Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Midsummer Garden and What to Plant

Amazingly enough, it's the middle of summer here. It's gone by so fast. When I think that I haven't gotten much done, however, I glance at the garden. Tossing a few seeds about and planting a few starts has somehow turned into actual plants that are huge. The teeny tiny tomatoes that I planted are enormous and bushy and vying for space because, whoops, I planted them too close. (And now I don't want to tear any out because I forgot to label them. I think that one of the varieties was a slower grower, and I don't want to just pull those plants!)

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.
Third, grass clippings can hold a lot of water. By layering them in there I've basically made a continual watering system, so that the potatoes won't ever run dry. This also means that I don't need to water them as often, or for as long. We soaked the entire bed really well a few times and since then I've not done much more than point the hose in there for a minute or two. The plants are thriving, putting out flowers and truly healthy looking.

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.
Homegrown stir-fry

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
bigger now.

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.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Outdoor preschool: a review

A Little Background

I say it constantly but it always bears repeating: our older daughter is a force of nature. She is vibrant, and wild, and athletic, and riotous, and chaotic. All the baby books I read were so completely, totally wrong about what my kid needed that I had to ignore pretty much all of the "expert" advice because, apparently, those experts have never met a kid like mine. We tried dozens of different sleep methods that all promised we could get our child to sleep well. (Ha!) We've tried at least as many routines and methods of discipline. In the end, she does what she wants regardless of consequences. Some days, I feel like I might as well bash my head against the wall as try to direct or control her because she listens to me so little, and cares less for my opinion or thoughts.

It took us a long time, but we finally realized that our kid thrives on chaos. Everyone ever who has studied kids will say that they need order and structure to feel secure. In some ways this may be true for ours (she can count on meals and snacks at roughly the same time each day, bedtime at around the same time, and all of that) but the times when she is the best behaved for us tend to be the times when everything is in disorder. Thirteen people over for Christmas? She's an angel! Giant crowds? Loves them! Noise, light, distractions? Her favorite things!

She has never yet stuck to any consistent schedule. Sometimes we put her in bed at 7:30 and she's asleep within ten minutes. Other times we put her in bed at the same time but we're tearing our hair out with frustration because she's still awake at 11:00. She likes disorder, and if there isn't any built into her life she will create it herself. It. is. exhausting. I was so, so looking forward to the start of preschool through basically all of her early years. However, I was also nervous about it. Was she going to have discipline problems at school? Because, well, how can any school contain such a big personality? If they're trying to create order, how will that stifle my kid who needs chaos? How will she even learn effectively?

Over a year before she was even due to start preschool I started looking into different types of schooling methods and philosophies. I thought that Montessori and Waldorf schools might be a little more promising but didn't fully buy into their methods. Then I came across an article about Germany's outdoor preschools. Holy shit, I thought, the Holy Grail of school types for my kid! I wouldn't have to worry about her being made to sit still in some small classroom with a bunch of other kids, something that would never suit her at this age. Or, probably, any age. I wouldn't have to worry that she'd be confined and stifled. I wouldn't have to worry that she'd be so energetic and wild that she'd get kicked out of school!

Of course, those preschools were in Germany. With a heart full of pessimism I did a search for forest preschools in the Seattle area and found two. One is on an island nearby, which was obviously out, but the other operates in quite a few parks around the city. I applied the very day I discovered it. It was a leap of faith, because we hadn't even bought our house yet and I was applying to the class in the area we were just hoping to be in. When we got accepted, we still hadn't closed on our house. It made me a little anxious to not have it all together but only mildly so. Optimism won the day, and proved correct.

The Review

This school is amazing. Each of the kids is given, out of their tuition, a pair of Grundens and a matching rain jacket. Kids who needed them also received boots. The rest of the appropriate gear for the weather--hats, warm pants and socks, gloves, mittens, etc.--have to come from the families. The preschool teachers regularly sent out emails to either remind us of different layering options or to point us in the direction of good deals to be found on children's cold weather gear.

Because yes, the kids go to school outside in all weather. There were no snow days, despite there being several days during which it snowed. There was no cancellation even on the rainiest of days. And there is also no building. The "classroom" is an area that's marked off by the park management but has almost no covering beyond what the trees provide. It is truly outdoors.

The school day itself was exactly what we needed: ordered chaos. The first half hour, during drop-off, is generally for the kids to explore on their own, within the classroom. This meant anything from reading books (the teachers did put up a very small rain cover to keep the reading area dry) to building with blocks, to climbing trees. Smashing rocks against bigger rocks was also a major activity. Essentially, the kids ran wild to burn off their beginning of the school day energy. The teachers, there were three for our class, would check up on kids who seemed to need it, whether it was because they were sad that their parents had left or were 30 feet up in a tree. "Are you okay up there? Do you need any help? Okay then. I'll just wait down here and you can tell me if you run into trouble."

After the kids had gotten out some of their initial energy the teachers would corral them into different activities. School officially started with "greeting", a song and either a conversation about something the kids were interested in or, later in the year, puppets talking about issues that were relevant to the kids. Emotions and how to handle them were, naturally, a big topic. It is, after all, preschool. We showed up a few times and some of the kids were wrestling on the ground. If they were actually fighting, rather than playing, the teachers would gently pry them apart and separate them to talk about what was going on and better ways to handle big feelings or conflicts. If it was mutual play, the teachers would keep an eye on them but not interfere.

Every day included a hike, and a snack, and big group time (often a form of tag or Simon Says, something physical but that also required the kids to either work cooperatively or to listen), and small group time. Small group time was when they worked on counting, letters and writing, patterns, things of that sort. They were learning just as much as kids do in any preschool about the "important" subjects, while also learning things like: nettles sting but plants growing nearby can help lessen the sting, moles make holes, how fast and far they can run or climb, and where to find salamanders. They learned about the life cycle of plants, they observed birds and squirrels, played in streams and mud. They learned to measure using their arms, since sticks to be played with couldn't be longer than that. (Unless it was going to be a walking stick for the hike.)

In addition to all of this, the kids were given responsibilities. The Munchkin generally thrives when given a task or chore to do (usually--she's only four) and would sometimes brag about her chore for the day. "I was the snack passer!" "I was the sweeper on our hike! I had to call [friend] to keep up with the group, and he did!" I love that the school is based around the idea of giving kids agency and treating them as responsible. It's something we try to do at home and I was happy to see this idea reinforced by the school.

The kids were able to use tools, including saws, and I've mentioned some of the other "dangerous" activities they were allowed to do. Learning to be mindful of how and when to do something--don't throw rocks when your friends are near, for example--was a huge part of the curriculum. There was also always safety equipment available. When the rock smashing became a thing, out came the safety glasses. You could smash rocks but only if you were wearing safety glasses. It's such a small thing but it really helped the kids to be mindful of all the other safety rules. Make them put on the glasses and suddenly they're telling their friends to stand back because it's not safe to be so close.

You might expect that the gender disparity would be large in such a school. After all, in a world where parents tell little girls "be careful" more than they do little boys, and where "boys will be boys" but girls are princesses, it would be safe to assume that more boys would be signed up for outdoor school than girls. So I'm really happy to say that the gender ratio only slightly favored boys. Having other tough, capable girls of her own age around was great for the Munchkin. And I love being able to talk with other moms who understand what it's like to raise a girl like mine. The kiddo isn't the only one who made friends!

However, it was a mixed age group. Kids ranged from 3 to 5 years old. Some have another year of preschool while others are starting kindergarten in the fall. This actually worked out really well, especially since some of the kids were returning from last year. They knew the drill and helped the younger kids adjust to the routine of school. In the beginning of the year they helped carry things that were too big and heavy for the smaller kids, or gave them a boost up onto the log that was just too tall. They also provided a benchmark for the younger kids to work toward, constantly striving to be just a little bit more like the bigger kids.

The only things that I disliked about preschool are mostly things that we would have disliked about any preschool. She picked up on gender stereotypes that we had, until this point, managed pretty well to shield her from. "Pink is a girl color" became a thing in our house, so we had to have conversations about what everyone important in her life has for a favorite color. Spoiler alert: she has an uncle whose favorite color is pink. We discussed the fact that a color cannot be for girls or boys because it's just a color. "Your eyes are blue. Does that mean you have boy eyes?" "No, haha! Silly Mommy!"

Our Munchkin has also never really been violent, but this year she tried out a few things. She hit me several times, her tantrums became wilder and she started kicking us occasionally during them. She also threw a book at me. (We got rid of that book as a consequence--I disliked it anyway.) I know she picked up the ideas to do these things from watching the other kids. There was a day early in the year when she got bitten by another kid. When we showed up the next morning he handed her an "I'm sorry I bit you" card that he'd made and his dad said, "Okay, let's go. We've got another one of those to deliver." (I'm not upset--in fact, that kid has become one of the Munchkin's best school buddies.) It's not surprising that kids in a school like this one would be very energetic and very physical, but I do wish this was something that our girl hadn't picked up on. Thankfully, her attempts at violence have been few and far between.

The one downside to this school that wouldn't come from an ordinary school is the amount and type of laundry. I'm so sick of opening socks that have been balled up as they were removed and being showered with sand. For quite a long time, our washing machine had gravel in it because our kid stuffed her pockets with it and didn't tell me. It took so long to remove it all. Formerly white pants are all a sort of dingy brown-gray, despite attempts at both chemical and sun bleaching. The mud was real, even with the Grundens. To keep warm enough, over the winter we had her wear multiple layers of clothing so some days we'd have: two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, two shirts, two jackets, a hat, and gloves that were all either soaking wet or filthy. It adds up over five days.

Not only that, but it's hard on gear. The Munchkin lost five pairs of gloves and mittens over the course of the year. She also managed to put gashes in her XtraTufs. !!!! How does a kid even manage that? She put holes in several pairs of pants and managed to lose some of her wool socks. I would say my kid is just forgetful but I saw the Lost & Found box every day, the other kids were just as bad. Again, they're preschoolers.

But how much does it cost?

Since the preschool doesn't have a building to maintain, it actually costs far less than a traditional preschool. For five days a week, mornings only, we've been paying the full price of just shy of $700. (There are scholarships on a sliding scale for lower-income families, in an effort to make this accessible not just for rich kids. I also love that about the school!) Considering that other preschools I looked at were asking $1500-$2000, this is far more economical, even with the gear we had to buy to outfit her properly. (Goodwill, yo. And my Buy Nothing Group came through for us a few times too.) It would not be worthwhile for me to work if we had to pay for normal preschool, particularly now that we're also paying for baby care.

There are also a wider range of options for what we want the school schedule to be than a lot of schools will have. Many have either five full days a week, or three full days. That's it. Even worse, many schools don't even offer part-time care because they don't have to. Since I only work three days a week I looked into that as an option and could practically hear crickets. Preschools and daycares in the area are at such a premium that they fill up very quickly. At this school we had a wider range of options for what we wanted to do. For both this year and next, five mornings a week has been the right balance for us between school and being home, but that was one of about six different options to choose from.

The Takeaway

I assumed, at the start of the year, that the kids in such a school would pretty much all be similar in temperament to mine: adventurous, riotous, energetic. I was so pleased to see that that wasn't true, though. One of her good friends is a little boy who's much quieter than she is. We've had a few playdates and when I mentioned to his mom that he's so much quieter and more reserved than the other kids she said that she'd been hoping outdoor school would open him up a little bit more, which it had. It makes me love this style of school all the more, to know that it works well for both gregarious kids and for the shyer, quieter ones.

I figured that we would be able to meet some like-minded families, parents who didn't tell their kids not to climb so high or run so far, parents who weren't constantly reminding their kids that life is dangerous. And we did! I really like the parents as well as the kids, it was such a great group. We've met up with several families outside of school and are planning many more get-togethers this summer.

At the end of the school year, all the parents of the younger kids were trying to figure out who would be returning next year, who we could count on our kids seeing in the fall. It was gratifying to know that our Munchkin is in such high regard among her classmates, because no matter what else she is she is intensely social. She managed to befriend the shy kids as well as the outgoing ones, spanned the age gap (her November birthday might have helped, as she was sort of in between the younger kids and the older ones), played with boys and girls, and generally did a great job of befriending everyone. I'm so proud of her.

I really, really appreciated how the teachers handled the kids and any conflicts that arose. In fact, I appreciated our teachers all around. They were so patient, so kind, and so enthusiastic. They worked hard to redirect the kids when something was going sideways, something I could be better about myself, and really worked at teaching to all of the kids as individuals. I learned several tricks from them that have made life for me a bit easier. It was obvious right from the start that they are teaching outdoor school because they are passionate about nature and about the kids learning, growing, and being in nature. I cannot say enough good things about them.

We did have one minor misunderstanding with them, because they simply did not see our kid as we do. This is natural and normal, since kids behave differently for their parents than they do for just about anyone else. The teachers mentioned several times that she complained about being hungry at school, or being cold, and we explained that we did our best but mornings were often difficult with her. Getting her dressed as appropriately as we could (it took most of the year before she figured out that being warm inside the house does not mean that she will be warm outside of it) and getting her fed was sometimes just a tantrum-filled battleground. She'd take two bites of the breakfast she had asked for, then declare herself full. No amount of coaxing, cajoling, or warnings could get her to take another bite. And when it came to getting on warm clothes or rain gear, oh boy. If you've never tried to forcibly dress a 4-year-old who's resisting you in every possible way, it's quite the challenge. You'd think she has twelve hands and legs instead of the two. She'd scream at us that she didn't need rain gear when it was clearly, obviously pouring down rain outside. Making her go out on the porch to feel the temperature and check out the weather only sort of helped.

The teachers did not see the tantrums, however, because she never threw them at school. Until one of the snow days. Luckily I was home, because I got a call halfway through the morning asking me to come pick her up. "She is currently safe, but she's soaking wet and refusing to put on her jacket. I just don't think it will continue to be safe for her to be out in the cold any longer." Apparently they'd been trying to get her to put on her jacket for the better part of an hour and, despite shivering and being soaking wet, she was howling and crying and throwing an epic fit. When I picked her up the teacher looked at me and said, "I finally understand what you mean when you say that mornings are a battle." Having that mutual knowledge made life, on our end, so much easier. If she came to school with her breakfast in hand they were more understanding, and they were able to work with her on some issues so that she was better equipped to handle her emotions in the mornings.

Despite the morning fights (which have faded quite nicely toward the end of the school year), I'm amazed at how easy this year was. She sleeps better more consistently than she ever has before in her life, because she's been getting enough stimulation and activity most days. She has also matured in so many ways, and seems more self-assured. Sometimes it comes with a big helping of teenager-level sass ("I've got it, Mom!") but she's able to do so much more, and is more mindful of being careful when she needs to be. She's volunteered to help with chores around the house because she's so used to needing to help out at school. I mean, this doesn't work nearly all the time, but there are plenty of times when she'll just help out when she sees that something needs to get done. She also seems to understand better that we make her do chores not as a punishment but because we all live here so she's responsible for helping with the upkeep.

We've allowed her to do more dangerous tasks with less oversight as the year has gone on, because we know she can handle them. When she's learning things both at school and at home then it becomes more normalized. We can trust her to handle a knife since she knows the knife safety rules aren't something we're doing just to be mean but because they are important, no matter who is around. The other night, she cut up all of the broccoli for dinner, with only minor supervision from us. We were so proud of her, and she was proud of herself. As she should be! But we knew she could handle it, and part of that is because she's been handling saws and hand drills and other tools at school.

Seeing her handle these things has also helped us think of other ways that we can help her have more agency over herself and her world. Small things matter. We put a hook in the coat closet that's at her height, so she is responsible for hanging up her backpack and jacket every day. Some days this is an hour-long argument/delay because she just doesn't wanna, but she knows what's expected of her and, usually, she's pretty happy that we made the world accommodate her just a little bit better.

She's stronger in body (which did not help when we had to force clothes on her) and in her mind too. There's a certain level of learning to suck it up when you're going to be out in the cold rain all morning, so I've noticed that she complains less than she did before a lot of the time. There's less whining about certain things, more sighing acceptance. She understands, somewhat, that sometimes we have to do the hard thing, the un-fun thing, and that complaining won't get her out of it. This is huge for a small child.

One of the best things I did was to build in treats on some days. When I knew it was cold and pretty miserable, I'd try to ensure there was something fun waiting for her when we got home. Hot chocolate, or snuggling under a blanket on the couch and watching a movie. I think those little things made facing the next day more bearable and cut down on the number of days she said she didn't want to go to school. After all, most grownups use some sort of incentive to get themselves to do things they don't like or which are just harder to motivate ourselves to do. Children are no different.

I'm so glad that we found this preschool, and I'm even more excited for next year. We're off for the summer, but she's got one more year before kindergarten and I happily signed her up again. I look forward to next year even more, and I'm so excited to put what I learned this year into making next year even better.

Play of all kinds, but particularly outdoor play, is not given the pride of place in early childhood that it deserves. Kids and parents alike are increasingly divorced from nature, which is having terrible consequences. Everything from ADHD to poor vision to obesity is being linked to a lack of time spent outdoors. Forcing our kids to spend much of the day outside is a boon to their development. I'm not terribly concerned about a lack of nature time within my family, since we do spend so much time outside. Trips to the playground, time spent gardening or biking, going for walks, all mean that we spend more than the average amount of time outside. Still, more time outside is better. Humans evolved spending most of their time outside, after all. This school made all of us get more time outside since the grownups and the baby also had to participate in drop-off and pickup. Usually, pickup was at least a half-hour process of gathering gear and playing a bit more with friends on the way out of the park. On nicer days, this could stretch to an hour of extra playtime out in the fresh air. If I showed up early, Baby and I would walk around a bit. So school might have been for the Munchkin, but it was beneficial for the whole family. Can you see why I love this school?

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Home hair cuts

When I was a kid, I thought it was perfectly normal to have my mom cut my hair. Until sometime in about elementary school, I thought that going to the salon or barber was only something that grownups did. Even after my first (remembered) salon haircut, I thought that it was like a special treat.

This feeling has continued. I, frankly, love going to the salon and getting my hair done. The whole thing just feels like such a treat. The swankier, the better. I like sitting there sipping my tea and reading my book while I wait for my appointment, smelling whatever essential oils they've put in the air. I even love getting my hair washed, and I've always loved having someone else toy with my hair. Best of all, my hair never looks better than the day I walk out of the salon, because as much as I love having other people toy with my hair I don't actually much like fussing with it myself. I have a few hairstyles that look really complicated but they don't require any products or curling or drying, just a bit of hand dexterity and practice. Which is especially good, because I don't really have any hair products or a curling iron, and the hair dryer I have has been used maybe half a dozen times. (It was a gift from my mom years ago, and I keep it around because I keep telling myself it will be useful at some point, for something.)

With all of this, you'd think that I prioritize getting regular haircuts and all the pampering that goes along with them. Nope! My last salon haircut was about three years ago. I decided to get a hairstyle that would require more maintenance and regular trips to the salon, but after about six months I realized that I didn't have the energy to maintain the style or to make it actually look good every day. So I got a cut that would be easy enough to maintain and grew my hair out for the next two years.

After Little Miss Sunshine was born I realized that I had four months of maternity leave, so I dyed my hair blue. This was a long-held dream of mine. (I know, I dream big.) Then, feeling the need to do something else to get rid of some of the weight of my thick hair, I handed the clippers to my spouse and made him give me an undercut. Well, it ended up too short and I realized after a few days that, even after it grew out a bit, I wasn't loving the style the way I thought I would. Though, it did do a lot to relieve some of the weight of my otherwise long hair.

With my return to work coming up, I knew I couldn't return with long blue hair and I wanted to fix the undercut situation anyway. I looked up what is often the cheapest source for a haircut, a salon school, but the logistics of getting a babysitter for my kids (they're not open on weekends) and getting there and paying for it all just seemed like such  hassle. Instead, one morning while the Munchkin was at preschool I grabbed the hair shears and went at it. I cut my hair so short that I sometimes feel like a Flapper. An A-line bob, it's wonderfully short and easy. I barely have to brush it! No more baby fingers tangled in my long locks. No more giant knots from all the getting up and going back to bed that I do. No more heaviness. And since summer is coming, it's wonderfully cool.
Short hair!

This is not the first, or even the dozenth, time I've given myself a haircut. I won't lie, it took a lot of courage the first time. It's my hair! But I figured that I could always put it under a hat and go to the salon if it was a disaster. Well, it wasn't. Which is not to say that I do all the work myself. I do the initial trimming and then grab someone else to double-check the back. One time, the handy person was my younger brother. Evening out my hair was not what he expected to be doing that evening! But he was a good sport about it. HusbandX has, in the past, performed the same office for me quite a lot.

When the Munchkin saw my haircut, she wanted one of her own. This happened the last time I cut my hair too. She's only ever had two other haircuts (done by me) because, OMG, her hair is so pretty with its curls! She wanted her hair long, girly, anyway. I occasionally brought up the idea of trimming her hair, but she was never interested and I thought her hair was fine as-is so I didn't press the issue. Well, when she asked for a haircut like mine I was game. Last time I cut her hair I thought I was trimming it shoulder-length, the way she'd asked for, but it turned out after the first few snips that she'd been shrugging up her shoulder. I can't complain, the effect of the shorter hairstyle was even cuter than it would have been a bit longer. The curls were still there but it framed her face adorably, and it was still long enough that I could pull it out of her face when I need to.

This time I ended up cutting it even shorter. It's sort of easy mode for summer, since I know she's going to be swimming and running around, and she's never ever going to want to let me brush it. This way we don't have to fight over her hair.
Before

The one trick to cutting a toddler's hair that I can offer up is that I gave her frequent chances to get the wiggles out. She'd start to shift around and I'd say, "Do you need a moment to wiggle?" She'd step away from me to shake and shimmy and then step back when she was ready for more. In her world, it took forever (about fifteen minutes) but she seemed to love her new haircut. For days afterward she was asking me to cut her hair again.

The first person whose hair I cut, other than my own, was HusbandX's. He had, so far as he could remember, only ever gotten his hair cut by one woman in his life, a friend of his mom's. In college he refused to get his hair cut by anyone else, which meant that he had to wait until he went home at breaks and his hair would get long. Not in a good way. I finally persuaded him to let me cut his hair, after watching many, many Youtube videos of how to give a man's haircut. I'd also, for years, observed what stylists do when I was at the salon, because it's interesting, so I figured that I at least understood the principles. Well, that first haircut wasn't the best but it wasn't the worst, either. It was certainly better than the long hair he'd been sporting for weeks months. And I only got better from there.
After!

The point of all of this, and I promise I do have one, is why it's worth it to me. Why, if I love going to the salon so much, would I instead cut my hair at home? Yes, it's expensive, but not doing something I enjoy borders on cheap rather than frugal.

As much as I enjoy going to the salon, I've decided that it's not that time of life. It takes time away from my already busy life and it is expensive, using up some of our finite funds. Mind you, not going to the salon has been my choice. If I told my spouse how much I really, really love it he'd probably get frustrated by my refusal. But my time and money can be better spent elsewhere, like our efficiency projects (we want to insulate the house before next winter)and my garden.

My current personal moratorium on going to the salon isn't absolute. I will definitely be going to the salon occasionally in the future. But it will be more of a strategic pampering than a regular one. After all, the very rarity is part of what makes it so enjoyable. How often in my regular life do you think I get cossetted and spoiled? Holding that time out for when I actually need it makes going to the salon something I appreciate all the more. If I did this regularly, it would not only become routine but it would also actually become a hassle.

It's the same way for many things. We'd get sick of having Christmas once a month, and we'd get sick of our favorite foods if we ate them all the time. For me, making my trips to the salon rare makes my gratitude for them all the greater. And since I've gotten pretty darn good at cutting my own hair it's less of a burden to push off going to the salon. I get an ego boost in the meantime, with people complimenting my haircut. In many ways, that's just as good as getting pampered by a salon.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

To lean in, or not

I've had just about everyone asking me if I'm going back to work at the end of my maternity leave. What a complex and complicated question! As my leave nears its end (I'm due back before the end of this month) I've been forced to think a lot about work and what it means to have a job in our society, particularly as a mom. Any working parent has a tough deal but moms in particular get a raw deal, which I think we can all admit. I read an article recently about the idea of having it all and one line in particular really spoke to me. "I have kids who have forced me to do everything in my life with greater efficiency and the professional assumption that I’m now less efficient after having kids." That pretty much sums it up. I'm writing this post one-handed with a baby in my arms because she's been sick and won't nap unless I hold her. But according to society, my brain has lost all functioning that doesn't directly tie in with child rearing.

On the other hand, my motivation for work is now more complicated. I don't think going to work is any more of a moral or societal good than working in the home is, though it definitely has more status in our society. Do I really want to go to an office all day to work for The Man when I could instead be home with my snuggly, giggly baby? My family is definitely more important to me than a job. It's so weird to me that housework and being a parent, which is really the work that makes up a life, has become labelled drudgery while going to work for someone else's enrichment is a good thing. It's moral and right, while staying home is quaint and a bit unreasonable. What the actual fuck has happened to turn that all backwards?
Why wouldn't I want to stay home
with this little nugget?

Then there's the ever-fraught question, do I really want to miss out on these early years? I did my time, working full time right after my first was born. Despite the fact that she was fussy and didn't let me sleep longer than four hours until she was more than a year old (and still woke up twice every night then) I dutifully went back to work ten weeks after she was born because I couldn't afford to take any more time off. My husband was in school again, a venture we could afford because my job paid his tuition and just enough to pay rent and eat. (Don't worry, I still got asked if I'd be going back to work. I might have stared at those questioners as if they'd grown second heads.) Now I can afford to stay home, or not. We're in a different place entirely and suddenly I have options!

On the other end of the spectrum, from birth to death, I also have my mom to think about. She'll be moving into a care facility soon, because she needs 24 hour care and her health has begun to decline at a more rapid pace since my dad's death. Just as it's important for me to be here for my kids when they're little it's also important to be available for my mom at the end of her life. It is so, so painful to be around her now. In many ways she's reverting back to being a child, with her current state being in the zone of a young toddler. She's forgetting how to dress herself, even how to talk and feed herself. As my kids grow more capable it throws into stark relief the fact that she gets less and less so. Despite how painful it is, though, I don't want to regret that I could have done more for her, been more available. If a job ever gets in the way, guess what I'd choose.

Not only my family is important to me, however, but my own interests and mental well-being need to be taken into account. There's not much time to yourself when you're a parent (not even bathroom breaks!) so what little time I have to myself is precious. Other moms are probably nodding, because we all hoard that time to ourselves the way a dragon does treasure. I will breathe fire on anyone who gets in the way of my down time! 

Keeping up with a home and family is hard work, even with a supportive spouse pulling his own weight. It doesn't help that our four-year-old does things like deliberately flooding the bathroom, so nearly every day I have extraordinary work to do on top of the usual. I spend so much time on the kids, and the chores, and if I give some to a job then where is the time for me? Time to workout, time to read, to garden, time with friends. These are important to me. I don't want to stress myself out trying to fit in a little bit of relaxation time. That defeats the purpose, clearly.

My job will just pay me enough to cover childcare, healthcare, and a little bit to put in my retirement fund. Is that worthwhile to me? This is more than a lot of women get, so I'm grateful, but it still seems like a lot of hard work to do for not very much reward. I don't even mean that my job is hard, but that all the scheduling and coordinating for me to be able to work--meal planning, childcare, getting to and from work, looking professional instead of rolling with the fact that the baby spat up all over me, pumping milk so the baby can spit up even more--is work in and of itself.

I realize this is a privileged position. We always talk about when women entered the workforce en masse in the 70s, but that ignores the fact that poor women, and particularly women of color, have always worked. They had no choice. I read The Feminine Mystique last fall and was utterly turned off because it was so classist. All the jobs Friedan wrote about were white collar, with no examination of the fact that the nannies and housekeepers she advocated hiring were also working women, frequently with families of their own. The fact that I get asked if I'm going back to work is a mark of my privilege.

The fact that my husband has never, to my knowledge, been asked if he's going back to work after Baby shows that sexism is still alive and rampant in our society. Yes, it makes sense to have (breastfeeding) moms stay home more, but it honestly makes the most sense to have both parents at home for a while after a baby is born. HusbandX got 30 days of leave and that was wonderful, more than most men get, and still it wasn't quite enough. It flew by and gearing up for him to go back to work when I wasn't even fully recovered from my c-section, and we hadn't fully acclimated as a family to the new dynamic, was rough. We need to have better parental leave laws if we're actually going to be "family friendly", and they need to encompass fathers as well. They are just as important as mothers. A good first step will be setting the expectations of who works on its head. Men don't have to be "the breadwinner", they can stay home too! I've heard of plenty of men who'd love to stay home with their kids but didn't because the stigma they faced for such a decision was crazy, even within their extended family. The idea that a father shouldn't stay home is what seems crazy to me.
If I don't work I can do fascinating
things, like figuring out the most
efficient way to line-dry diapers.
Woo.

After taking all of this into account and weighing my options, I've decided that I am, in fact, going back to work. Not because I think I must have a job because I'm an Upstanding Citizen, or because I'm a feminist (I totally am) and feel the need to represent, or out of loyalty to the company. I'm going back because I find my job interesting. It's stimulating in a way completely different from being at home with my family. I get to talk to other adults about things that sometimes have nothing to do with home, and I really enjoy my coworkers. I even like the company I work for. It's employee owned so we're treated like humans rather than Workers and the work is worthwhile. It's a large enough company to have multiple offices in multiple states but small enough that the CEO knows my name when he comes by. I've also hit the sweet spot in employment: I only work three days a week. The 20-hour workweek that was envisioned by Keynes is farther away for most Americans than it was when it was first thought up. I'm lucky to be able to work just enough but not too much, which I am able to do in an expensive city mostly because we don't consume like most Americans. We're frugal weirdos.

If I'd had a different baby, if she'd been more like my first, I made up my mind to quit. There was no way I was going to put myself through that level of sleep deprivation again and still hold down a job. Then Little Miss Sunshine was born and she's such an easy baby. She already sleeps through the night (which, for a baby, means six hours at a stretch, but sometimes we get more) and she got herself onto a schedule that works for all of us. She smiles and laughs all the time, and--illness aside--she generally lets me get things done. I've been able to garden. To read. To go to my book club and cook and bake and dream up other projects I want to try. (Soap making? Quilting? Both??) She even sleeps in her crib! I got more alone time in the first month with her home than I did for the first six months after our Munchkin was born. I don't even have to hurry through my showers with the background noise of screaming baby! In some ways it makes me want to stay home with her more, because she is so easy and so joyful to be around. She lights up the moment our eyes meet. But I also know that if I don't go back to work I'll end up unhappy with my choice, feeling stuck at home and without anything interesting to think or say or do. I do not want to become the person who can only talk about their kids because that's literally all they have going on in life.

Working will also allow me to regularly get back to doing something I love: biking. My body changed so much when I was pregnant that it not only became uncomfortable but also dangerous, as the shift in my center of gravity made me wobbly. Now I have no way to bike with a kid who can't sit upright on her own, and since I'm breastfeeding that limits the time I can be away from her. I mean, on her end I can supply milk in advance. That doesn't help my end of things, however. Since I'll be doing all that I need to do to be away from her for a full work day anyway I can ride my bike home and enjoy that time to myself, doing something I love.

This decision doesn't come without its reservations. As the date nears I'm getting a little anxious. Will she really be okay without me for three full days in a row?! ...Will I be okay without her? She's still so tiny! She'll be four months but, still, so little. So dependent on me above anyone else. Then there is, as I mentioned above, all of the coordination. I'm going to spend the week before I go back getting meals and snacks worked out, so that the days I work will be as hassle-free as possible. It's not a negligible amount of work, but at least I know what I'm getting into.

My brother has agreed, for the short term at least, to be our 'br'au-pair'. He wants to figure out the next phase of his life so we only have an agreement through the summer, and after that we'll see. I've become a big believer in taking life in short increments now anyway. We'll get through the next six months and then see what changes, what works for us then. It's a huge shift from my old method of trying to plan life, and it works much better. None of my plans ever fully came to fruition anyway. The entire time I was pregnant people kept asking me what my plans were for this or that--delivery! childcare! to work or not to work?--and I answered that I generally didn't even have the next month planned out, let alone these big issues that aren't completely in my control. (If you think anyone gets to plan out their delivery, you've obviously never talked to women who've given birth.) I think this frustrated the people who were asking, because why wouldn't I have the big things sorted out? It's taken me 35 years but I finally realized that life does not care about my plans, big or little. It is so much easier if I roll with whatever happens, and I am so much happier when I'm not stressing myself out trying to stick to a plan. So I will be going back to work, with the caveat "for now".

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Spring Gardening

When I was a kid, for quite a while whenever I was asked what I wanted to do I said I wanted to be a farmer. My parents told me what hard work it was but that didn't deter me. As it turns out, however, the realities of being a farmer are not at all what I wanted. I didn't really want to be a farmer, I just wanted to grow my own food. Though I wouldn't hear the term for quite a while longer, when I said I wanted to be a farmer what I meant was more along the lines of being a modern homesteader.

I don't actually consider myself a homesteader (is there a hard line on that, and if so what is it?) but I want to be more than just 'a gardener'. I've mentioned before that I'm trying to maximize efficient food production of my property, thinking over the long term. I've had gardens in the past but they were always kind of pathetic. We lived in an apartment, and then in my parents' house, so the garden space was never really mine. Sure, I could do what I wanted. But why would I want to spend so much time and effort to maintain someone else's yard?

This year, however, is different. One of the attractions of this house is that it had garden beds already put in for me. Not great, not what I ultimately want, but they're there and I can work with them. Six lovely raised beds. One even has trellises in place for peas and beans.

I planted a few crops last fall, mostly as an experiment to see what would grow over the winter and how well. Carrots, onions, lettuce, and spinach went in. Not all of it germinated, not even close. I had intended to make some low tunnels but pregnancy lethargy struck and it never happened. I'm still happy with what did grow, however. Spinach and lettuce both did pretty well, although it got incredibly bitter when the temperature dropped below freezing. I didn't mind so much as I don't crave salads in winter. That's soup season! Still, it was enough to gather a little bit occasionally, and now that it's spring the lettuce is getting sweeter and going gangbusters when most other people are just seeing the first few big leaves. It's enough that we've had some big salads where all of the greens were from the garden, plus lettuce for tacos and other meals. I've got so much I've been considering offering some up to my Buy Nothing group.
Not even all of my lettuce. I pick leaves
off the sides and it just keeps putting out more.

The carrots I started in the fall are also starting to get big. I'd been warned that carrots would grow, and they'd be nice and sweet thanks to all the cold weather over the winter, but they wouldn't get beyond baby carrot size. However, leaving them to grow means that now they're growing fairly well and should be ready to pick soon, well before spring-sown carrots have even put out their first true leaves in most cases.

The onions didn't germinate in the fall, probably because it was already too cold when I direct sowed them, but a few are popping up now. For this summer I got onion sets rather than seeds to grow from, and I expect I'll get a healthy crop of onions since they're already popping out of the ground. If all of them grow, I should have very close to 100 yellow onions and 100 red onions. Yes, we eat a lot of onions.

Since six raised beds still gives me limited growing space I transplanted the strawberries the previous owners had planted in one bed, plus a few from my mom's house, out front. They scorched last summer in the raised bed so I put them in an area that gets lots of sunlight but also some shade. Since onions can act as a pest deterrent, and they get along pretty well with strawberries, I inter-planted some of them among the strawberries. Soon I'll add a summer crop of lettuce and spinach, choosing the shadier spots so that they don't bolt quite as fast as they would in full sun. Or, that's the hope.
Carrots and lettuce!

Instead of buying plants, I generally buy and start my plants from seeds. This can be rather hit or miss, since sometimes a packet of seeds just won't grow well and there's a lot that can go wrong even if you have great seeds. This year I bought some seed starting pods in trays to make things easy on myself. It was a good decision, and most of my seeds germinated. I didn't actually expect them to do so well so, uh, I ended up with way too many seedlings. Oops? Knowing that I didn't have enough space for even half of my plants the only logical thing to do was...build more garden beds.

I had a raised bed that I'd made out of pallets with my dad last year. My brother brought it over for me and putting it back together was bittersweet, since it was the last project I'd done with my dad. It's really just a pile of free wood and screws leftover from other projects, but it means a lot to me. It's quite deep and will make an excellent tomato bed, since tomatoes have deep roots that need space, and I left three of the sides tall so the tomatoes won't even require a lot of cages.

The vegetables I'm planting vary from year to year but I try to get the ones we eat the most and deliver the best return on my investment. This year I'm (hopefully) growing tomatoes, cabbage, green and purple string beans, shelling and sugar snap peas, butternut squash, carrots, lettuce, spinach, onions, celery, broccoli, potatoes, red and orange bell peppers, and Anaheim peppers. I might buy a zucchini start as well, or I might just get zucchini from friends when they inevitably declare zucchini overload.

For fruit I have quite a few strawberries, two (so far) new blueberry bushes, the cherry tree, and a rhubarb. (Is that a fruit? Whatever, we treat it like fruit.) I'm not expecting much fruit this year, since they take a while to get going. The cherry tree put out a grand total of nine blossoms and I would be seriously surprised if any of those translated into cherries. The blueberry bushes similarly won't produce much in the beginning, and rhubarb can't be harvested for at least the first year. But they're all perennials, so I'm not concerned.

I also have a few herbs. Thyme, rosemary and mint were already planted in the raised beds. Unfortunately, the mint was planted NOT in a container so now it's trying to take over everything. (Always plant mint in a pot here.) I bought basil, hoping that this will be the year I finally manage to grow amazing basil, as well as lemon balm and chamomile. I can grow my own teas! (Tisanes, technically.) The lemon balm, as a member of the mint family, has been planted in a pot so that it, too, does not begin to take over my yard. I may also add sage into the mix, but am content with what I have for now. I want to build an herb spiral but that will most likely be a project for next year.

The best of plans

Garden planning is really challenging work beyond just time, space, and money. It requires that I think in multiple dimensions. I don't want root crops right next to each other because then they'll be vying for the same space. Something should go between, hopefully. Similarly, I don't want to plant tall tomatoes in front of lower plants and shade them out. And will the squash vines crowd out the other plants?
Spring peas

Then there's the matter of nutrients. Will everything I'm planting together be good neighbors? Or will they be stealing nutrients from each other so that none of them grow really well? And soil requirements too! Blueberries only grow in very acidic soil, so what would go well with them? And how do I ensure the soil is acid enough?

As if that wasn't enough, you're not supposed to plant any crop in the same bed all the time because diseases can fester in the soil from one year to the next. If you don't give them their favorite plants to eat they'll go away, but it takes time. So crop rotation needs to be practiced and this needs to be done anew every year. Maybe someday I'll get my garden on a regular rotation but I honestly don't know of any gardeners who don't tinker from year to year, trying to make everything better.

When to plant different crops is yet another factor that requires careful planning. I love this website for all things gardening in the maritime Northwest. Not that I always follow it. I planted my winter squash seeds right along with everything else in March and then looked at April's to-dos and saw that I should have waited until mid-month. Oops. No harm done, though, and the seedlings are transplanted out. Two withered almost immediately but the rest are thriving, putting out new leaves after only a couple of days. It helps that we've had quite a few sunny, warm days recently.

What my garden plan looks like so far is this: three beds of mixed carrots, onions, spinach, and lettuce. One of those beds has the thyme and rosemary (and mint, but that's all over the place now). I have one bed of onions, broccoli, leeks, and cabbage. One bed has beans, squash, and peas. Two beds will have celery and tomatoes (which can't be planted out yet), and in the two beds I have yet to make I will have one potatoes + cabbage (+ beans?) bed, one broccoli + leeks. I also have two large planting buckets with potatoes.
Bucket of 'taters.

In the very front, along the fence, my wonderful spouse built two new raised beds. Those will be my blueberry beds, with rhubarb and (for this year at least) peppers. Since it's facing the sidewalk and I want it to be pretty I'm going to add gladiolus, tulip, and daffodil bulbs. (Tulips and daffodils can't be planted until the fall.) And my chamomile is planted under the cherry tree.

I'm currently in the process of setting up  some of the low tunnels I wanted to make in the fall but didn't. We don't have anywhere very good to set seedlings, nowhere for them to get enough light, without it being a total pain in the butt. However, celery and tomatoes still need more warmth at night than nature will provide. Enter the low tunnel. I bought ten foot lengths of PVC pipe, some brackets, and clamps to help hold the plastic down in the wind. The plastic I'm using for now is leftover painter's plastic, which we bought when HusbandX was removing the asbestos ceiling downstairs. It's very light and thin so it's not the greatest, but it does let a lot of light in. It will also contain moisture, so I won't have to water those beds as much at night until the plastic comes off completely. (It gets opened on sunny, hot days right now so that the seedlings don't scorch.) Since it's so thin, for now I've got a few water jugs in with the plants to act as thermal mass. They absorb the daylight heat and then throw it off at night, which should help keep the temperature swings to a minimum. Seems to be working well enough so far. The first bed I did this in, the one with celery and tomatoes, also gets the most sunlight each day, to maximize the amount of warmth and light these heat-loving crops get.
One completed low tunnel, with some of my starts.
I have clamps to hold down the plastic when it's windy.

Before autumn comes I plan to have at least two other beds with low tunnels over them, to keep plants going a bit longer in the autumn and to give fall-started plants a running start.

Weeds, weeds, and more weeds

All this and I haven't done any major landscaping. Phew. I know that what I have isn't going to be a permanent setup. What we have in the back is going to eventually be re-done, not least because we have bindweed under almost all of the beds. It's awful, and I'm already sick of pulling it out of my raised beds. It grows super fast so if I miss even a day of weeding I come back to dozens of new shoots popping up. It cares nothing for the ground cloth the previous owners put under the raised beds. You know the scene in Stranger Things when Hopper goes underground and finds out how extensive that creepy plant is? That's exactly what it's like to find bindweed in your garden. I moved all of the dirt in one of the beds around to dig up as much of the bindweed as I could, pulling up the ground cloth to get the roots, and it just keeps coming back. You pull on one tiny sprout and find a four-foot root that attaches to several other sprouts, which leads to even more roots and more sprouts. Ugh. The same corner where the bindweed flourishes also has blackberries and English ivy, all invasive and annoying as hell. I'm not sure that anything can get rid of these weeds except perhaps chickens, but my spouse has nixed that idea. For now. (Probably wise.)

In the meantime, to combat this and other weed problems, in the new beds I'm making a half-assed attempt at lasagna/hugelkultur beds. I laid down cardboard, then sticks, then a bit of unfinished compost or charred logs from backyard fires with friends, then the finished compost/soil mixture I bought. (It ended up being $30 for two yards, thanks to a friend with a senior discount and a truck. That's roughly 2 tons of compost, for those who don't understand the yardage system.) The sticks (brush we cleared because it was massively overgrown) will decompose very slowly, replenishing nutrients over a long time, while the unfinished compost will break down very quickly to add lots of nutrients from the start. We'll see how it goes but I've had good luck with even my half-assed attempts in the past. The bindweed has been growing around the newest bed but not up through it (yet) so that is promising.
Baby butternut squash

One of the best ways to combat weeds is to crowd them out by planting a variety of things. In permaculture there is the idea of building more like a forest canopy, with many levels. ("Guilds".) Big trees, smaller trees, large shrubs and bushes, smaller ones, plants, ground cover, root crops. If I have a big item, what can I plant around it as ground cover to keep weeds away? Can it do anything else for the plants around it, like attract beneficial insects or draw up nutrients from the soil? My knowledge of this is still in its infancy but I'm trying to incorporate it whenever I can. I'd rather not spend all of my time in the garden constantly weeding when I can get other plants to do some of the work for me.

Since I'm not a farmer, I also don't have to obey the same rules. I don't need to plant everything in a straight line because it's not going to be harvested by machine. If it makes sense to plant a few onions around a lettuce plant, or to put one cabbage in the middle of my broccoli because that's where it fits, I can do that. I'm not constrained in the same ways so I can maximize my use of space to make it more efficient and to help keep weeds out. #winning

More than a garden, more than a yard

As I move forward with planning out my yard and my Perfect Garden I'm trying to think of it more as an ecosystem than anything else. I want to grow as much of my own food as I can, yes, but to do that requires more than just plants and soil and light and water. I also need insects to act as pollinators and defenders. It's a certain thing in the NW that slugs will come after my plants, and I want to attract things that will take care of them for me. If I want to attract pollinators that means I need to have a healthy mix of non-food-producing flowers as well, hence the bulbs I'm going to plant along with my blueberries. But plants aren't the only thing, either. I want to have a few bee houses around, and at some point we will likely have honeybees. My brother-in-law gave us his beehives, and all I need to do is get over my fear of bee stings first. Maybe take a class about beekeeping....
This lilac is one of my favorite plants that came with
the house. Visible right outside the dining room, it attracts
lots of birds and bees, plus it both smells and looks lovely.

If I'm attracting insects then I'm also attracting birds. And this is a wonderful thing! Birds will also help eat the bugs I don't want (mosquitoes) and can act as pollinators. I'm not going to be setting out bird feeders, as they can introduce invasive plants or spread weeds and help invasive birds. If I plant bird-attracting foliage, however, it will help the local species. I'm conscious of what in and around our yard is attractive to birds, particularly hummingbirds. We saw quite a few last summer and fall and I want to keep seeing them.

It's not a project for this year but I want to get a bat house or two. Bats are just sort of awesome to watch, and they eat mosquitoes. Plus, their poop can be used as yet another wonderful natural fertilizer for the garden.

When we moved down from Alaska I mourned the fact that I wouldn't get to see as much wildlife. And it's true, I don't. When I do it's certainly not as big or quite as wild. But it is there. When I went to my book club recently, in a busy neighborhood around dinnertime, as I was getting the baby out of the car I heard a noise and looked up to see a coyote racing away. It was surprising but also sort of heartening, in a way. I want to live in a place where wildlife is still intertwined with humanity. I want to know that we haven't driven it all out, and in fact I want to draw more of it in. I do draw the line (ants in the house are no good, Seattle rats can go to hell) but having a variety of animals and insects is overall a good thing.
Leaving some spaces wild, with native plants,
is a good thing. It can be beautiful too.

Do it for the children!

As annoying as it can be, I'm also trying to incorporate my children in the gardening process as much as I can. The Munchkin helped me plant seeds (especially the peas and squash) and they've both been coming outside with me as I work in the garden. The day we got the compost was a banner day for our older girl, who had a blast playing in the dirt. ("Helping.") There's only so much I want a four-year-old to do--only so much she can do--and even some of that has had me gritting my teeth. However, watching the process of plants growing is not only fascinating and a great learning experience, it also helps kids eat better. I'll take a few crushed seedlings to have a kid who enjoys vegetables, thanks.

More than trying to help, my Munchkin spends her time in the garden observing things. She had a "pet" pill bug the other day and it's a treat to find worms or caterpillars. I have a minor internal panic attack every time she picks up a spider but I'm trying not to show her that. We discuss what these bugs eat and what they do, we talk about the birds that eat the bugs. Having a kid who enjoys being out in nature means having a kid who will want to take care of it. That is priceless.

Why bother?

When I started writing this post it was just starting to come out that a bunch of romaine lettuce was infected with e. coli. This has since turned deadly. (If you haven't heard about this yet, throw out your romaine lettuce.) Sadly, this sort of thing has become normal in our food chain. Every year there are dozens of outbreaks of illness which can be traced back to a breakdown of the food system as a whole. Frequently, as it now has with this latest outbreak, these illnesses turn deadly. I'd rather not risk death for my family with every bite. And no food, it seems, is safe.
Enough salad for six adults and a preschooler.
I hardly made a dent in the garden.
Salad: 3 types of lettuce, goat cheese, and dried apricots.

Then there's the fact that homegrown food not only tastes better, it also has more nutrients. The food we grow at home is just better for us than what we can buy at a supermarket. I've wondered many times if the obesity epidemic is caused as much by nutritionally deficient food as it is by anything else. I don't believe that a whole nation of people suddenly decided to gorge themselves into ill-health and that it's a moral or self-control issue. When you have people who are simultaneously malnourished and overweight, the problem is not with them but with their food. More likely, people are eating more because their bodies are demanding more real sustenance than they're getting from the crappy food.

I don't just blame the over-processing of food, however, but the fruits and vegetables which have been bred to travel long distances, rather than for taste or nutrition. I've been purchasing more heirloom varieties of seeds and every variety I've tried so far has been one worth keeping. You can't get them at big box stores, however, because there's not as much profit to be made. And that, right there, is the essence of the problem with food in this country. It's not sustenance, it's a product. This is what we all need to live, yet companies are throwing out patents for ingredients, processes, even the DNA. Everyone's looking for how they can get you to stuff yourself even more, to eat yourself to death so they can make a buck. It's stupid, crazy, and sickening. I want no part of it when I stop to think about it.

Chamomile under my cherry tree.
Spread, baby!
When I garden I also get to control what goes on my food, and growing organically at home is often cheaper because you're just not buying and using pesticides or strange fertilizers. I use compost, which can be made for essentially no cost and bought for very little if sourced by the yard, and that's about all you need for most plants if you also use crop rotation and companion planting.* The startup costs of a garden can be somewhat steep depending on how you do it but the payoff is forever.

My long-term goal is to have most of our yearly vegetable intake, and quite a bit of our fruit intake, come from our garden. Maybe one day I'll even talk my spouse into letting me keep chickens, to further close the loop (chickens eat kitchen scraps, poop out fertilizer, and they make breakfast!) and to produce even more of our food. (Will that be the point at which I cross the line into homesteader territory?) This all seems like an arbitrary goal and in some ways it is. I'm not measuring my veggies by weight, as some people have done, to see how many pounds of produce I can grow. I'm not even writing it down. I am trying to eat at least a little something from the garden each day now that it's producing so much. (Mostly lettuce still but yesterday the Munchkin and I shared a carrot.) Depending on how my chamomile and lemon balm grow and how the low tunnels do and how much I'm able to preserve, I might even be able to extend this goal to the entire year. That would be amazing. But for now, I'm content with a carrot or a salad here and there and I'll see where the summer takes me. I've got many more years of gardening ahead, during which I know I'll get better and grow more.

Finally...

I don't think I have a 'green thumb'. I have so much enthusiasm for growing things until the point at which I don't. Or, I get scattered and lose sight of something crucial. For instance, my new lavender plant is in the kitchen reviving. I got so into making the low tunnels and digging out the bindweed that I forgot about the lavender. Unplanted, it scorched in the hot weather we've been having. It looks like it will survive (pro tip: set wilted plants in a pan of water so it soaks up through the roots--far more efficient than top-down watering) but if I hadn't noticed it until tomorrow it would have been a goner. I'm sure I'll lose a few plants this summer due to neglect. What I know is not intuitive, it's thanks to extensive reading about gardening, farming, and homesteading. That is, I read everything I can about those who know more and do better than I likely ever will. It is despite myself that I manage to make the garden worthwhile, and still it's enjoyable. It forces me outside and it's relaxing. No wonder gardeners live longer.



*My blueberries have special fertilizer to enhance the soil's acidity. However, I'm also looking at natural ways of doing so. Adding coffee grounds, pine needles, peat, and even putting a tablespoon or two of white vinegar in a full watering can are all ways to help acidify the soil.