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Archive for May, 2009

solar gas that is…i dusted off the solar oven our wwoofers built 2 years ago and fired it up this week. jaden requested cookies so cookies we did.DSCN4323

the oven was built out of scraps and cost us a roll of flashing to line it with for reflective purposes. everything else we had on hand…the frame was built out of plywood scraps, it was insulated with old t-shirts, the edges lined with felt, painted with paint we had n hand and the glass from a window we had collected at the end of someone’s drivweway, destined for the dump.

i eventually would like to insulate it a bit better but overall, i’m happy with it.

i place it on a table (another dumpster rescue) and check on it every hour to rotate it to follow the sun. it heats up to about 175…i’m still trying to get it hotter, i think better reflection would help and hope to tweak it this summer. but, i can’t complain, i’ve cooked meatloaf and mashed potatoes in there, cookies, beans and rice and much more.DSCN4322

so, 5 minute cookies take about 1 1/2 hours to cook but it doesn’t waste propane or heat up the kitchen so i’m ok with that!DSCN4321

this is the cookie recipe we used this time:

1 c + 2 T. cocoa & 6 T butter (or 6 oz baking choc, unsweetened)
2 T. butter
1/4 c. flour
1/2 t. cream of tartar
1/4 t. baking soda
1/2 t. salt
3 eggs
1 1/4 c. sugar
1 c. chocolate chips

melt the butter and cocoa or unsweetened chocolate on the stove and set aside.

in a mixer, beat the eggs then add the sugar. while they are mixing, combine the dry ingredients.

add the melted chocolate mix to the egg mixture. blend and then add the flour mixture. stir in the chocolate chips.

refrigerate for an hour.

place on a cookie sheet and bake for 1 1/2 hours in a solar oven or 5-6 minutes in an oven set at 350 degrees F. these cookies are best a little under done. remove from the cookie sheet and let cool if you can!DSCN4326

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each slice of this cake is moist with lemon

each slice of this cake is moist with lemon

 Everyone likely has a favorite go-to flavor when it comes to food.  I seem to have several, but lemon is at the top of the list.  I don’t care for thick frostings, or even extra sweetness every time, as long as the fresh tartness and enlivening fragrance deliver!

There are a few fun foods I have yet to narrow down to a single favorite recipe and declare it a done deal.  On the occasional experimentation list…the quest for the perfect light bread (yeast), banana nut bread (quick-type), pie crust, cheesecake, curry, chili, chicken and dumplings, ginger snaps…and many Things Lemon. 

I’m partial to lemon.  Maybe it’s genetic, but I’ve always loved it, as long as it’s not cloyingly sweet and is definately out there with tartness.  I once worked in a bookstore when the tongue-in-cheek children’s book series A Series of Unfortunate Events came out authored by  nom-de-plume “Lemony Snickett.”  I read the first book simply because I laughed so hard over that name.  It turns out the books are vastly superior to their vastly-inferior  movie version that came out later.  They’re slightly irreverent, warped, and zingy…tart!  But I digress.  Back to the kitchen…

I have some lemons poised tableside, looking like a Masters still life.  (they do that all by themselves)  The only thing that can induce me to interrupt the vignette is their possibility in the culinary department.

Blame the weather…the lemons are now no more.

It was the perfect setting today to utilize the tart, aromatic citrus. It finally rained here (hooray!!) for the second day in a row (double hooray!!), the perfect foil for the perfume and flavor of lemon.  From the low clouds spilled a long-awaited refreshment of gentle, steady rains, and an afternoon commenced complete with open windows, singing frogs, ceiling fan lazily stirring the interior humidity, and a long, cold glass of iced tea. 

It also spelled indoor chores, like laundry, cleaning, more laundry, more cleaning, and some quantity cooking for the rest of the week…all made pleasant by the occasional low rumbles of thunder and the soothing plash of rivulets playing against the instant shallow puddles under the eaves.  White egrets stalked food among the cattails in the swale nearby, with the classic grace of Jackie O.

It was time to make a (lemon!) pound cake.  What recipe to use?  So many choices.

the batter is dense but relatively light

the batter is dense but relatively light

 I have collected several I intend to try eventually.  Today’s was straightforward…all of the ingredients were ones I had on hand, except for the lemon extract.  Flour, eggs, butter, milk, fresh lemons…how could I go wrong with something that basic?  I used the recipe I found here as the basis of today’s experiment.  (Enjoy the jump… you’ll get lost at Tartelette’s site!)

It’s pretty basic…pound cake plus lemon.  The recipe incorporates lemon juice, lemon zest, lemon extract, and a lemon syrup.  Sweet Georgia Brown! An extra flavor punch comes from cooling the turned-out cake on a rack (over a cookie sheet), piercing it with a skewer,  and then pouring a hot homemade lemon syrup over it and allowing it to cool again.

This is not a glamour cake. 

This girl has her curves intact, no airbrushing,  and no Botox.  But she delivers where it counts by …a true pound cake that’s enticingly lemonesque.  A spunky version of a classic.

cake is pierced all over with skewer, and hot lemon syrup is poured over

cake is pierced all over with skewer, and hot lemon syrup is poured over

 After the syrup is poured over and the cake is cooled completely, it’s stored for a day and then eaten on the second day or later.  Theoretically…

Diverting from the recipe, I hated to waste the excess lemon syrup, so I re-poured it right back over the cake after moving it to a cake stand.  It’s dense enough to hold together well even though it’s so moist, and I left it in a slight puddle of lemon.  If you don’t like things in puddles, nevermind.  But if you love lemon as much as I do, you don’t mind taking it to the next level of tartness-induced involuntary tear duct action.

When mixing up the cake, I varied from the recipe by adding some vanilla extract, and next time I’d cut back on the sugar just a tad, because I like pound cake just shy of sweet.

I poured reserve syrup back over-my preference for extra lemon flavor.  Cake will rest for at least a day...what's left of it, that is!

I poured reserve syrup over it again, indulging my preference for extra lemon flavor. The cake will rest for at least a day...what's left of it, that is!

This is one instance where dense makes sense…the cake is dense with moisture.  Do, do let it sit for at least a day and mellow.  (or Do As I Say, Not As I Do)

Just baking this will perfume the house.

Is this the ultimate lemon pound cake?  I don’t know till I try a few more recipes. 

It could be varied by featuring another flavor as the main theme, rather than the lemon, or pairing flavors.  How would it taste with a syrup made from lavender, or roses…grapefruit or mango as the primary flavoring…or certain complementary herbs?  I’m not well-versed enough to know the line between daring and disaster when it comes to those things, yet. 

But I do know this is a simple, very rich, dense and moist front-runner in the Lemon category.  Even half a slice, paired with a good strong Southern UNsweet glass of iced tea (my own preference) will transport you to a hammock on the front porch of Tara, or any other southern place where the fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.

Which is a nice reverie when you’re sitting on the hard tile floor sorting through piles of laundry… and venturing hard glances at the curtains towards their possibilities as formal wear if the economy gets any worse…

😉

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Some time in March, while brainstorming about how I could make a living off my land where there is such a tiny population based (and a fairly economically challenged one at that), a friend of mine suggested that I work towards making the place an education/demonstration farm. While talking about the idea he proffered that the likes of David Suzuki (Vancouver’s most famous environmentalist) might be interested in supporting the farm, and also suggested the Vancouver based universities that have agriculture programs may also be interested in working with me to teach sustainability and self-sufficiency.

About a week and a half ago, with that friend’s idea in mind, I finally decided to take a look at the Suzuki Foundation web page  just to see what he was up to. I didn’t get very far into the site when I happened upon a call for submissions. David Suzuki, is running a contest for pesticide free gardeners this summer. They say you don’t have to be a master gardener to play a starring role in the ‘David Suzuki Digs My Garden’ contest. They want a passionate storyteller who believes pesticide-free growing is the way of the future–which needless to say I do–that they can follow this summer in video, pictures and print, from soil prep and composting, through seeding and weeding, to reaping the harvest. There was  an e-form to fill in so I did, and promptly went to bed. While it is not exactly what I was looking for, it certainly would be a good opportunity to start with if I make the cut!

The next day, I received an email saying I was accepted to the second phase; the video audition. How exciting! There were, of course, many problems with this: I didn’t have a video camera, I didn’t know anyone with a video camera, I hadn’t ever used a video camera, I live 500 kilometers from the nearest store with a video camera, and no, I can’t buy one over the phone from the Vancouver camera stores. Consequently, I spent Saturday hunting down some options  via the internet, and finally a friend in Vancouver came to my rescue: he bought the camera and put it on the plane to Bella Coola last Sunday morning.

It arrived at 1:30 pm that Sunday afternoon. I spent the afternoon reading the instruction booklet whilst charging its batteries, then wrote my script and practiced it twice on an old tape-style video camera (that won’t let me translate it to an AVI file so I can upload it to You-tube as the Suzuki Foundation requests) and honed it down to about 90 seconds. There were, of course, several technical glitches along the way, or example I got half way through what was going to be my final take–on the newly charged, fancy, digital, jet-lagged camera–and then hit something that made the whole thing mute and couldn’t figure out how to undo it!!!

It is amazing that in this tiny valley there are still plenty of people I have not met. I am continually surprised by the number of talented, creative, and technically savvy people who come out of the woodwork. Lucky for me, Buddy Thatcher materialized just in time–we stood in front of each other for the first time the previous day when he came to the farm to pick up eggs for some community event! Buddy, who owns ‘Box o’ Bones Productions’ agreed to come to my aid. He edited out some of the wind in the outside shots along and added a few other technical details–all for the price of a basket full of my produce.

Thanks to my friend encouraging me to think about my farm differently, the technical savvy of Buddy, and my other friend in Vancouver who did the running around town shopping spree and courier service, I managed to find this opportunity and get the video complete–and with a day to spare!

Here is the final product:

Although this was my first ‘feature film’, I found the whole experience so creatively stimulating, that I’m thinking of expanding into more short films to document my life and work here. I have spent this past year writing words and am now intrigued to write scripts and story-boards for this visual medium. I am now continually thinking about the video camera and what would make nice clips and/or shots. Of course, I have yet to actually get to the stage of bringing it with me so I can actually catch those moments!

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In January of 2007 I decided to try and start globe artichokes from seed as my “newbie” veggie for that year. I purchased, from I don’t remember where, two types: Violetta and Green Globe. At the time I had decided I would attempt to grow these “California favorites” in my slightly less temperate spot of the world to see how I liked them. When I say “liked them” I mean that in the sense of ease of growth, production etc etc. I had eaten artichokes on a number of occasions and, taste wise, liked them just fine. But the question was would they produce for me?

Depending on which article you read, most can not agree as to how hardy artichokes really are. Some say “even with winter protection they may die in zone 7”. Some say “all the way to zone 4 depending on how you protect them”. Some say “as long as the lowest temperature is not below 15 degrees”….on and on. Every writer seems to have a differing opinion.
So my concern wasn’t exactly would they survive the winter, since it didn’t seem as if they would for me, but would they be worth starting from seed each year. Artichokes need about 8 weeks before the last frost date when started early and treated as an annual (however mine ended up blooming early enough that I could have started them later.) Starting that early would mean lots of inside time and care from me, and with my smaller set up that is a lot of space and time to take up for one plant. Beyond that would they grow well once they were outside? Would we get more than just an artichoke or two (or three) from each plant? All good questions but I knew no one who could answer them for me.

So, I put the seeds in small soil cubes where they sprouted pretty easily. I did find out after I had already started them that soaking them for about 8 hours speeds them up immensely and improves germination. However…none of the books I own at home mentioned that and for some reason I did not do an internet search before hand. Regardless, by February most I had planted had sprouted, grew well, and I had moved them on to larger 4 inch by 4 inch newspaper pots I made. Eventually, our last average frost date came, the weather turned warm and I put them out into the garden into the spot I had made for them.

Now, to spur everyone’s memory 2007 was “That Year” of about every bad thing for gardeners. First…we had that super late frost. You remember the one that killed almost all the apple blossoms (and peach, pear, pecans, walnuts, acorns etc) in the U.S? Well, luckily with just a plastic juice container cut off at the bottom and the lid still on and a bit of hay around them—all my artichokes survived the four days of super cold abnormal temps. They looked a bit burned at some of the leaf edges….some even burnt almost back…..but they made it.
And they grew. Bigger and bigger with a heavy mulch of hay around their roots and a soaker hose under the hay to water them. Because, to spur your memory again, that was also the “Year of the Drought” too. Remember that? Hay was so scarce that people where dumping horses in state parks to fend for their selves. The local butchers had loads (yes, full loads) of livestock dumped on their properties at night in the dark when they weren’t there. No one would claim them. I know..weird…but it’s a very true story that I heard from butchers over and over as we tried to get a few lambs in to have butchered but they were too busy to work us in. (If you didn’t have “the drought” then you were in the part of the country that had “the flood” that year—either way it was a difficult year.)

However, without much extra watering my little artichokes grew and grew until finally—our first choke! Then a second and third and though we didn’t get enough to can we did get enough to add to a few dishes. And tasty! My, my, they were so much better than store purchased. And very cost effective even considering my time.
So, though I decided to super cover my plants with hay and try and over winter them, I was more than willing to start them from seed the next year.
Luckily, and to my surprise, 7 of my 10 plants made it through the winter of 2007. And to shorten this story, they also produced even more artichokes and then when we quit cutting them….they bloomed some gorgeous (really gorgeous) flowers. Such an intense purple color to the chokes. Fabulous.

Then even more promising, all except 2 went on to make it through the winter of 2008, with no extra covering (I was short on hay that year). The 2 that did die I lost more to rot than the cold per se. They were in the moister end of the bed and I think they just couldn’t take the cold and wet during the winter. Most plants can’t so I am not surprised. The others did just fine but maybe if I had been able to cover them it would have helped.

Now here we are, spring of 2009, all wet and cool (very unusually cool for us) and rainy, and I still have those 5 artichokes plus about 12 more than I transplanted that had come up from the seeds. Not seeds I planted but seeds they shed last fall, from those gorgeous flowers, that have come up on their own —easy as pie. (Now why people say that I don’t know since pie crust is a difficult thing to learn to do correctly but…)
My original 5 artichokes are already 3 feet wide at least and about 2 and ½ feet tall or more. You can see my long legged Jack Russell in the picture for reference. Big and green and gorgeous they are and just about to start sending up chokes it looks like. My transplanted babies vary in size but one is already about a foot by a foot. Pretty good don’t you think for a zone that “maybe won’t grow artichokes”? I did forget to mention that of the two varieties the Violetta sprouted the least well and had the most casualties. However..it produces the nicest artichokes. With soaking and a better position it might have done just as well.

So, the point of all this is to encourage all of you to try artichokes or even those other “maybe it won’t survive over winter” veggies. Who knows, with the whole “global climate change” thing going on maybe you too can overwinter artichokes. Or even some other plant that traditionally (in the 1960s maybe) wasn’t able to grow in your area. But when it comes to the artichokes they are pretty much pest free and easy to grow with a bit of room so well worth the try in my opinion. Even if you don’t really have room for many of them like me…. try one. They have a very attractive look to them, even if they didn’t supply some food, and can easily fit into a flower bed as well as the vegetable bed. Like I said the flowers are just gorgeous, and they always attract comment and attention.

artichokes

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Roasted Asparagus

We eat a lot of asparagus when its in season in the spring.  It’s easily one of our favorite veggies and for the longest time, we’d eat it lightly steamed or raw.  Nothing fancy, but yummy – however; it was getting old and I was looking for a different way to serve it.  I started roasting it and its incredible this way:

Preheat your oven to 450 degrees.

Trim the tough ends off of your asparagus, and place the spears in a single layer on a baking sheet.  Brush the asparagus lightly with sesame oil.  Bake for 10 minutes.

While the asparagus roasts, combine:

  • 2 TBSPs grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 TBSPs sesame seeds
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

Remove the baking sheet from the oven and immediately sprinkle the seed mixture over the top of the asparagus.  Toss gently and serve.  Enjoy!

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Looking Up!

I have a confession to make…

I have tunnel vision…

As a gardener anyway…

When I go outside I am always looking down.  I look down to make sure my tomatoes are growing as expected.  I look down to find the slug that munched on my lettuce.  I look down to admire the loads of blossoms on the blueberries.  I look down to see what needs to be weeded, watered, or otherwise taken care of…

Once in a while I will look straight ahead to see what a chicken is clucking about or what the camel is up to….

But I seldom remember to look up.

I am so fixated on what I have planted and pampered I forget to look above me and all around to see what nature herself has planted…

maple bloom1

In the Pacific Northwest we are blessed by trees…

Lots and lots of trees…

Huge trees!

Trees that are just gorgeous if I would only remember to stop and admire them instead of taking them for granted!

maple bloom2

Our giant maples are blooming and unfurling new leaves all at the same time…

Much prettier than even my favorite tomatoes!

 

maple bloom3

I’ve always known that these beauties were there…

But seldom have taken the time to really look up and see them.

I have decided that I am going to do a lot more looking up this season!

I challenge you to look up and around your garden and really see the beauty of nature’s plantings…

 

Then you can go and find that darn slug!!!

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Russian comfrey

Russian comfrey


Comfrey: super-plant or overrated weed? Have you ever wondered why useful plants are usually delicate creatures, yet weeds just thrive, without any care at all, and pondered wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was such a thing as a useful weed? Comfrey is it.
comfrey roots

comfrey roots

A perennial herb, a member of the borage family, its deep tap roots mine the soil of nutrients, filling its leaves with minerals such as the holy trinity of plant food, nitrogen, and phosphorous and potassium, along with calcium and iron. It remains only to harvest it and make a comfrey “tea” (concentrate) to use as a plant food, use it as a mulch and even feed it to animals. Comfrey leaves contain more Nitrogen and Potassium/Potash (K) than farmyard manure or garden compost and more Phosphorus than farmyard manure. They have a low fibre content, so they readily decompose, producing comfrey tea and a relatively low carbon to nitrogen ratio so that they don’t rob the soil of nitrogen as they decompose (when laid on the surface or dug in).

If I plant it, will it spread like a weed? That depends on what variety of comfrey you have. Common comfrey Symphytum officinale, seeds freely and therefore may well become a problem. Russian comfrey (Symphytum x uplandicum) on the other hand, produces very little viable seed, so conveniently stays where you put it. But it will always stay where you put it, as you’ll never dig it out without breaking off a little bit of root, which will re-grow, so choose the position of your comfrey patch with care. The Bocking 14 cultivar of Russian Comfrey was developed during the 1950s by Lawrence D Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (now called Garden Organic) and is even richer in the useful minerals. The Bocking 4 cultivar was developed to be more suitable as animal fodder but I can’t source any in the UK or France and have only found Richters in Canada selling it.

How do I grow comfrey? Without seed, we propagate it from root cuttings. Simply plant your root cuttings just below the surface, water them in and wait comfrey patch new(you can mulch them with cardboard, as we’ve done here, see photo). One extra tip, use some anti-slug and snail strategies until the plants get up and going, as these gastropods really like comfrey (another of its uses to place cut leaves around plants as a slug barrier, as the slugs will go for the comfrey, in preference). If you’re starting off, I suggest that you buy no more than six plants. You’d be surprised how much leaf material you’ll be able to crop once the plants are established (leave them a year before you start cropping).

They might mine all these nutrients for you but they also appreciate being fed and are greedy for nitrogen when growing; they can cope with fresh (i.e., uncomposted) chicken manure, so we tend to clean our chicken house onto our nearby comfrey patch.

comfrey root cuttings

comfrey root cuttings

You’ll also then be able to propagate further plants by lifting one and divide the roots into offsets and cuttings (see photo: offsets at the top, cuttings below) and then plant these as you did with your original cuttings, and don’t forget to put one bit back in the hole where you lifted the original plant from.

When and how to cut comfrey? Use ordinary hedge trimming shears and chop it off 5cm (2 inches) above the ground.

cutting comfrey

cutting comfrey

Think about wearing gloves as the bristles can irritate your skin. Cut in spring, when the plants are around 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop. Once the plant is well established—I’d give the plant a year to settle in before you start harvesting leaves—cut every time the plant reaches 60 cm (2 feet) high and before flowering stems develop and you should get several cuts a season. At the end of summer, stop cutting, letting the plant grow on and build up its strength to see winter through.

comfrey in dustbin

comfrey in dustbin

How do I make comfrey tea?
Making comfrey tea – liquid concentrate. I think that the video explains all. This photo shows the plastic dustbin full of leaves which reduces to the goo in the video, don’t add water. Dilute to use, 20 water to 1 comfrey juice (by volume) when it’s thick and black or 10:1 if it’s thinner and brown in colour.


Do animals like comfrey? Whether fair or not, the spread of wild comfrey along roadside hedgerows is often attributed to gypsies that fed comfrey leaves to their horses as a tonic. It’s said that Russian comfrey was introduced into Britain specifically as a fodder plant. We’ve got an established comfrey patch. The chickens peck at it en passant, a sort of “Drive-Thru” eatery, and Bunny Lapine scoffs it, so I recently thought I try out our pigs and goats on it. Fellow NotDabbling writer Monica, told me that she planted comfrey some years ago, “but the sheep ate it all before it could get going and I lost it.” So it’s thumbs up from sheep. However, our pigs, who are free range, and so have a wide variety of stuff to snack on, didn’t seem desperately interested and, as for the goat, watch the second video for our scientific taste test and make your own mind up.


Comfrey as medicine? A vernacular English name for comfrey is “knitbone” and medieval herbalists called it “bone set”. It contains a substance called allantoin, which promotes healing in connective tissue. Effective as it is externally, don’t take it internally, as it contains alkaloids, which can cause liver damage in large quantities.

Thanks to the following books for their information: Comfrey for Gardeners published by and available from Garden Organic (Henry Doubleday Research Association); Flora Brittanica by Richard Mabey; The Earth Care Manual: A Permaculture Handbook for Britain and other Temperate Climates by Patrick Whitefield and Wikipedia.

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DSCN4233

one of the most versatile, useful ‘tools’ i have around the homestead is a garden cart. we have three, two i bought cheaply at a discount store several years ago and one greg bought at lowe’s, not so cheaply by mistake (he thought it was cheaper than it actually was).

i have more than gotten my money’s worth out of it and i’m constantly fighting everyone else for the use of one of my own carts (greg’s sits buried in the shed under a pile of miscellaneous objects).

how NOT to use a garden cart effectively!

how NOT to use a garden cart effectively!

these carts haul like crazy. here are a few ways i’ve used them:

-haul buckets of water to the animals in the winter
-haul firewood from the wood pile to the house in the winter
-haul hay to the animals
-haul lawn clippings to the animals (while mowing the lawn we use it to dump the bag into and then haul it to the pasture to feed them)
-waste hay from the goat shed to the garden to mulch plants
-haul the frames to/from the beehives and shed
-haul mulch from the pile to the paths in the garden
-haul tools and garden equipment from the shed to the garden
-haul my market equipment (tent, tables, chairs, etc) to/from the truck
-haul feed from the truck to the barns
-haul groceries from the truck to the house
-block the walkway to keep sheep in the electric fence
-wagon rides for the kids!DSCN4236

the list goes on and on. i’ve even loaded it into the truck with all my wares to haul them from the truck to festival locations.

these wagons have been through a lot. the mesh is breaking, they’ve had a few cotter pin replacements, loads of flat tires (which have been replaced once i think), lost the cushy handle cover and have chipping paint but they are still going strong!DSCN4239

if you have any kind of gardening situation, i highly recommend one. this is the time of year they are usually available at big lots too. they really are worth the $50 or so it costs for them.

anybody else have a garden tool they find indispensable?

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gardenias in bloom

gardenias in bloom

I’ve always had something growing, somewhere.  Mostly, my plantings were outdoors and were on a very small scale, and mostly ornamental.

When Jack and I paired our dreams of expanding the gardening efforts, of necessity we had to start out container gardening…doing so cheaply in 5 gallon buckets, since that’s what was available.   This is the first year we’ve begun an in-ground patch…and there are some real differences between the two types of gardens.  I use the term “gardens” here loosely, since ours usually turn out more as experiments than a Better Homes and Gardens centerfold.

I hasten to add that we’re beginners.  I can only write from a beginner’s perspective, so if some of this doesn’t ring true for you, go with the experts, not me!  But I do like detailing a few things we’ve learned the hard way, to assess our progress.

Though I can’t say we have much in the way of harvests so far, we’ve learned some things the hard way, which is about the only way we know to sort through all the available techniques and advice out there. 

Here are a few things we’ve learned in our Beginner’s Learning Curve to date:

1.  It’s all about the soil. 

soil amendments by the barrow-full

soil amendments by the barrow-full

You can have the best plant, but if the soil isn’t suitable, we’re working uphill.  Soil quality has a lot to do with plant health.

We’re going for the microbes, nutrients, worms.  Just because the soil LOOKS nice doesn’t mean it’s an earthworm playground.  We can buy that great fluffy gardening soil mix stuff, which is nice for the plant roots to spread out in, but if there is no good stuff in there nutritionally for the seeds and plants to grow in, we’ve just got fancy-schmancy inert medium.  It might even be fine for growing a plant, but our tomatoes will probably taste like cardboard, and won’t be nutrient-dense.

2.  Insects are not necessarily our enemy. 

we love our pollinators!

we love our pollinators!

They are part of a balance trying to establish itself.  They are part of the strongest most resistant plants being left to reproduce for future growings.

We’re trying to get out of the mentality of blasting insects from the garden, which was a HARD change for us (especially one of us).  Today’s world promotes the idea that all insects are bad, to the point most gardeners are programmed to walk through the plants like an hardened gunslinger, ready to fast-draw a glow-in-the-dark bottle of Roundup at first glance of a bug. 

We’re learning to ask ourselves why that plant is covered with that particular type of insect…and try to get to the root of the issue before total annihilation. 

Is my soil lacking an essential?  Is the plant not designed to thrive in my area?  Are there some trap crops I can grow nearby so I’m not offering a monoculture?  Are there some natural predators (ladybugs, lizards, etc) we could encourage to help keep a good balance naturally?  Should we just go with it and decide to become the a grasshopper, slug, and aphid farmer extraordinaire?  Wait, skip that…

3.  Doing things organically.  We’ve said No to chemical manipulation of our surroundings in the hopes we can forgo what I think of as essentially poisoning our home and land.  We don’t have this one down smooth yet…we’re still learning.  I have a sensitivity to most cleaners, poisons, and fumes, so avoiding those isn’t so hard.  But when it comes to those plants, the bugs are decimating most of what we’ve grown to this point, except for the indigenous plants and the most hardy survivors. 

But we’re learning.  We’re starting with no manmade fertilizers, and we’re amending with horse stall cleanings, compost, old hay, etc.  We’re researching natural ways to enrich our soil culture and plant adaptability.

The insects will arrive. They will see. And at least in Florida, they want to make our garden their all-you-can-eat buffet.

not what we want to see on these leaves...

not what we want to see on these leaves...

One year, we were overrun with stinkbugs.  Another, grasshoppers and some sort of leaf blight.  This year, something ate the greens as fast as they’d grow, and baby grasshoppers mowed down seed starts whenever the mood struck…which was often.  The survivors were hardy and vigorous…and few.  But still, we prefer to keep trying without poisons, herbicides, insecticides.  I’m still not sure what to do about the armadillos who must wait till sundown and then begin rearranging all my garden soil like mini-bulldozers.  Talk about a critter that can give the storybook train’s “I think I can, I think I can” a run for its money!

There have been a couple of setbacks to our bug tolerance.  Old habits die hard.  Add that to some inexperience and ignorance about plant needs, and we’ve learned some things the hard way.  I’ve had to remind my husband, aka The Terminator (and former Marine Recon Ranger, for real), that  fire ant poison isn’t in our organic plan.  Roundup is banned (I hear male weeping…that was another hard one till I began regaling him with tales of Monsanto and Agent Orange.  Yeah, we play hardball, ha)  And then there was that one particular serious and unfortunate  blip on the marital communication radar involving an aphid infestation and a bottle of 409, where Rambo-level testosterone momentarily overcame all Organic Reasoning…  (I won’t elaborate.  Let’s just say it won’t happen again, the bugs weren’t the only casualties, and the strongest substance we now have left in a spray bottle is some distilled white vinegar, ahem!)  😉

4.  Grow where you’re planted. 

papaya seedlings in buckets

papaya seedlings in buckets

We have to do with what we have.  Not everyone has an “ideal” setup for starting their dreams of self-sufficiency, especially when it comes to gardening.  Thankfully, there are a lot of resources out there now to help nearly anyone begin nearly anywhere with gardening, animal care, and household management practically.  We didn’t have a lot of money for many of the tools considered by some to be “Musts”…tools, hoses, hardware,tilling implements, machines, etc. 

The truth is, we live in a culture with lot of excess that can be gleaned for this and that if we’re lacking an essential.  A friend unloads stable cleanings on our property, and we use them to spread over the hardpan sand there.  Before that was available, we didn’t have money for a large number of growing containers, but Jack found discarded 5 gallon buckets and we started a lot of seeds in them.  We didn’t have fertile soil, but Jack shoveled a lot of muck from the swale where cattails grow, and mixed it in with different materials, including wood chips we get free-for-the-shoveling at a local site. 

A lot of our plants are still in those initial buckets at present.  We can easily drop a lot of money quickly at garden supply stores and nurseries because we love plants and trying new things….that is, if we had the money.  We don’t (overspend the way we dream of), at least not any earmarked for that yet.   Since our biggest goal right now is paying off debt, we have to scale that …and the project list…down to the (sometimes boring) practicalities.  Still, there’s a lot of room for innovation.  It can be as simple as starting something in a bucket, or putting in just one raised bed.  Using a salvage ornamental gate as a trellis, or bed frame, or swingset frame, painted over.  A window, hay bales, or old freezer for a cold frame..and so on.  Or seeing if anything can grow right  in that decomposing barn compost.  Seeing what can grow up a tree, under a spigot, in the shade, in the sun, withstand drought, inside a kitchen window.

5.  Don’t be afraid to start over.  Failure isn’t personal. 

losses due to freezes

losses due to freezes

Even the best gardeners say that the unpredictable can happen.  As we’re learning, we’re trying to stay intuitive to what’s needed, and find what we should do better. 

We’re REALLY paying attention to those of you out here who ARE more experienced than we are, and we ask a lot of questions.  We’ve learned so much this way!

We’re still trying to sort out the correct times of year to plant, the best varieties, the best site for particular plants, the best ways to water, grow, harvest, and utilize in the kitchen.  Some of our plants never sprouted at all from seed.  Others did, but the season overwhelmed the mature plant with too much/not enough heat/cool  dryness/moisture…and etc.  Others were promptly eaten…by the wild things.  Some just were never healthy.  With the constant knocks, it seems gardening might be the craziest endeavor ever, but honestly, it’s worth all the restarts.  If we can get just ONE thing right, we’ve gained tremendously.  Learning what doesn’t work is just that much closer to finding what DOES. 

I love quotes attributed to Thomas Edison, such as the one that goes “I haven’t failed…I have found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”  I think we have to pair our desire to succeed with a good sense of humor, some elbow grease, and a sense of experimentation.  Our failures are successes in that we learn ways not to do things the next time, or just appreciate we’re not always in control of the variables. 

I love these two quotes, also Edison’s…”Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,”  and “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.”

Sure, it doesn’t always feel like fun, but working the soil isn’t a static endeavor…it’s alive and subject to a lot of changes.  And that’s the part we love…and that can also be frustrating at times.  I wouldn’t  have it any other way, though!

6.  Choosing the right plants for the area:  We’re in a drought and have to hand-water our plants carefully and at specific times.  Thankfully, we’ve planted a lot of things that are meant to withstand extremes of drought and heat. 

Other growing areas have other challenges specific to location.  Growing plants suited for the locale makes a huge difference to us.  We’re not starting with fussy plants, and probably don’t have the patience to sustain them for very long.  If I’m going to put in long hours as it is, I want to streamline our efforts and go for plants, tree, shrubs that thrive here.  Utilizing native species is especially great for maintaining habitat, getting some great diversity, and minimizing the necessity for as much hands-on care.

Another thing we’ve been trying is searching for similar growing zone and climates worldwide, to see if there are any indigenous trees and plants with multiple uses, that would easily adapt here. 

moringa seedling

moringa seedling

To be avoided:  any plants considered invasive or that would compete with native species.  A good example of a plant that does well here in gardens (though we have yet to try it) is Asian yard-long beans.  They hail from a world away, yet our climates are similar enough for them to find a lot of use here, and their vigor makes them less susceptible to disease and damage than some other varieties.

7.  Along those same lines, we also are having success trying plants with traditional uses in our climate, but that are underutilized here at present. 

calabaza in bloom

calabaza in bloom

This would include familiar crops with multiple uses (such as the cowpeas or calabazas, and their leaves as greens, etc), crops familiar elsewhere but not in the U.S. but with a history of use in similar climates.   This is the fun part…researching crops that do very well in our own location but for whatever reason are not the typical supermarket regulars.

8.  Don’t bite off more than we can chew.  We are so bad about lining up the projects, or even getting them started, but then feeling overwhelmed.  I’m learning to be OK with not growing everything now on the scale I hope to someday.  This will be a continual effort on our parts to try to contain our projects and add to them a bit more practically.  It’s sort of like the seed buying…HOW we amassed so many seeds in so short a time, I don’t know, but wow, there’s no possible way we’ll use all those!

I really want to see some of our efforts through to completion, namely some harvests rather than simply starting more tree seedlings and such.  We need to choose our goals and realize some of them…that goes a long way in keeping me motivated and not discouraged when the inevitable complications make a few things go awry.

9.  And along those same lines…Keep it simple.  If I don’t, it won’t work for very long.

9 1/2.  Part of keeping it simple?  Not aiming for “perfection.” 

Neatness, functionality, yes.  Well, we aim for that.  The weeds have other ideas, however.  We’ll keep on truckin’, but we’re not the poster children for Things Neatly Clipped, picket fences, and hand-woven willow trellises quite yet.  Having perfection along the lines of Hyacinth Bucket’s (pronounced Boo-KAYY) candlelit supper served on her finest Royal  Doulton with handpainted periwinkles?  Not necessary, at least for us.   🙂

10.  Take time to smell the flowers, tomatoes, compost! 

just after the rain

just after the rain

Watch how the bees load their back legs with pollen, how the petals of the flowers are backlit in the sunshine, how the soil swarms with tiny living things.  Feel the sun, or the rain, straight on, and how the breeze is so refreshing.  Sip tea among the green things as the mockingbird dive-bombs the cat, or the cardinal takes an impromptu flutter-bath in the early dew. 

dragonfly in silhouette

dragonfly in silhouette

We choose this change and this life deliberately.  We have traded these moments for some corporate version of success, and they are our riches.  Yes, there is always more Bermuda to be pulled, and the To Do list grows ever longer.  But kids need to play in the mud and feel real dirt between their toes.  WE need to remember we’re not that far removed from our own childhoods, and we can choose to see the wonder right before us if only we’ll stop and look.  It’s such a feast.  I crave these moments more and more, and I’m less and less willing to bypass them.  These moments ARE what we choose, the equivalent of our vacations days, fringe benefits, and investment portfolios…we might as well spend them!

These are a few of the things we’re learning so far. 

Maybe the list will change over time.  It may end up being scratched through and rewritten…or shortened, or added to.  In the meantime, we’ll continue learning by doing and also by observing and listening to the great folks who are more experienced than we are.

To recap…

Soil, good! 
Insects, necessary! 
Organic, yes! 
Innovate, always! 
Fail? Start over! 
Location, essential! 
Plant choices? Go native!  
Start small! 
Random acts of 409? Marriage Recovery Seminar! 
Keep it simple! 
Play!

So, enough of my learning curve…what advice would be on your list for newbies like us?

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The farmers market in our town started its season the first Saturday in May.  It was a slow beginning, but things picked up nicely the second week.  Going to the market is an important part of our life.  We shop there, getting  local things we don’t produce our selves.  We also sell thing.  Our goal is to some day have our farm completely supporting us.  Being a vendor at the market is a big step toward achieving that goal.  I don’t know if we will ever sell enough at the market to have that be our only outlet, but being there connects us with the wider community and has helped us build customers who also come to the farm for things.

Last week at the market I was chatting with a customer and he asked about our farm.  “Was it a real farm?”  I described our place and what we do, 5 acres, goats, chickens, vegetables, etc.  He laughed and said “Oh, a hobby farm!”, then walked away.  That got my dander up a bit.  Later in the day I had the chance to talk with a “real” farmer.  They grow corn, soy beans, and hay on about 1000 acres.  He was worried because his wife’s job is a bit tenuous right now, and without it they couldn’t make it.  The price of corn has dropped and he is just covering expenses.  He said that he will probably only make a profit of $1.00 an acre this year.  That really got me thinking.  Last year was a pretty dismal year for us.  We only made it to market about half the time, and the egg production crashed over the winter.  But even with all of that we ended up with a net profit of about $250.00 per acre.  We also provided all of our eggs, most of our milk and milk products, more than half of the vegetables and fresh produce, and some of the meat for our family.  This year we should do considerably better than that.  So, who’s the hobby farmer?

 

We are not quite making a living from the farm, but it will be close this year.  If CC lost her job for some reason we could still pay the basic bills from farm income.  Insurance would be a worry, and we would discontinue some less important services (like cable and possibly our land line).  In the winter we may need to do some odd job things to supplement, but we could continue to live pretty much as we do now.  That makes tiny farms a viable option as we go forward.  There are some barriers to success.  There is very little equipment available that is scaled to this size farm.  There is no support from the government, researchers, banks, etc (that could be a good thing too.) Many of the current and pending farm and food related regulations don’t take tiny farms into account at all.  There are differences in what is done and how it is done and regulations aimed at large production models don’t fit the small farm. (I promised I would not dabble in politics here.  If you want more on that topic you can see my blog under the Food Safety Regulation topic.) Another barrier is attitude.  People don’t believe in small scale production.  Our model of civilization is built on the idea of growth.  You aren’t successful if your business isn’t bigger this year than it was last year.  Small farms have limits and don’t fit that way of doing business.  That is a really hard thing to overcome.

 

So, what do you think?  Are small (tiny) farms viable as a way of making a living as well as a way of having a life?

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