Saturday, September 17, 2011

How Does My Garden Grow 2011: Harvest Season

It got cold here this weekend.  No frost, but cold enough so that the dish detergent on the counter next to the kitchen sink, which sits right below a slightly-open window, chilled to a solid block of soap last night.  Cold enough.

The tomato vines, which delivered tomatoes very late to the party this year because of a very cool, rainy spring, are finally starting to die down.  We'll probably get tomatoes for another week or so, and then I'll be out picking all the remaining green ones for a batch of green tomato chutney.  The peppers, cucumbers and tomatillos are still going, but even they seem to sense that the growing season is ending.

The farmer's market in town, which is open on Saturday mornings, closes down next week.   It uses some of the space that will be dedicated to the Topsfield Fair, which opens in less than 2 weeks.  It's the big excitement here in town, and for 10 days there will be a traffic jam next to my road.  If you like giant pumpkins and racing pigs, it's the place to be.

We went there this morning, as we've been trying to do most Saturdays, to get some last peaches to eat and freeze, some broccoli, and a few other things that I don't have in my garden this year.  A quart or so of wax beans went directly from blanching to the freezer, the corn we'll eat this week.  We also brought home 2 giant butternut squash, as we prepare for soup season to arrive with the turning of the leaves.

Since Sander was working on the stone wall that surrounds the garden again today, the adorable one and I were on Farmer's Market duty, and decided to make a morning of it by driving out to Russell Orchards afterwards to pick some apples.     We came home with lots and lots of apples, 2 sugar pumpkins for pies, a baby white pumpkin because the adorable one was besotted with it, and one rather enthusiastically large hubbard squash.

Hubbard squash is delicious, but getting into it is tricky - but we can talk about making pie with a Sawzall another time. i-squash-hubbard.jpg

A recent re-read of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle has resulted in me trying to up my game on the local food front.  There's an upside and downside to deciding to do this in mid-September.  The upside, of course, is that it's a brilliant time to obtain local food.  Peaches, apples, squash and pumpkins are in abundance.   So are greens like Kale and spinach, as they thrive in the cooler weather.

The downside of my decision is that harvest season is short, and so despite the blackberries and peaches in my freezer, the 50 pounds of local beef, pork and chicken & sausage that are soon to arrive (none spending their lives any further than Vermont),  and the ability to stockpile squashes and pumpkins, and the pasta sauce in the freezer made with our own tomatoes and some of our own peppers, we'll still be grocery-store bound this winter.  

And realistically, for a few more years. But not as much as last year, even, despite the fact that we've preserved far less food than in our 8-day preservathon last year.

The adorable one and I are off with some family friends to my sister's farm next weekend, and if the local farms weren't completely flooded due to Hurricane Irene, we should bring home lots of onions, potatoes, and whatever else we can put our hands on.  Next week Sander will clean the farmer's market out of whatever squash they have, and we'll go apple picking at least once more the following week.  The organic farmstand down the road, Green Meadows is expensive, but open all year.  A market opened in our little town last year with an amazing selection of local cheese.  New sources of 'local' constantly spring up everywhere, it seems.

Next year, with all 8 garden beds in, I'll be able to start far more seedlings in more variety.   One of the things we didn't get to this year was growing birdhouse gourds, or any of my flower seeds.  We can also put in a permanent herb garden, something we've been talking about for several summers now.  And finally, chickens - when is still unknown, but they are coming - we pay for farm eggs now, but at $3.99 per dozen, I'll be thrilled to collect them from the chicken coop, even on cold mornings.

Also, next year the adorable one will be 3, and we can have conversations about why we shouldn't buy goldfish crackers any more, but she can help make homemade granola bars instead.  She would already rather have an apple just off the tree anyway, so it's not going to be a hard conversation.  Mostly.  I think.

It's been an interesting year.  The more I learn about climate change and resource depletion, the more worried I get, and couple that with the economy, and I have developed an ant-like urge to be prepared for winter...and for later.  While on the surface everything is normal - if you could call the current economy normal, almost everyone I talk to on some level shares my deep unease - the sense that things are not quite right.  I think we know, in the same way muskrats build thick walls on their dens, somehow knowing when the winter will be particularly hard, that things are changing.  It is as though we've been out for an afternoon jaunt, when we realize with a jolt we have stepped to the edge of a precipice, and a few more steps would take us tumbling down.

But the more I learn about human resourcefulness, the more hopeful I get.  We may have lost many of the skills of our forebears, but there are many of us relearning.  I personally know blacksmiths, weavers, farmers, and people with multitudes of skills one might call 'quaint'.  There are more chickens in backyards than anyone could have imagined even 5 years ago.  Seed companies are selling out of seeds due to the resurgence of backyard gardening.  What we sow, so too we reap.

This year, our self-sustaining garden has gone from dream to reality.   Next year it will produce abundantly, and hopefully for years later. My one pumpkin may never turn into a field of them, but maybe next year the one will be five.   And then 10.

Soon the garden will go to sleep, and I'll be dreaming of how my garden will grow next year.

Happy Fall.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Why You Really Need to Give a S**t About Climate Change & Resource Issues Part the Last: Growing Hope

It is easy to feel daunted by the changes needed to be ready for a planet with less oil, arable land, variety and availability of food, one with fewer jobs and more risks.

And, being that we're good deniers, us humans, it's much easier to duck one's head and say "It's all too much, and I don't know what is fact and what is fiction, so I'm just going to sit on this fence post for a while longer.  Maybe I'll do something later. If someone could just show me that this change is certain..."

I know I feel that way.   I feel it in the grocery store and farm stands, where eating by my moral compass continues to hike my food budget - and sometimes I don't eat my morals, so to speak,  as the cost is high, and I am time-strapped.   As illustrated by the open packet of snack stick crackers next to me.   That said, I'm not going for perfection, just better.   Somedays I hit 'better', somedays not.  But I'm going to keep trying.  Will we get to the 100 mile diet in time? I hope so.

It's not just food, though.

We priced out all the work needed to make our house more insulated this year - windows, a replacement for the front door, blowing insulation was more than $70k, which was overwhelming.  So we put some money into finishing our backyard instead, since it was dug up for a project - we took the work off of my husband's back - literally.     

The work on our house still needs doing.   It desperately needs insulation and new windows - and the house will get them.   Just probably piecemeal.  That work comes next.   We do have 4 windows for the basement, and hope to get those in before the snow flies.

And our fruit trees are all still a few years away from bearing, and the garden is always a work in progress.   As I wrote yesterday, we still don't have chickens, and after that I'm not sure what's next.   I think Sander will nix having a cow.  :)  Honeybees maybe?  I'm not sure.  Something will pop into my head, and then my amazing husband will figure out how to make it so.

So I get it that this is not simple.  But I do think that making these changes - even a little at a time - will matter in the long run.   Even if we need time to become sustainable, we're ahead of the curve.  It's kind of like the people who, when a war-torn country comes to peace, step forward with plans that they've been drawing up on how the government should run, or how the sewage system will work, or whatever.  They don't know when their plans will become useful, just that when the time comes, a governing body will be needed, and sewage will have to be dealt with.   So it is with the apricot, apple and cherry trees we've planted.  So it is with our plans to live more sustainably.

There's this idea that some problems are too big to solve.   But I don't think that's true.  There are problems that are too big to solve easily and quickly, but I don't believe there's many problems that actually are unsolvable.  We may not always like or expect the solution, but solutions are there.  

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love" is what Mother Teresa said.  

Planting a garden is an act of love, and of hope.  It's also a practical solution to $5/pound organic tomatoes in the grocery store, quite frankly.  And it is a community builder - neighbors who are there to be asked for gardening advice, neighbors to receive it.  The adorable one likes nothing better than to 'pick' - be it raspberries in June, tomatoes in August, or squash in the fall.   She is intensely proud of the literal fruits of her family's labors, and to be able to participate.  It gives us a reason to be outside, and in the kitchen, the places where families and communities gather.

After we pick whatever it is, she follows me to the kitchen, to help me prepare the food.  She wants to put her hand over mine on the knife handle (yes, we're careful) to chop things, and to stir carefully whatever is on the stove, with Mommy running interference from the flame and hot food.  Extra long wooden spoons are perfect for her purpose.   Given the choice of watching TV or joining Sander or I in the kitchen or the garden, she will choose the participative activity.  And this is a kid that never misses an opportunity to watch Strawberry Shortcake reruns.   

Planting a garden won't stop energy shortages, but it might mean jumping in the car less to go grocery shopping.  It is one solution, and it is one of the solutions all of us can take on.  Which is important - we humans are meant to be productive and creative.  Turning cucumbers into pickles, squash into soup, and tomatoes into sauce is inherently a creative act.  As is starting seeds.  You become much more than a consumer.  You too, are a creator.

Well, that's that.  You can decide to give a s**t or not about all this.  This is not about what side  you are politically (actually, the local movement has much for conservatives to like - power to the people, decentralization - it's not just a crunchy liberal thing).  I hope you decide to join in the local food thing, because we could really use your help.

Monday, September 5, 2011


I've wanted to raise chickens for a long time - close to 10 years now.  One day, not long after my sister Sharon moved out to upstate NY and decided to farm, I went out for the weekend.   She and I were going to take the kids out for lunch - my nephew who is now 11 was 2.5, and the almost-10 year old was an infant.   Her other two kids were far in the future, and while she had a garden and some chickens, the CSA and the farm were yet to be created.

So I'm putting a double stroller into the trunk my little 1999 Olds Alero, which was a tad tricksy. Took a few minutes, and much maneuvering.   When I finally managed to get it in there, I heard a little noise behind me. "Brrbuk?"  It was almost a question.

Startled, I turned around to find a line of about 6 chickens with their heads cocked, watching me intently.  "Brrbuk?" said the first one again.  Might have been chicken for "Hey, hi - haven't seen you around before and what the heck is it you are doing? You seem pretty interested in it, so can we see too?"

So, trying to be sociable, I said "Hi".

Yes, I talked to the chicken.   You would have too.  Admit it.

Apparently that was all the invitation that was needed, and they bopped around my car, looking in the passenger door, and poking at the tires.   

I was mesmerized, not unlike my kid is at Sturbridge Village when the sheep come to the fence looking to be fed, and she obliges.   They were chipper and friendly and fascinated with me, the car, and everything.   I'm not a big pet person - I like cats and dogs okay, but I've always been the sort that thinks of pets as a life option, not a necessity.

But the chicken thing stuck with me.  Since we moved into our house in 2007, we've been talking about it, but much has come first - needed maintenance & repairs, the adorable one, and so on.  This year we finally dove in and bought a coop and arranged with my sister to get some chicks.  Since they need to be ordered in batches of 25, it's always good to 'go in' with others.  Ordering issues, the heat wave in July and other things have held up the arrival for several months.

After many delays, we were expecting the chicks Sunday - yesterday.  The adorable one and I filled the box in the kitchen that was to be their first home with sawdust, and mixed some chick feed with grit.  

They had arrived in NY at the farm, and my Mom was supposed to drive them here. 

Sunday morning the phone rang.  My sister.  With some really bad news.  They went out on Saturday.   Something got in the barn.  Killed all the chicks - mine and hers.  No survivors.  She's going to try to get a replacement shipment before the cold weather comes.  This time they'll live in the house until they make their way to us.  

Poor babies. The adorable one wants to know when she can feed her chickens, when Nanna will come with them.  I have no good answer for her. 2 1/2 is a little young to be talking about death.  "Sweetie, they couldn't come today, but they will soon, I'm sorry".

So again we wait.   This time with an empty box of sawdust in the kitchen.   I'm not moving it yet.   I've waited this long, I can wait a little longer.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Why You Really Need to Give a S**t About Climate Change & Resource Issues Part II: It Wasn't Raining When Noah Built His Ark

It wasn't raining when Noah built his ark.  - Howard Ruff

Let's say you are given a choice.

Change your life now to reduce your impact on the earth - potentially radically and significantly, or some day in the future, your kids or grandkids may suffer for it.   That they would go hungry, do without.   Well, maybe not your kids or grandkids.  Maybe someone else's.  But maybe yours too.  Hard to tell.  As for when - well, later.  How much later?  Not sure.  Could be 10 years, could be 50.  But it's coming. 

So make the change, or something bad will happen to people later.   Sometime later.  Lots of people.  What change?  Well, buy less stuff.   What stuff?  Well, you know, the stuff you don't need.   

This is the problem with the message about the environmental issues and climate change.   There's not enough specifics for us to understand what to do now, today, and why.  
For most of us in the first world, we aren't seeing it. Okay, so 2 tornados went through a swath of Massachusetts for the first time in recent memory.   Hurricane season is getting worse. Drought and water issues across the globe, okay - but not here, right?  It has nothing to do with me, right?  

Well, yes.  Actually - it does.

It's really hard to see how the dress I bought online is impacting whether there's enough arable land or water.  Or how leaving all the lights on in my house all evening may mean that my grandkids are back to using candles.  We're not as a species good at seeing relationships between today's actions and what happens many years from now.   There's scientific data there, but seeing the correlations and causations is something that most humans, well, suck at.  Especially when we particularly don't want to hear it.

There are plenty of disbelievers out there.   Plenty of people to tell you that we are absolutely entitled to our way of life.  
That the millions of unemployed in the US are the slackers - that companies are just 'doing what they have to in order to survive' when they lay off masses of people - never mind those higher-than-ever quarterly earnings.   
That this is just a recession and we'll get over it, even though the lights went off in the economy 3 years ago and still seem to be on a dimmer switch.  
That we're entitled to giant gas guzzling vehicles because this is America, ferfrigssake, and no one has the right to tell me I can't drive what I want. 
That the poor are lazy, and could get jobs and eat better if they really wanted to - no one makes them eat fast food, right?  
That the people in the Horn of Africa are a lost cause anyway, and God, why the hell won't those people just use some freaking birth control?  

And so on.

The reality is that the resource depletion and climate changes we're experiencing are on a trajectory to get worse.   That's not a political issue, it's just the simple truth.

And we need to start preparing.

It probably goes without saying that savings helps.  Those with a little padding always fare better than those without.  

And gardening - well - I've blogged it before - it's an investment in our future and our kids.  So quit it with the Chemlawn crap, since you may need to grow food where you are currently dumping chemicals.   Let me put it this way - would you panic and call poison control if one of your kids ate the stuff you put on your lawn to control weeds?  If you would, then stop putting it in the water supplies mmkay?

Support local farms and farmers.  The more of them there are, the more likely it is that supply interruptions will be mitigated.   Mitigated, not avoided.  

Think about investing in renewables, but don't expect technology to save us.   Think about alternatives to heating oil if you live in the Northeast.  

Insulate your house.  

Quit shopping for entertainment.   Most of us don't need more stuff (as someone who likes to decorate for the seasons at home, this is one yours truly needs to listen to)

Pack your lunch, invest in a reusable coffee cup, etc etc.

Plant some fruit and nut trees.  They are pretty, and supply food.

So I've said all this stuff before.  Nothing new.  But if you wait for proof that bad things are coming, you end up like those people who run to home depot for flashlights just as the rain starts.  Buy a bunch of them to have around - and BTW, Maglite is still made in the good ol' USA, so you can stimulate the economy too.

Noah didn't wait to start building until he felt a raindrop.  His neighbors thought he was a nutjob.  They might think that of you too.  But whatever - Noah stayed dry.   They didn't.  

And hey, if by some magical outcome, I'm wrong, you'll have an insulated house, fruit to pick each summer, good lunches, have gotten to know the local growers and farmers in your area, and have some sassy flashlights to boot.