What's going on in and around our house
The broccoli is starting to form crowns, and I've been harvesting both peas and carrots like crazy. I've even had lots of meals now where all of the vegetables came from my garden, even a few non-salads. (Hello, stir-fry!) That is a huge accomplishment for me. As the summer ages, I expect to have that become more the norm than an outlier, or at least to have an even more significant amount of our vegetable diet be homegrown. The carrots I've been using have almost exclusively been the ones I needed to thin, so they've been smaller than usual. More like baby carrots. As the others get bigger due to the extra growing room I'll be able to use fewer but have them make up a larger percentage of our meals. The tomatoes that are big and green should start ripening soon, and my squashes are still just babies that won't be ready until sometime in the fall. I have another sowing of greens that's starting to pop up (although not as many as I planted, stupid summer heat and stupid birds eating the seeds!) and my peppers are finally starting to put out some fruit.
|This is the kind of bouquet I can get behind.|
For some crops, like garden peas, I've been using what I think of as the 50/50 rule: half the time when I harvest, the garden peas get eaten fresh. The other half get shelled, blanched, and tossed in the freezer. Small batch blanching is easy with peas. I boil water in the kettle (usually making tea as well) pour it over the peas in a small bowl, let sit for about 30 seconds, then drain the water and put the peas in the bag in the freezer. If I'm really on my game I pour the blanching water into another container so that, when it cools, I can use it to water some of my plants. Don't waste that water! (We also pour "stale" water, or mystery water if we can't tell whose glass it was, onto the plants. Don't waste water!)
I use this same rule for the fruit I bring home from the farmer's market. Half of it is either frozen or preserved, the rest is eaten fresh. Yum. Don't worry, even with this rule we've been making ourselves sick with what we've eaten fresh. #worthit
Freezing our own fruit for winter use has been an exceedingly worthwhile use of my time. If you've ever bought frozen fruit from the store, you know how pricey it gets. $9 for a pound of cherries makes spending the time to pit them, lay them out on a pan, and stuff them in the freezer a bargain when I can buy organic local cherries for $4/lb. I can do well over thee pounds in an hour. Even better, cherries can be water bath canned in nothing but water and I've found them to be incredibly versatile that way. I used most of my jars over the winter in either baked oatmeal or as the fruit in a yogurt and granola parfait. Of course, you can also turn them into dessert, like a cobbler or topping for ice cream, but the healthier options are like a nice treat anyway, at least to me. Again, don't waste the water. It's got all kinds of nutrients in it from the cherries! Use that in baking, or in those parfaits. Thicken it into a sauce and pour it over ice cream, or into yogurt. Use it in a cocktail. Just don't dump it out.
If you're going to work with cherries, do yourself a favor and get a pitter. Or as my brother described it, a cherry hole-punch. They make it a breeze to do pounds and pounds of cherries. I will never, ever go back to cutting each cherry by hand and picking out the pit.
Some of our strawberries got preserved in jars as well. Since we still have several jams in our basement, and I didn't want to do another strawberry jam, I instead made strawberry syrup and, with the leftover pulp, strawberry butter. Yum. These were, unfortunately, farmer's market strawberries. All of ours were either eaten directly after picking or by the critters. We've got future plans for keeping them safe and expanding the number of plants, but our current set-up is rather poor for that.
|Catastrophic preserving fail! The contents|
were hot when I put it in the canner
--maybe the jar was too old?
In the midst of all of this harvesting, preserving, and the ongoing weeding, I had to plan and purchase my fall and winter garden. I've been enjoying eating out of the garden so much that I wanted to carry it forward all year, and not just from the larder. I had to figure out what will grow around here, and most important, what we will actually eat. It's totally pointless to plant something that grows well but that we hate. That being said, I ordered seeds for Scarlet Kale over my spouse's objections. ("If you grow that, eventually it's going to end up in my dinner!") I'm hoping that homegrown kale is different from store-bought kale, but I also have a few recipes that call for kale and I'd like to make them. (Even if my husband won't eat them, I will.) Plus, a winter-hardy and incredibly nutritious "green" (in this case, more of a purple) vegetable is hard to turn my nose up at.
I also ordered two kinds of chard (rainbow and Perpetual Spinach), a turnip variety, Early Wonder beets, and two kinds of carrots. I'm hoping to get more broccoli going before fall, since my family will eat three crowns in one meal (the Munchkin loves it as much as we do) and I'm still debating whether or not to get garlic. I don't want to get too ambitious, however, because we have plans to re-do the backyard, especially the garden, sometime next year. We've mostly hashed out a plan (my proposal for backyard chickens was nixed, darn it!) but it's going to take a lot of work. Since I don't want to stop growing things--horrors--I'm going to mostly be trying to do the work around both the weather and what's growing in the garden at any given time. Wish me luck.
The potato experiment
I've experimented in the past with ways to grow potatoes up rather than out, since space has always been an issue in my gardens. Sometimes this has been decently successful, other times not so much. Sometimes the weather interferes (rainy summers) and getting even a couple of potatoes is an accomplishment.
The idea behind growing up is that potatoes grow between the seed and what you see on the surface. If you can maximize the root that grows between those two things then you should have a decent number of potatoes. This year I put together a pallet bed specifically for potatoes. It's deep. It's wide. Roughly 4x4, plus three feet deep, it's a rather large growing space. It's also cited in a lovely spot, so it gets lots of sun all day.
What's experimental about this little bed is how I planted the potatoes. They've got a thick layer of compost at the bottom, then I placed the potatoes, and on top of that I alternately layered compost and grass clippings. The grass serves multiple purposes. One, it lightens up the load. I put over a foot of compost and grass clippings over those potatoes. That's a lot of ground for a potato to try to grow through, and it's possible to smother the seed potatoes. If it wastes all of its energy just trying to get its sprout to the surface, it's not exactly going to make a healthy plant. Or, in some cases, any plant.
Second, it adds organic material to break down and continually feed the potatoes. Potatoes are rather heavy feeders. I don't believe in breaking down a plant's nutrient needs into simply N-P-K as many fertilizers do--I think that's as silly as saying humans only need fat, protein, and carbs. Clearly we need more, and they can be crucially important, just as many trace minerals and nutrients can be important to plants. The decaying grass, which I'm certain is pretty much unrecognizable by now, will release its nutrients over the summer as it continues breaking down with the help of the compost. Or at least, that's the hope.
|My janky, lopsided pallet bed. I don't care that it's not|
pretty. It's lined with gardener's fabric so I can easily
dig through the soil when it's time to get the spuds.
Will it work and give me tons of gorgeous potatoes? I have no idea. Right now the plants are more than chest high to me, with roughly two feet of above-ground growth. Let's hope that what's under the ground is doing just as well.
Starting the winter garden
As crazy as it seems, now is the time to start planting for fall, and in just another month or so it will be time to start planting for winter. O_O I know.
I tried a new method of planting carrots that I'd read about, and that is planting gel. Supposedly it wraps the seed in a protective coating and helps it maintain moisture for about as long as it needs to get going. You can buy them, or you can make it for just a few cents with some water and cornstarch. Guess which one I did?
Well, I'm not sure if I did it wrong or if it works better in spring, when it's wet anyway, but it ended up making my neat planting rows into dried husks with seeds embedded in them. My next planting of carrots, without the gel, got eaten by the birds. :( I'm still trying to figure out how to keep it all damp enough to sprout seeds and also keep it safe from the birds.
|There was an attempt.|
One thing that I will recommend for seed starting is chitting your seeds. Most gardeners know that you can do this with potatoes but many other seeds can be chitted before planting. Once the root starts growing it will keep growing unless the conditions it's been planted in are just seriously wrong. Like, a chitted squash seed will not continue growing if it's then planted in mostly frozen or boggy soil. But if you chit a seed and plant it out at the right time, you can sometimes get an extra week or two of growing time. This works easily with big seeds, like peas and squash, but can also work for smaller seeds. I've seen people chit them on top of a bowl of growing gel, or in a mason jar, or in a paper towel. Just check the seeds every day and plant very carefully (so as not to disturb or break off that root) at the first sign of growth.
Is it all worthwhile?
I estimate that I've spent about $400 on the garden this year. That is not a small amount of money. However, much of it has been spent on things that will pay off for many years. We bought four more blueberry plants (for a total of six), which won't pay themselves off for several years. In this first year, I actually pulled most of the flowers off so that the plants would put more effort into root growth rather than fruit, so that they will be healthier in years to come. In addition to buying these, my spouse also built two new raised beds in the front for them. That wasn't cheap either. Since blueberries like truly acidic soil, we wanted them separated so that it's easier to deal with them on their own. Since they're pretty, however, we were able to put them out front by the fence. I've even overheard a few people passing by commenting on how lovely the beds are.
I also purchased a rhubarb plant, we got two apple trees, and a lemon tree. (The lemon is in a giant pot, and will live indoors for about half the year.) None of them can be harvested this year, and probably nothing much, if at all, next year either. The trees are all tiny. Just as with the blueberries, they were purchased based on future rather than immediate payoff.
Combined with the compost, a few other annual plants I purchased, my seeds, and the stuff to make low tunnels, it was a pricey garden year. Next year might not be any different, since we're going to be re-doing the garden area entirely.
All that said, I still think it's been worthwhile already. When my first crop of lettuce was going I ate salads anywhere from 2-14 times each week and never had to buy lettuce. We've been eating a ton of stir-frys but have mostly just bought a bit of chicken and rice to go with the vegetables. I harvested the potatoes I planted early into big buckets, and will get several large breakfasts from them combined with some of my onions and topped with an egg. All of this and I still haven't gotten to harvest any tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, or my main crop of potatoes yet. Most of my onions are still in the ground. We've easily already diverted $200 of grocery spending and will almost certainly be exceeding the other half of what we've spent on the garden. And that is, again, without any of the perennials we planted being harvestable.
|It's not exactly food independence but that's not|
a bad start. Potatoes, snow peas, garden peas,
onion, carrots, and chamomile.
Aside from the money, having a garden is a form of security. When things go bad, food gets scarce. Think of what it would be like if we actually had The Big One (earthquake) here. Would you be able to feed yourself for two weeks without the grocery store?
And even aside from that, there are rather routine "price shocks" in food these days. The cost of food has been rising faster than average inflation, and almost certainly will keep rising. The book Bet the Farm has a really good overview of what's going on with food and the financial markets. It's both depressing and scary to read. Spoiler: people all over the world will continue to go hungry because it's not profitable to feed them. I'm not okay with that. I'm not okay with being part of a system that exists to exploit some people and starve others. To the extent that I can opt out, I will opt out.
This year, crops all over the world are failing due to drought, flood, or heat. The Irish potato crop is failing, Farmers in the UK and Australia are freaking out about the droughts, so is Germany. They should maybe be thankful they're not on fire. Where it's not in extreme heat and drought, there are floods. You guys, these are the climate change impacts scientists have been warning us about. This is almost certainly the start of a new trend, not an aberration. If we all want to eat, and eat well, then many more of us need to grow food, in less stupid ways.
Which brings me to my next point. Even a brief overview of our current farming system should show how dumb it is. As one example, we killed off the grazers that used to roam the Midwest grasslands. Then we ripped up the grass to plant corn and soybeans that we turn around and mostly feed to different grazers...which we keep in giant factories. Because they're in factories and not on grassland, their waste collects in giant cesspools and becomes hazardous waste instead of fertilizer. Since the natural fertilizer is going to waste farmers instead have to import fossil fuel based fertilizers, which are very expensive and help put many farmers into debt. *facepalm* And this gets subsidized by the government, while many people tout how "efficient" it is. Organic and small scale farming is only land efficient if you don't count the land cost of oilfields to help run conventional agriculture, FYI. So, maybe if your only metric is how many calories are produced, sure, doing things this way is more efficient, but by every other measure it's pure stupid. It's wasteful and polluting. Again, I really don't want to be part of such destructive stupidity. And by growing at least some of our own food, we're decreasing the amount of land needed to be razed and used for agriculture.
My household wastes less food when we grow it ourselves, because, darn it, if I grew it then I'm going to eat it. Even parts that are often considered "waste" in the grocery store can have their uses in the kitchen. "Inedible" garden pea pods aren't actually inedible, they just have a tough membrane that can be peeled off so the rest of the pod can be consumed. Celery leaves can be used to flavor soup. As a last resort, I use the "waste" parts to either make vegetable broth or to add flavor to chicken broth.
And if all that doesn't get you excited to grow something, there's also the fact that we eat healthier because of the garden. Seriously, did you not read where I said I was eating tons of salads all spring? I munch on vegetables raw while I'm out in the garden, and so does the rest of the family. I add the onion tops as green onions to basically everything I can so that they don't go to waste, but I'm also conscious of the fact that it gives me a bit more vegetable matter in my diet. We all benefit from the healthy freshness of the veggies, and we eat more than we would if it all came from the grocery store. It's fantastic.
I know a number of people who've tried gardening and failed at it for one reason or another. Maybe it was a bad season, maybe the soil was poor and they didn't know it. Try again! And if you really, really can't stand it, find the one or two things you can grow and do those. I have an acquaintance who mostly just grows strawberries, but that counts. Good on her.
It might seem ridiculous to think that small scale home gardening can have an impact on any or all of the issues I highlighted above, but around a third of all vegetables consumed in the U.S. during WWII was produced in victory gardens. Gardening can also foster greater community ties. By getting outside more often, people naturally interact more with their neighbors. Just ask ours, who is pleased as can be that I want to harvest the apples from her tree. (She hates them, apparently. They make great applesauce and apple butter.) And among many people in cities, community gardening has provided not just food but also a social outlet. Gardening is awesome. You should try it.
So what should you grow?
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the crops that are the most worthwhile to grow for a variety of conditions. There are so many lists out there but this one's mine. Obviously it comes with the caveat that if you or your family won't eat something you shouldn't grow it because that's a waste. But these are the ones that seem most worthwhile because of either price, taste, or because they're just so darn easy.
1. Leafy greens. I'm including collards, kale, lettuce, spinach, and chard all into one. I think just about everyone can grow at least one of these. Many of them don't need, or even like, a lot of sun. They can be grown in any climate, they don't take up a lot of space, and they can be grown in pots in a sunny window if that's all you have. Perhaps best of all, you don't have to harvest the entire plant. Take a few leaves here and there until it starts to bolt, then pull the plant and replace it. I almost never have all of my plants bolt at once so you can try to get the next crop in the ground while eking out a bit more from the plants that are still going.
2. Herbs. Most of them are easy to grow and they don't take up much space. The fact that they're really expensive at the store makes them totally worthwhile monetarily. If you use any herbs fresh, do yourself a favor and figure out how to grow them. Bonus points: if you buy the fresh ones they almost always come in those stupid plastic containers. Now you don't have to throw those away. (Let's not kid ourselves--recycling plastic is frequently throwing it away.)
3. Carrots. They're so underrated, but homegrown carrots just have so much flavor. There are few vegetables I enjoy more than a freshly picked carrot. Any variety will do, though they do taste slightly different. Some are spicier, some are sweeter varieties. Doesn't matter, I'll nom all of them. The only reason they're not first on my list is that they do require a bit of land to grow. Apartment dwellers need not fear, however, because I've had luck growing fat, short Parisienne carrots in a wide, shallow box. They also grow quickly, so in most climates you can get several sowings from spring-early winter.
4. Peas. They grow vertically so they don't take up too much space. A person willing and determined, with a sunny balcony, could grow peas from a pot up a trellis. It would be beautiful and decorative as well as functional. If you're going to grow them in such a small space, though, stick to sugar snaps or snow peas. Garden peas take a decent amount of space to be worthwhile. I still grow them, but the most I've gotten in any single year was about a gallon and a half of shelled peas.
|Peas, butternut squash, and bush beans. They're way|
5. Potatoes. They're cheap at the grocery store, true, but they're also an easy way to get more of your calories from your garden. (The other biggies are winter squash, beans, and corn.) Plus, they're really fun to dig up, particularly for kids. I do the digging and have the Munchkin keep an eye out for spuds, then pick them up. They do take a bit of land to grow, though it doesn't have to be really good land. Potatoes will grow even in somewhat crappy soil. They'll be lower in nutrition from lower quality soil, but not enough to make homegrown potatoes detrimental. Particularly considering how poor quality the soil is on most U.S. farmland these days!
6. Zucchini. Good old zucchini. I'm kicking myself for not growing any this year, since this is a powerhouse of a plant that will, if you treat it right, reward you with many, many squashes to eat. When you get sick of eating them for main dishes, then you start getting into the crazier things like zucchini cookies and zucchini pancakes. They're really good, actually! Zucchini bread might be one of the best dishes ever invented. It's basically cake, but it has a green vegetable so it's totally healthy and you can eat it for breakfast. Right? Right. Anyway, zucchini, again, takes a little bit of space to actually grow well so it's not suitable for inside an apartment. Summer squash is an equivalent that's also yummy and easy to grow.
7. Beans! This year I'm growing both green and purple beans. We're going to eat them fresh all season and, if we're lucky, I'll be able to put some in the freezer or in jars for winter. They're like peas in that they don't have to take up a lot of room, they help replenish the soil with certain nutrients, and they can give you a lot of calories and nutrition. I haven't tried growing them myself, but there are several varieties that are good to eat as long beans or as dried beans.
8. Walking onions. Apparently there are more varieties than just the Egyptian ones, but those are the ones I've got. They were actually planted in the garden by the people before us and I thought they were neat so I left them. I didn't actually expect them to survive the winter but they did, and now I have tons of onions. I mean, I planted all those starts in the spring so I had lots anyway, but now I realize I have this crop and it's wonderful. They're, obviously, a perennial so you don't have to worry about planting them ever again. They take care of that themselves, hence the "walking" aspect. I like a vegetable that requires basically zero effort on my part.
|Fishbowl view of tomatoes. Planted too close together,|
but they're making it work.
9. Tomatoes, of course. I don't actually like fresh tomatoes all that much, so I can't speak to the flavor. I know it's different but it's still...tomatoey. But I love cooked or dried tomatoes and my spouse goes nuts for all tomatoes. I've started appreciating cherry tomatoes and if you just have a small area or the space for one little container tomato plant, do a grape or cherry tomato. Those things are champion producers, and if you have extras they can be dried. If you have more space, there are endless varieties of tomatoes to get. Slicing tomatoes are good for things like sandwiches, some are better for salsa, saucing tomatoes are good for, you probably guessed it, making sauce. Some are better fresh, some need to be cooked to unleash their full potential. Just don't go with the big box store starts. They're basically the same as what you'd get from the grocery store and why are you growing them at home then? Branch out, friend.
10. Celery. I really like celery, but only if it's homegrown. Grocery store celery is just so watery and tasteless. Garden celery has an amazing amount of flavor, enough that it can be overpowering if you use as much in a recipe as you're used to. It's also a much darker green when I grow it at home, so it pops visually when I cook with it. However, celery is a rather persnickety plant and can be tough to grow, particularly from seed. Most of mine died this year but I've got three that are finally starting to come into their own. They take a long time to get going--they were the longest of my seeds to sprout, and even discounting that time it took them the longest to start putting out their first true leaves--but it's so worth it.
11. Bonus, but grow absolutely anything edible that is also perennial. It is the most effortless way, by far, to grow food, as well as the most efficient. I haven't had to do anything for our perennials except plant, water, and harvest. Maybe a tiny bit of weeding here and there in the blueberry beds. Compared to the endless tending to my other crops (starting them in pots, thinning them when they're too close, making sure they grow up the trellis, caging them or tying them up) the perennials have been a breeze. If you seriously lack money and/or time, perennials are the way to go.