold frame built.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

In their gardens, they are home.

The Earth Knows My Name: Food, Culture, and Sustainability in the Gardens of Ethnic Americans by Patricia Klindienst (2006), Beacon Press.

"In their gardens, they are home." are the final words of The Earth Knows My Name and sums up in a few words the richly told stories of ethnic peoples - first-generation immigrants along with Native Americans and Gullahs - and the meaning they and their families harvest from their gardens. Compelled to write this book and search out the stories that fill its pages by her own family's migration to this country and subsequent assimilation, Klindienst presents a book so full of passion and life told so powerfully that it will be difficult for me to give this back to the library. (I'm at my renewal limit so back it must go.) Eloquent thoughtful writing surrounded by the words of mostly first-generation Americans bring these people and their gardens to vivid life. It is nearly impossible to not be transported to each garden and feel the joy and pride each gardener feels as they work their bit of earth.

One gardener says of her family farm in the southwest "Here we're making an honest living doing something we truly enjoy from the heart. We're teaching other people the importance of good food. I never realized how much I knew until now. And we're keeping our heritage by keeping our food. It's a way of life for us, our food." (pg. 31)

Klindienst delves into the history of each people and place to help portray the context of their gardens and the reason they migrated to America. War, work, and hope brought many of these people here to forge new lives for themselves and a better future for their families. Other groups - Native Americans and a Gullah community - garden and farm land that has long belonged to them, and is so deeply a part of them and their traditions that they cannot imagine life without it.

Ralph Middleton, a gardener in the Gullah Community of St. Helena Island states : "We feel that we are part of the land," he says in his deep, calm voice. "This is where we've been, where we've worked, for generations. You know your grandparents and great-grandparents planted here. We have memories about the land, about what they did here. So it's important. It's sacred." For Gullah's, the land is freedom. It is the ground of their dignity and the reason they have endured." (pg. 37)

I found myself wanting to weep, laugh, and stand up to shout for joy (often in the same chapter) as I read. The poignancy and power with which these people spoke about their gardens and why they need them was terribly moving. An organic vintner on Bainbridge Island, Washington powerfully links food to place to community "Food ...because it's the last thing we lose, because it's the thing that controls our lives - though we like to think it doesn't in modern life - is a key to finding the place we live in and finding the people around us. If we all eat from a place, if we all live in love with that place, then we all live in love with each other." (pg. 100)

The garden also links immigrants to the other half of themselves that remains deeply rooted in a place, history, and with people they may never see again. And it is a place where there is no confusion about custom or language, and where they can see, smell, and taste their culture in a way they can nowhere else. "The sorrow in Sokehn's voice reminds me that for every gain these immigrants make in America, there has been an attendant loss - of language, landscape, kin, and culture, the deepest meanings of home. You can be free and marooned at the same time. (pg. 127)

Again and again the power of the immigrant experience was brought home to me - loss and gain, hope and despair, risk and safety - that I could not help but think of my own family's journey to these shores. Yes, it was three generations past, but their experience must have been similar in so many ways. I wonder what they grew and why, the foods they prepared with it, and the customs they brought with them that I still practice to this day.

Referenced throughout are books, diaries, letters, newspaper articles, films, and speeches that illustrate the depth with which this work was researched; however, this research never overtakes what is pivotal to each chapter - the words of each gardener and the story they tell through their gardens.

This is easily one of the best books I have ever read. Put it on a gift list and insist that everyone you know who is even remotely interested in gardening read it. It is no surprise to learn Klindienst won the 2007 American Book Award for it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Food Saves Town

This article about a small town cooperating to revive itself around food production actually appeared in early October in the New York Times, but I kept a copy of it around. It appealed to my community development side along with my hungry gardener side. It just feels so darn hopeful and sounds like so much fun, that it provides (my new favorite phrase) literal and figurative food for thought.

These days we are all thinking probably a bit more about where and how we spend our hard-earned money, about a lack of jobs, about our homes, our neighbors, and our towns. Stories like this one coming out of Hardwick, Vermont further encourage me to give my money to my neighbors for their vegetables, meat, cheese, and eggs. It encourages me to eat not at that chain restaurant, but at a locally owned place that might be a little more expensive. My dollars go further in my local economy than if I give them up to a big chain to save a bit. That seems worth it when I can look my neighbor in the eye to thank her for the eggs and know my money keeps that land as open space.

And we're not alone in this strategy. Friends, neighbors, and total strangers are out shopping with the same objective of buying local whenever they can. I won't (and can't) say that the Wal-Marts, Kroger's, and Pamida's of our area are short on business, but I can't deny that we nearly thumb wrestle for that last carton of our neighbors eggs. We gladly pay more to know who raised the chickens that laid the eggs, and what those girls ate before and after settling on the nest.

For me it's about knowing where my money is going, helping keep a local farm going or jump-started, and about bringing a sense of community to our table. I don't just mean the community that comes from sharing a meal, but that which comes from knowing that what you are eating comes from someone or somewhere you know. And if I can get all that from a carton of eggs, a bunch of kale, or some ground lamb then it's well worth the money I paid.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gardeners Save the World

Ok, that's a bit over the top, but this little piece about choosing heirloom and organic seeds that I heard this morning on The Environment Report on Michigan Radio makes me feel like I should wear a cape and a leotard with a big G emblazoned on the front whenever I head to the hoophouse.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Outwitting the Potato

I'll confess that I have a love-hate relationship with potatoes. I enjoy eating them, but not very often. I even like growing them, but I don't enjoy harvesting them. How the heck can you ensure that you get every last one?!? They are so well camouflaged in their dirty little coats (especially the blue ones), and those tasty little ones are so hard to distinguish even by feel from little clumps of dirt.

Let me just say I ended up growing potatoes in the same bed two years running, and not on purpose. And the ones I harvested I put in a picturesque bushel basket in the basement. And promptly forgot about them.

They sprouted, of course. Doing what every potato wants to do come spring, they sent up spectacular roots in an effort to carry on their legacy of potatodom and world domination. (Ok, maybe not world domination as corn seems to have achieved, but we can't deny that they must have colonialist visions since they effectively left South America.)

What could I do when presented with these little forlorn potatoes reaching up so hopefully from the depths of the basket? How could I deny the hope embedded in these little ones? I planted them, but this time I decided to do so on my terms rather than that of the potato.

My sister-in-law suggested planting them in stacked tires filled with dirt. The idea is that you save garden space, but when it's time to gather your potatoes you simply pull away the tires and plop! there are your potatoes. We also saw rhubarb growing in stacked tires when we visited The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales this past March with friends. (See cute photo at left.)

In they went (with the help of the chickens, of course), and we waited. Lush plants blossomed, and died back. And now, I've got a washtub full of potatoes large and small. The soil was beautiful, and I saw some of the biggest earthworms I've ever seen in my life! I will for sure do this kind of planting again...although I still suspect there are potatoes sitting silently in there waiting for spring. Damn their eyes...so to speak.

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Few Reviews of Food Preservation Books - Gift Recommendations

I've been trying to explore a few different books about preserving and storing fruits and vegetables even though the harvest season is winding down and snow is beginning to fly outside my window. I'm hoping to have a stable of reference materials I can rely on for next season, and a bundle of new recipes to try out.

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest by Carol W. Costenbader, 1997, Storey Communications, Inc.
Recipes for drying, canning, and freezing vegetables, fruits, and herbs harvested throughout the season. Simple drawings illustrate some procedures and accompany step-by-step instructions that the first-time as well as the experienced preserver will find handy. This would make a good gift for someone just embarking on the food preservation adventure, but check before purchasing it for someone more experienced.

Preserving Summer's Bounty: A Quick and Easy Guide to Freezing, Canning, Preserving and Drying What You Grow edited by Susan McClure, 1998, Rodale Press.
Quite possibly a new favorite book for me that is chock full of recipes and instructions for preserving fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Great illustrated instructions, step-by-step procedures, and great tips on storage make this one another terrific choice for a gift or basic building block for a food preservation library. This is one I could see referring to over and over again throughout the season.

Country Harvest: A Celebration of Autumn by Linda Burgess and Rosamond Richardson, 1990, Prentice Hall Press.
This is a book I would LOVE to get as a gift, and a more experienced food preserver than I would also enjoy it immensely. Recipes for food preservation but also for baking, cordials, vodkas, chutneys, and cooking share space with some of the most inspiring photographs I've seen in some time. What I really liked about this book were the unique recipes - sloe gin, damson jam,
rowan jelly (those berries on that decorative mountain ash seen in many a front yard), windfall jams - that make you see food where you never thought it would be.

Hitting the Sauce

We came home tonight after a good afternoon of working over at Ambry Farms in search of something hot and tasty. Some of our first snow fell today along with icy rain and our hands were nearly numb as we left the barns and farm. I whipped out a jar of Barbara Kingsolver's Family Secret Sauce and popped it in a pan thinking the spicy tomato sauce would be an excellent soup to go with some bread I baked earlier in the day.

Tasty and spicy it was. So spicy it nearly blew our tastebuds off. There was a batch that I overshot the pepper on, and this may be one of those. Warmer we were by the time we got to the bottom of our respective bowls, and we know that next time we will cut it with a bit of our straight-up tomato sauce in the future. Yikes!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Jot it Down!

William Moss of Moss in the City - a fantastic little e-newsletter I get from the National Gardening Association about urban and small space gardening - had a great article about reviewing your year in gardening. It's a great suggestion, and I confess that geek that I am I keep a garden journal - complete with diagrams, thank you very much - that catalogs what I plant and roughly when, how it goes throughout the season, and an end of the season wrap-up. It's nothing fancy - just a notebook with graph paper marked pages for easy diagramming - but it helps me keep track of what's happening. It's also fun to look back and see what worked, what didn't quite go as planned, and just remember.

I've done this since my first garden at the first place we lived here in Michigan, and it has helped me rotate crops (or at least know when I have NOT rotated crops), remember what I grew that I liked, how it did in a particular location, and what pairs I created.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Bok Choi in the House!

In the hoophouse, that is. I suspected two days ago that I saw little sprouts, but yesterday I spied a sweet little row of those first leaves - the cotyledon - that begin the process of photosynthesis. (Hope you don't have to squint too much to see them in the photo!) The unseasonably warm weather the past few days, I am sure, was quite helpful in getting things going. Things are meant to become a bit more wintry now, so we'll see how the remaining seeds do.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Monty the Praying Mantis

Monty, our Praying Mantis, is enjoying the hoophouse. My hope is that he's snacking on all those dastardly cabbage worms that we are currently sharing our kale and broccoli raab with. He (only my assumption that this is a male) is tricky to see due to his clever natural camouflaging. The photo at the left illustrates this fairly well, I think.

A praying mantis is a good sign for any garden as it is a natural predator for some of those nasties that you don't wish to share your harvest with, i.e. cabbage worms, aphids, tomato hornworms, etc., and saves me the gross job of picking them off and then feeding them to the chickens.

I also thought it was a good sign that I found a praying mantis egg case (see photo at left) on the bottom of one of the pallets we used for garden paths. Come spring the little ones will emerge bearing a striking resemblance to their parents, and their first meal may well be one of their siblings. Yikes.

Planting and Transplanting in the Hoophouse

Seeds of corn salad, russian kale, spinach, and two kinds of heirloom peas, along with two broccoli plants from the summer are snugly settled in the hoophouse even as I type.

Aimee and I put down pavers left over from our patio reconstruction and at her suggestion I made a straight path. This means that both beds got expanded - one in a much needed way - and that compost and composted manure got hauled in to do so.

No sign of the bok choi sprouting yet, but my fingers are still crossed.

Monday, November 3, 2008


I look up from my reading to look out the window of our dining room door. Golden yellow leaves of the sugar maple by the lower woodshed contrast with the dark green of the spruce planted by the previous owners. The tops of the grassy field south of the house that we have let grow up wave a bit, but what really catches my eye and my fancy are the goldenrod.

True to their name miniature golden blossoms lined the stems of these tall plants this fall. Bees swarmed them cheerfully, and the praying mantis in the backyard walked the canopy they made. Leaf-tying caterpillars wove their way through their leaves as it ate. They appear to be the first to move in if one chooses not to mow. Encroaching from the fenceline, they dot our yard everywhere much to my delight.

The variety of goldenrod is tremendous - shaped like actual rods, clumps, or branching like tree tops - they grow in shade, sun, woods, prairie, wet, and dry. Their leaves vary along with their blossom shapes, and their height ranges from just to my shins to my elbow and above. Often confused with ragweed, the goldenrod is blamed for the increased sneezing some experience along with itchy eyes and runny nose. The pollen from goldenrod is too heavy to move about much, and they rely on bees, butterflies, moths, and birds to help pollinate them. (Ragweed gives its pollen up to the wind, and hence it lands in our noses and eyes resulting in a boon for the tissue industry.)

Often considered a weed, the goldenrods in our yard are welcome additions to our landscape. Along with the asters (relatives of the goldenrod) and milkweed the goldenrod brings pollinators and welcomes predators to my garden. Its deep roots stabilize the soil and absorb rainwater. It signifies an ecosystem continuing to return to health. Perhaps selfishly, it brings me joy each time I see it. Joy to know the insects in my world have a place to eat and feed their young. Joy to see the yellow blooms in autumn light.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Balmy Hoophouse Thoughts

I ducked into the hoophouse today to check on things and warm up a bit. We're waiting on a part for our new woodstove, and so the house is chilly. A little work in there seemed like a good choice.

Once inside I found it was a balmy 65 degrees and climbing. Everything looked great although it was a bit dry. There is a fair amount of condensation on the plastic, but it isn't enough to really water the plants. I did a little watering and planted a nice little row of bok choi seeds. They should germinate, but we'll see how quickly they actually grow in these short hours of daylight. Then it was a little weeding, and plucking cabbage worms off the kale and calabrese plants. No sign of the praying mantis, but there was a lovely little ladybug wandering around.

While in many ways I had been more than ready for the garden to be done, I am so glad we have the hoophouse. Not only is it a cozy spot, but we have a ready supply of tasty greens and herbs. The beets seem to be coming along nicely, and once we finish working on the adjacent bed I'm going to put in some more kale, transplant some volunteer lettuce, and see what else I can try my hand at.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Hoophouse Updates

We've learned a few fascinating things about hoophouses since we've constructed ours.

1. It's easier the second time around. We helped our friends Bryan and Aimee at Ambry Farms construct a hoophouse the next day, and the four of us finished up in just over an hour.

2. It works! We checked the temperature the next day in ours, and by noon it was at 106 degrees. The praying mantis and cabbage worms seemed very much at ease. Yikes!

3. Keep an eye on the structure. We found about a day or so later that one of the ribs disconnected from the ridge pole. Bryan and Aimee had the same issue, but came up with a good repair. (It happens to be the same one that the original designer came up with when he encountered the same problem.)

4. Less light gets through. I felt like a real rocket scientist when I realized that (duh!) less light was getting through to my plants. Things seemed a little wilted and not so colorful. Since the sunlight comes through the plastic now there is a fraction less of already short daylight coming to the plants. I'm still pondering this one.

5. Be careful how you seal it. Our sides are not as well sealed perhaps as they should be. We haven't lost anything to frost, but I think it might be a bit chillier than is ideal. We'll be addressing that today when we work on reinforcing the overall structure.

6. Be careful with the clamps. While making our adjustments to the hoophouse this afternoon, we (ok, it was actually me) moved one of the clamps by sliding it down. It sliced the plastic open resulting in an unwanted vent. We fixed it with tape, but we'll have to keep an eye on it the rest of the season. (And I'm not allowed to touch the clamps any longer.)

7. Plan a party! We're having a Hoophouse Hoopla this Friday. We can't really let folks in after a certain period as we'll have to close the doors for the night, but we are so excited we thought it would be a good thing to share. Any excuse for a potluck and bonfire...

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Hoophouse Is Born

We talked about it, looked at books about it, and today we're building it! The forecast is for a low of 20 degrees tonight, and if we plan on eating any of our own kale, swiss chard, parsley, beet greens, and calabrese this is it.

We looked at a number of different plans, and finally settled on this hoophouse plan from the Westside Gardener. We bantered about plans using fencing, hay bales, plastic roofing, etc., but decided for ease of access and long-term use this is the one to go with.

We measured the size we wanted using a garden hose to roughly sketch the shape. Then we removed the pallets we use for paths to clear the area for planting the stakes. Some need to be replaced anyway, and the set on the right of where the hoophouse will go I wanted to replace with boards to make a narrower path. One of my other beds is much too narrow, and this is as good an excuse as any to expand it.

We finished up around sunset, and closed everything down tight for the night. We covered the swiss chard as we were concerned we hadn't retained enough heat to protect them ultimately. They most likely would have been fine, but we were feeling paranoid.

All in all, we're really happy with the space. It's larger than we expected, and so we're going to experiment with growing various things, starting some seeds, and even installing a cold frame inside to see what difference that will make. According to Four Season Harvest (a great book on growing year round), that gives even greater protection and expands your veggie options.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Frosty Night

Frost came in the night to coat everything with its thin layer of white. Luckily, I picked a good deal of Swiss Chard and cooked it up for freezing. I covered nothing in the garden. It was so cold and clear last night that I should have realized we were on the brink of a frost. I only remember looking up at the stars and thinking how nice they seemed, and how nice it would be to sit out under them. Then I remember thinking nothing at all except how to most quickly get in bed. It was that kind of day.

The leaves of the chard, kale, parsley, and broccoli are heavily coated. I'm waiting for the sun to swing around and show me what has really transpired.

Later that same day...
I ventured out again to mourn my plants and tidy up. Miracle of miracles! They were all fine. Parsley, kales, and swiss chards stood in the sun like nothing had happened. I was duly impressed.

To market, to market

While it was still fresh in my memory, I wanted to recount a usual trip in to the Farmer's Market as a vendor. It's been a great summer, and market is easily one of my favorite parts. While I did tire at times of people asking for plastic bags to go in their canvas bags or wincing at a fair price for an organic potato, I still loved it and am a little sad I won't be going next week. It's an amazing experience and so much fun.

I get picked up a little bit after 5am in the rumblely truck, and we make our way in to the city. The soft glow from the dashboard gives a bit of light to our faces as we make our way from dirt to pavement, and then carefully calculate the turns so as not to spill things from the shelves in the back. Conversation is challenging at that time of the morning, and floats along streams of the ridiculous, mundane, or onto any random story that comes to mind. Anything to keep the driver and passengers awake enough to function when we finally arrive at the market.

Tall yard lights illuminate barns and buildings, and the occasional yellow of a lamp fills a farmhouse window. Old people who cannot sleep and young people who rise to do whatever chores need doing move in the light. We finally greet another vehicle when we hit pavement, but often only one or two. The closer we get to the Interstate, the brightness heightens signifying commerce – gas stations, billboards, parking lots – and the few homes that are visible are dark. The Interstate is busy with other morning travelers. Once we near the city, darkness becomes a soft roof supported by streetlights and stoplights. The mostly empty streets are visible.

As we turn onto the market street, the pavement fills with cars, large and small trucks, and people moving quickly and purposefully. The cobblestone street is narrow here and vehicles and people line both sides. The stalls are lit and the bustle of vendors setting things out and preparing for the customers that will hopefully find their wares and prices irresistible. We move slowly as we circle the block.

Each week backing the truck in presents a nuanced challenge. The puzzle of vehicles – trucks, station wagons, vans, and sometimes garbage and recycling bins left outside too far from the building by the restaurants inside the small shopping center the market rests against on one side - varies in difficulty. I leap out to help guide the driver all the way back to the corner, moving bins and helping position the truck for easy unloading and loading and to not block a footpath. After what feels like forever and always with my heart in my mouth, the ignition is switched off and unloading begins.

Boxes of lettuce, beets, cauliflower, broccoli, salad mix, three kinds of kale, collards, celery, peppers sweet and hot, potatoes, winter or summer squash, yellow and green beans, cucumbers, carrots, four different kinds of basil, two kinds of parsley, sorrel, arugula, dill, cilantro, sometimes mint, strawberries in June, corn in August and September, heirloom tomatoes from late June through early October, and average tomatoes, and swiss chard. Oh, and garlic, leeks, onions green and storage. And cabbage – green, red, and Chinese. Bok choi, too.

Then come the tables, and the milk crates for making a main table, the side table when we need it, and the stocking table in back. Bags paper and plastic, and the scale. Two signs – one that hangs and one that sits behind against the tree – to signal our presence and our practices, and finally us. Pint and quart containers are filled with potatoes – red and white, tomatoes regular not heirloom, beans, summer squash, and carrots. Greens go on the far end with their bunched stems to the customer for easy picking – curly, dinosaur, then Russian kale, swiss chard and then collards - followed by beets, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery – plant or root, if we have it. Then quarts of beans nearly overflowing but not quite, line up and are stacked to tempt with their bounty, pints and quarts of potatoes red and white, large and small, followed by summer squash and cucumbers in season. The peppers jumble together here, too, with their greens, reds, and yellows, while the habeneros, cayennes red and purple, seranos, jalapenos, and tiny Thai burn quietly in a quart for 25 cents each. The watermelon sit heavily in back sending forward only one or two representatives.

Multiple varieties of lettuce heap onto the table and drip down the sides. Buttercup, oak leaf red and oak leaf green, rose lipped green ruffles, and romaines all ready for the taking. The herbs go next to them, sometimes identified with signs, and sometimes without. (Each Saturday Italian parsley has an identity crisis as many people assume it is cilantro, and then set it down again when they hear it is not.) The fish bowl of salad mix signals the freshly snipped tubs are still full, and then the garlic hugs the corner of the table. Heirloom tomatoes, stem end down, array themselves – Striped Germans, Brandywines, Roses, Purple Cherokees, Black Crim, Green Zebras, Amish Pastes, Voloklovs – to tempt and delight the curious and the connoisseur. (These are all but a bittersweet memory now.)

And then we wait. In the lull we greet those in the stall next to us, talk with other growers, and run to the restroom. We drink the last, cooling dregs of coffee or tea. In summer, the sky is already lightening, but now the darkness hangs over until nearly 8am.

As the light increases, so does the flow of people. Early morning shoppers are more intent, quiet, and tend to be a bit older. Later shoppers float along to find a good price and see what the market offers, but our regulars simply arrive and move along the table filling their bags. New buyers come when they see something interesting like celery or celery root, and they suddenly must have it. Beets enjoyed a burst of fame this summer after good press in the New York Times, and we still struggle to keep the table stocked with them. Carrots, too, fly off the table, and curly kale almost never returns to the farm. Garlic, onions, leeks, and broccoli are never seen again along with the beans and strawberries.

Our speed also increases as the morning moves along, until we do nothing but stock the table, tally numbers, fill bags, and make change. We hear how someone cooks something (like celery root, my latest mystery vegetable) or discuss how to cook something they have never seen before but are still drawn to purchase. But mostly we are steady movement, flowing from table to table, task to task, and somehow never much running into each other or knocking down boxes.

The light increases and the air warms. The sea of people flows around us with apples, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, peaches, pears, watermelon, flowers in bouquets or pots, coffee, pastries, eggs, and meat. They leave the stream to stop and look, ask for something to be identified and about prices. Some wince in what appears to be near physical pain, others voice their disgust at the cost. Others feel no qualms in telling us about their dissatisfaction with the appearance of a vegetables natural growth pattern – the bulging of a tomato so full of sun and rain that it’s skin can hardly contain it or the embrace of a carrot so vigorous in growth that it wrapped around itself – that I wonder what it is they hope for. Others laugh out loud at the potato that looks like a face and marvel at the brilliance of colors in the stalks of swiss chard. Many return to say they never tasted a lettuce so wonderful or made such fine pesto. Many buy multiples to freeze or can so that the sweet taste of summer is carried to dinner on a cold winter evening.

Our stock dwindles and so one table and then two disappear. The last lettuce sits lonely and limp with a few stray parsley, and pints of potatoes and a small herd of peppers. Bits of the salad mix – stray violas, now flat radicchio, a last curling bit of endive – are scattered about the ground. The truck is again full, but this time of mostly empty boxes and tubs, unless the tomatoes are in full swing. Then the flats of tomatoes seem endless, and return to the shelves if they ever even left initially. Women with heavy accents come to barter. The food we grow moves on to be eaten and enrich the lives of those who purchase it. Ultimately, one of our goals is achieved.

Sleep scratches the edges of our eyes as we sweep up and begin the drive home. Conversation about the market, food, the day, and anything that springs to mind again fills the cab. Hot sunlight pours in to roast us and help sleep try to find an advantage. Turns are not always so carefully made and the spill of boxes is often audible. The tomatoes remain, mercifully, fixed in place and safe.

City streets turn to Interstate to state highway to country roads paved and then dirt. Finally, in a cloud of diesel and waking exhaustion, I spill out the door to the end of the driveway where it all began. Despite the late afternoon hour, I feel as though I just left and the day is just beginning.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Inventory of Summer's Harvest

The other night we inventoried our stock of preserved food. Various fall fruit sauces are still underway, along with apple cider and dried beans, but we wanted to see where we stood for the coming winter months.

Apple sauce (spiced, plain, chunky and smooth) 12 pints and 8 half-pints
Pear sauce 15 pints
Peach sauce 8 pints
Cherries in medium syrup 5 quarts 10 pints
Blueberries in light syrup 8 pints
Raspberries in light syrup 3 pints
Cherry juice 3 pints

Tomato sauce (Barbara Kingsolver's recipe) 13 quarts 17 pints
Tomatoes plain 11 quarts 17 pints
Pickled beets 11 pints
Pickled zucchini 8 pints 24 half-pints
Dilled green tomatoes 7 pints
Green beans 17 pints
Sauerkraut 4 quarts and a crock still cooking away

Blueberry 14 half-pints
Black raspberry 10 half-pints
Victoria sauce 11 half-pints (more like a chutney and made with rhubarb)
Red raspberry 4 half-pints
Strawberry 5 half-pints
Peach 17 half-pints

A selection of herbs - parsley, sage, and rosemary - are drying still as are some of the hot peppers. Pesto and some of the other peppers - Hungarian, Banana, and Poblano - are frozen and ready to be bagged. The potatoes will need to be dug out of their beds before too long, and the popcorn hung to dry once again, too.

Folks keep asking what we'll do with everything before we head to Japan. Quite simply, we're going to eat it. The whole point of all of this work was to enjoy it over the winter, and see how much we would not have to buy. We've already been enjoying the pesto and jam, and I know the cider we can will be ever so tasty with a meal or two. There is great satisfaction in seeing the shelves slowly switch from some brand name item to mason jars with fruits and vegetables we grew, harvested, or purchased from a nearby farm or orchard. The goodness of it spreads not just on my morning toast, but into the community, too. I intend to board that plane for Japan full of our good food and fond memories of the summer spent growing, harvesting, and preserving it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Rural Renaissance in Review

Along with weeding in the field, bunching herbs and vegetables for market, and snipping salad mix at Frog Holler Organic Farm this summer I've been doing some reading. Pretty much any book related to gardening has always interested me, and now I find that I am also drawn to books that talk about living closer to the land, food preservation, and, of course, gardening. I've decided to begin reviewing some of the books I read to organize my own thoughts and share with others my impressions of them.

Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist. New Society Publishers, 2004. 265 pages.

Rural Renaissance is the story of one family’s transition from very urban living in Chicago as advertising executives to life as innkeepers in a small, rural Wisconsin town. The book tells how they formulate and achieve various tenents of “right living” – living lightly on the earth; community with nature and their neighbors; working for themselves on projects for organizations that hold similar values.

Offering readers something of a how-to through the telling of their own journey, Rural Renaissance is inspirational. To anyone even vaguely leaning toward or having an interest in heading “back to the land”, having chickens, moving a bit more off the grid, or producing their own food, this book would remain appealing and interesting. Their choices in how to construct their house, feed themselves and their guests, and generally interact with their community would draw in anyone who has ever fantasized about such things on any scale.

There is ample and good reflection on how the process went and goes, how it feels, how they have grown personally, professionally, and as a couple, and what they juggle to keep this reality alive. What I wished for were a few more details, i.e. what is that exact recipe for jam, tomato sauce? What is the layout of the garden and the vegetables they grow? What is the blueprint for the straw bale greenhouse? How much savings did they have when they moved and purchased the land? What sort of financial precautions did they have to take? I'll confess that it may seem lacking because it doesn’t tell me exactly what I need to do. If the book is meant to serve as an inspirational jumping-off point for one’s own transition to a journey closer to your heart and convictions, then it is absolutely fine. However, as someone somewhat living this change myself I found I wanted a bit more information.

I found this book better and more useful than my initial impression of it boded. When I first started reading I expected it would be more of the same – a story of those who found “salvation” in country living and wanted to evangelize others to the same lifestyle. While this theme is surely present, there is also a great deal more that I found useful. The list of resources, good quotes from relevant authors, and some of the diagrams were quite handy.

Clearly, not everyone can or is interested in following this same path – well-paid ad exec in the city to B&B owners in the country now establishing their own non-profit – but it is inspiring and thought-provoking to read why the authors so diligently reuse and recycle; why they had a child ; what it means to them to build a straw bale house. One cannot help but look more closely at your own life and wonder about freezing tomatoes or searching out a local seller of eggs. Better yet, maybe someone might decide to look into their city’s chicken ordinance – or lack thereof – and get a few hens in for fun and the best eggs ever.

The lack of exact detail wasn’t a deterrent. This is not a “how to live in the country” book . Other authors have done that and done it well, i.e. Emery, Storey, and Kingsolver, to name but a few. Ivanko and Kivirist offer hope that such a life is possible, comfortable, and satisfying. Their object was not to create a cookbook (although I would not be at all surprised to see one sometime in the future) or a construction manual (they know the limits of their handiness), but rather, I think, a jumping off point for others.

Despite what sometimes felt like a too conversational, too simple presentation Rural Renaissance is still a compelling read. I remain undecided as to whether or not I would purchase the book versus getting it out of the library. It’s slightly out of date and not quite complete enough for me to justify spending money on, but it is worth reading. Ultimately, it will depend on how many times I end up recommending it to others or checking it out from the library.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Fall in the Garden

The other day while perusing the garden to see what tomatoes might be ready I heard a soft buzzing. I looked up to see a hummingbird visiting my cosmos, zinnias, and maidenhair vine. A small "tweeting" sound came with each sip. It flew on in less than a minute, and my only wish was that I had more to offer the little one. As it got smaller and smaller in the distance, I thought about the migration it was most likely about to begin.

Frost is soon on its way, and this year it is particularly bittersweet for me as we plan our upcoming move to Japan. The opportunity to explore gardening and agriculture in another country is thrilling, not to mention all the cool vegetables and flowers I anticipate meeting during our time there. And I believe it will be good for these beds to rest from growing for a bit, although I am quite sure the grass running along the edge is already formulating a take-over strategy.

Yet, I feel a certain sadness as I look over the garden and listen to the bees. The garden is a source of food for us, but it is also a place of solace and joy for me. The time spent here with my hands in the dirt weeding and planting is meditative. Time slows down or stops as my hands carve a row for seeds or pull weeds to give the kale a bit more room. Sunlight warms my shoulders and the cats curl up in the shade of the leaves of the rhubarb plant. Bees buzz about the blooms of the bergamont and the sage blossoms, and I laugh at one that dives directly into the nasturtium blossom without hesitation.

I wonder how the damson trees will fare, and if we can arrange for a burn of our yard in the spring. Will the milkweed host more tussock moth caterpillars and will there be again more goldenrod and aster plants scattered throughout the yard? Should we arrange for someone to pick the pears and keep an eye on the apple trees? If I scatter the garlic seeds from my friend Karen how will I know they will take and who will weed around them? Should I arrange for someone to weed out the million tiny tansy plants I know will again try to take over the space?

Looking up from the garden to the blue sky above and the lines of the land that is not mine but is in some way because it forms part of my personal geography, I feel the beginnings of home. The wind in the tree line to our north also rustles the corn, and a praying mantis lumbers by. The chickens stroll the edge of the garden looking for a tomato hornworm, a tasty weed, or just a word of hello. As they work their final lap of the day and edge closer to their coop, the sky swings to orange and a gentle chill settles over us. My heart is settling here at last, finding its place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Charting the New Course

It's been a little more than a month since I stepped away from my desk and my commute to be closer to home and see what would happen.

Since then I've cultivated various patches of beans, swiss chard, onions, carrots, and beets. I've helped harvest three kinds of kale, two kinds of beans and parsley, sweet basil, potatoes, beets, four kinds of summer squash, broccoli, and dug carrots for this first time. I've snipped so many different types of lettuce that I can't keep track of them, fennel, radicchio, endive, chives, arugula, sorrel for a lettuce mix that also includes an assortment of edible flowers.

Peaches, blueberries, raspberries red and black, and mulberries have been jammed and canned to sweeten our winter. Zucchini pickles sit on the counter and on the shelf. Cabbage is turning to sauerkraut to grace our table later in the season. Basil and parsley are pesto in the freezer, and more is to come. I've made my first sun tea - rosemary, mint, and fennel - to enjoy with dinner or sip on a hot afternoon.

I've thrown hay on hot, dusty evenings, and tried milking a goat - twice - with little success and lots of laughter. I've helped cull a sheep herd, and found it hurt my back and heart to do it. I've cultivated a corn field with a horse, and chased a barn cat until I caught it.

Each day I check our pear tree even though I know they won't really be ready until sometime a bit later. I water the new damson trees and native plants I've added to our hillside. And I monitor the progress of our fall crop of kale, calabrese, beets, and beans. The cold frame design doesn't exist yet for them, but necessity is the mother of invention. The popcorn is coming along nicely, and I look forward to picking and drying it.

I did think there would be more reading, writing, and reflecting on life, liberty, and my pursuit of happiness; however, I think I've done what I needed and wanted to do with the time given me. I've begun to wonder if I'm following some inner call. I find it easier to say no to things I don't want to do, and be aware of the compromises I make. I don't think either of those is bad. Being cognizant of the latter is helping me understand how the former works out for my time here.

What the future exactly holds for a "career" remains unclear. What is clear is that I no longer want to do things that I don't enjoy or make me into someone I don't like. Whatever it is I'm meant to do (and I'm sure it's going to be a selection of things) is close. I can feel it, and I'm excited.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A Recent Project

Our good friends over at Frog Holler Farm are hosting Holler Fest this weekend - a three-day music festival featuring some terrific local artists - and the whole neighborhood is gearing up. From peach cobblers, to pounding nails for the stage background, building an outdoor shower, to making signs, it's all beginning to come together. We're pretty excited about it!

Nearly a month ago or so while weeding one of the patches we talked about the festival while we worked. We brainstormed ideas for workshops that might be of interest to folks wanting to take a break from the music or entertain their kids. Face painting, bubble wands, and a drumming circle were all mentioned. I suggested a nature walk where plants and trees were labeled so folks could either guide themselves or be guided at set times.

Well, I've walked the trails a few times to choose what's most interesting. The woods and rolling hills that comprise the farm in part present a stunning variety and beauty. I swear something new blooms or sprouts every time I go by. Oaks and hickories abound - full of acorns and nuts that a primal urge makes me pocket - along with a bevy of native grasses and flowers. And there's poison ivy, a little bit of ragweed, and a few invasives that folks should know about, too. Mostly, though, it's a grand show and this is close to the best time of year to see it. (No offense to those spring ephemeral fans!)

It's been great fun trying to figure out exactly which goldenrod is in front of me or exactly which kind of oak. (There's one tree/shrub that is still giving me a bit of trouble, but I'll find out eventually.) I am certainly no expert, and anticipate that folks in attendance will share their knowledge with me as they go along; however, I feel like I've learned so much. My good friend Sybil lent both her time and a portion of her library to this endeavor, and that has just been great. I felt a bit geeky out there in my socks, sandals, and silly bandanna poring over the Peterson guide, then the plant, then the guide, then the plant, and talking to myself the whole while! But it is so much fun!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fall Planting

For the first time I've managed to plant a fall crop! I removed the pea vines and their trellises, and the onions practically leaped out of the ground in their fatness. I spread a good thick layer of compost and composted manure and then double dug it in for good measure.

I hope to find a fledgling crop of lacianto kale, calabrese, beets, and beans in a bit of time. These I hope to cover up for the winter along with the other half of the same bed that is currently home to curly kale, flat leaf parsely, and a ton of swiss chard. Harvesting our own winter greens will perhaps be a reality this year!

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Plight of the Honey Bee

This great video on YouTube - BeeBoy Dance Crew Drops Dead - depicts the plight of honey bees due to colony collapse disorder in a super clever way.

Not only are bee keepers in trouble, but those who rely on bees to pollinate their crops are, too. And that means that we're all in a bit of trouble. Without those fuzzy-bottomed buzzing friends of ours, much of the food we enjoy (i.e. tomatoes, peppers, apples, pears, peaches, raspberries, beans, etc.) won't be around much either.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Kohlrabi - The Mystery Vegetable

Good friends from Wisconsin spent this past weekend with us and generously brought along their half share in Tipi Farm CSA. The box contained a beautiful selection of veggies - fennel with bulb, a head of bib lettuce, some summer squash and zucchini, and four small kohlrabi - that we all agreed would fit easily into our food plans.

Our friends drove back yesterday, and left me with two of the four kohlrabi. I left them in a bowl with some beets I picked up from Frog Holler. And then this afternoon I found myself weeding the kohlrabi patch at Frog Holler. I raised the question again as much out of curiosity as to instigate conversation to help the time pass.

Sauteed and grated kohlrabi came up but as I stood this evening in the kitchen planning our meals for the next few days I looked at the kohlrabi. The beets are diced into a bowl and ready to join the shallots shortly, but should I throw in the kohlrabi? I've got some beet greens, too, which are also ready to go in once the beets are done. Throw in the kohlrabi? Eat it raw, which is my only memory of it from when I was a child. Hmmm....

Chicken Bath

Periodically, we see one of the girls lying on her side, foot slowly unclenching, wing outspread in a fan, and her eye slightly unfocused. Then the foot scuffles into the dirt and flings it up and out. She burrows her head into the dirt. Sometimes we see more than one chicken at a time in close proximity doing this.

The dirt bath must be extremely satisfying. That slightly unfocused look is not uncommon, and they seem so at peace. It usually occurs toward the end of the day (just like our baths can), although a mid-afternoon "plunge" is not unheard of.

The first time we saw it we thought the chicken must have been attacked. To our untrained eye our girl appeared to be writhing about in agony. Rushing up to see what had attacked her, the chicken sat up somewhat dazed and appeared perfectly fine. We walked away only to see her resume the same activity. Once we realized there was no pain involved, we understood it was a dirt bath.

They often choose a somewhat shady spot, although I've seen them do it in full sun. A most recent hole outside our porch door is four to six inches deep. While a pleasant bathtub it could also turn into a real ankle-turner. They love it though, so we haven't asked them to switch spots yet.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

One of The Best Things Going

Our good friends at Frog Holler Farm are starting a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Customers have been asking for some time for one, and this year Frog Holler is going to give it a go. Local organic farms like Tantre in Chelsea and the Community Farm of Ann Arbor have been offering it for a number of years, and it offers a boon to growers and eaters alike. The eater is guaranteed a box of amazing (and sometimes unknown) vegetables and herbs over the course of the season (roughly late May to mid-October) each week. The farmer is guaranteed funds to keep that farm growing and going. The land stays in production, the eater gets food, and the farmer can stay in business. Perfection.

We joined our first CSA when I was going to grad school at Illinois State. A friend told us about Henry's Farm and the concept of getting food directly from them. We thought it sounded good, and so we split the share (box of food) for the season. It was an amazing experience. Along with about thirty other folks we waited in line to pick up our shares of vegetables and the little newsletter that gave us recipes, farm news, and updates about what was coming or going at the farm. It was the first time I'd ever eaten Swiss Chard, now a staple of my garden and diet, and spaghetti squash. The same was true of kale (another staple), burdock root, and diakon radish. It was the first time I heard the phrase "heirloom variety".

I got to thinking about all of this yesterday afternoon when I heard a piece on NPR about the salmonella scare that is currently sweeping the nation. My ears perked up though when one woman said she always buys at the market from a particular grower. She knew where her food was coming from and who grew it. There was no question of fearing her food. A similar piece in today's New York Times about CSA's talks more about the direct connection of eaters to growers. Meeting the person growing the food, seeing the farm, working the feeds (if you want), eating healthier food, and benefiting the environment are a handful of positive side-effects of such programs.

CSA membership can be expensive - running anywhere from $300 to $600 a season for a share - but considering a weekly food bill total for that time and the list of benefits above it seems like one of the best things going.