Archive for the 'garden' Category

Garden Doom…No, Not Really

Sharon June 27th, 2008

Ok, you are a terrible person and you are totally doomed.  You see, you meant to plant a garden this year (or a bigger garden, or a better garden or something…), you really did.  But you were sick in May and then there was a work crisis, and the tiller didn’t work, and the guy who was going to bring the horse manure never came and somehow, here it is, the last week of June, and your garden isn’t even started, or is only half the size you intended, or three of the beds aren’t planted.  Or maybe you did plant it, and the drought or the floods or the locusts or the herds of armadillos destroyed it completely, or weeds the size of Godzilla have sprung up and you are fairly sure there were some carrots in there once, but you can’t find them.  And here it is, the end of June, and you have no garden, or only half of one, or nothing like what you’d thought you’d have.

 And you are thinking… I’m doomed.  My family is going to be eating bugs, and not the good kind of bugs, which will all have been harvested by Sharon and her family who are so far ahead of us.  No, we’re going to be eating the bugs she wouldn’t even post recipes for.  You are thinking…if I can’t even get one stupid little garden planted/can’t protect it from disaster, my whole family is going to starve to death…and it will be all my fault.  I am bad.  I am worthless.

Ok, stop.  Guess what. You aren’t doomed, and my family is pretty much like yours.  You see, there were these sheep, if you’ll remember.  That took care of the strawberries, the early tomatoes.  Then there was this book - do you remember that, the thing that meant that I didn’t even start until June?  And then there were a host of reasons, some real and some stupid,  why half my garden is in cover crops or something else - I could claim it was because of my deep commitment to the soil, but that wouldn’t explain why I was crawling around on my knees sticking random unplanted onions in between things…onions, folks.  Do you know when you are supposed to plant onions here?  The middle of April.  And I was planting them on June 26.  Nor would it explain why there are sad looking hot pepper plants looking at me and crying “plant me….for the love of god…plant me…I could fruit still before frost if you’d just get me the hell out of my flat, where I’ve been since March…!”And if I don’t get them planted by the time I go to Boston on Monday morning, they are mostly going on the compost pile.

 Am I panicked?  Guilty?  Nope, (well, a little), but only because I’ve been here so often that I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the reality - all the perfect gardens live in my head, and the truth is, every year’s garden is totally messed up.  The thing is, I end up eating a lot of food from that messed up garden, and it does get better every year.  Or at least every year without sheep in the front yard.  And since the disaster is bad, but not that bad yet, we’ve all got another year of screw ups.   

Heck, this sort of thing happens to everyone - and I do mean *EVERYONE* - there are thousands of farmers in the Midwest who have absolutely no choice but to say “ok, no corn this year…hmmm…soybeans or do I wait for winter wheat?”  That’s not to suggest this isn’t hard, or scary or painful, or that the consequences of having a bad garden couldn’t get a lot tougher than they are.  They certainly are for those farmers, and I’m not trying to mock the sheer pain of seeing something you’ve worked on washed away.  But now that we’ve mourned our follies or nature or whatever, it is time to move on.  And it is not too late to produce a good bit of food for most of us, while loftily implying that you meant things to come out this way. (Gardeners are like cats - everything they do is intentional, even when it isn’t.)  The trick is knowing how.

One option for most of us to just say “the heck with the summer garden, I’m just going to have a super-amazing fall garden.  For us northerners, that starts right quick now.  I finish my summer planting on June 30, and then I begin my fall planting on July 1.  Sounds crazy, but that’s when I need to start cabbages and other late crops by (ok, actually it’s usually more like July 7, but it sounds better this way).  The thing is, most fall crops need time to mature while days are still long - some things, like spinach and mustard greens can be planted as late as September here, but this far north, most of the fall garden gets planted in July and August.  And fall gardens are the best - no bugs, things don’t require as much attention since the weeds grow slower, etc…

 You can also plant most short season summer crops now - near me it is by no means too late to plant cucumbers, basil, zucchini, green beans, etc… Other than a few beets and carrots for summer enjoyment, I don’t even really bother to plant my main crop of most root vegetables until early July - we are so busy in high summer eating tomatoes and eggplant that I don’t really want turnips, cabbage or the main crop of carrots until late September - so why rush about madly trying to get them planted when everything else is going in?  And some crops, like lettuce and rapini do better in the fall anyway.  No worries about the broccoli going to seed at all - just enjoy having a good fall crop. 

The other things I plant late are canning vegetables. I used to plant my cukes in late May, when everyone else did.  Then I realized something - I don’t really love standing over a hot canning kettle in July.  Now I can do it for the blueberries - that’s their time, and there’s no good way around it.  But the cucumbers keep coming until October…so why is it I was I melting here again in July?  Oh, because I have a giant glut of pickling cukes, and I don’t want to waste them. But if I make the glut come when I want it…  So now I start my cucumbers in mid (or sometimes late) June and the glut comes in early September when it is cooler, and I don’t mind canning as much. 

 It probably is too late for tomatoes and peppers and eggplant, at least from seed.  But what if you have some, or if your local nursery is trying to get rid of its stuff so it can start the Chrysanthemums, and you want to try it.  Well, my suggestion is to go for it - pull off any blossoms, plant them deep, and take a shot at it.  Or even better, stick them in a nice big pot.  Because then, if frost hits before the tomatoes do, you can drag it into the lobby of your building or into your garage for those first few frosty nights, and stretch the tomatoes out a bit.  The peppers and eggplants are true perennials, and you might even be able to overwinter them, if you’ve got conditions, and then brag to everyone about how smart you are and that you’ve got hot peppers in June.

The other possibility is that you can put in cover crops.  Now this is especially good because true serious gardeners know that soil is everything.  In fact, serious gardeners believe that the vegetables are mere by-products of the good soil - you pretty much just plant the chard to keep the earthworms happy.  So if you tell everyone “Oh, I put 80% of my garden into vetch and oats for green manure this year - I really felt the soil needed it” other gardeners will nod wisely and feel sad and selfish because they don’t love their soil enough to forgo pumpkins and parsnips.  It helps the effect if you look sad at their selfishness too.

Some of these cover crops actually produce food, too.  For example, buckwheat has a delicious salad green, and if you are lazy about cutting it down (which I often am) produces tasty and nutritious seed.  It isn’t quite as good for your soil after going to seed, but it isn’t terrible either, and I won’t tell if you don’t.  Red clover makes a nutritional tea if you harvest the blossoms.  Daikon radishes break up soil, and I promise not to tell if you accidentally harvest one or ten and make kimchi or Japanese pickles with them.

You could even experiment - I have some seed potatoes I have not planted this year - I ran out of space in the potato patch, and I had thought I’d allocated all of the rest of my garden to other things.  But I’ve got a spot and I’m curious as to what kind of yield I’ll get from potatoes planted at the end of June around here - for those in warmer places, fall is a good time to plant potatoes.  And since my potatoes keep best if they are harvested when it is quite cool, this might actually work out well.  ‘Twill be worth a shot, anyway. 

“Experiment” explains anything.  Just point to your flooded out plot and look wise and say “This is a test garden, planted to compare how well hybrid corn does in marginal conditions vs. open pollinated.”  Imply there’s a comparative plot “over there somewhere” and that it is all supposed to look that way. 

 Most of all, remember that you are not doomed.  Your next garden will be better, because you will have learned from experience.  You have mastered something - next year you will do remarkable things.  You will probably make a whole new set of mistakes next year, and come up with a new, creative range of personal excuses.   See, you’ve learned something!

 And you needn’t worry that my family will get all the good bugs.  We’ll be right there along with you, trialing recipes for the discards while some other family, who always does it right, eats the locust croquettes with their correctly succession planted arugula, that never bolts before another crop gets put in place.  I already hate them, don’t you? 



How Much Land Do You Need?

Sharon June 24th, 2008

After “Where should I live?” the next most frequently asked question I get is “How much land do I need?”  And just like “Where should I live” is a deeply personal question, shaped as much by who you are, where your family is, what you do for a living, etc… as by any rules of thumb, the same thing is true of “how much land do I need.”  That is, it depends on where the land is, what kind of land it is, how much rain you get, what you want to do with it.  The one absolute truth is that with a few exceptions the answer is almost always “less than you think.”

Now when I went looking for land I did what a lot of people did - I wanted as much as I could afford.  I got 27 acres, and in many ways, that’s far too much.  Now don’t get me wrong - I’m delighted I have it.  It gives me choices that other people don’t have.  But I very quickly realized that 3 intensively managed acres could probably have done me nearly as well and that 1/2 acre could do an astounding amount.  There have been times when the only part of this property we’ve used is about an acre of it.

Ok, so the first set of questions applies to you - let’s say you want some land to grow food on.  What’s your situation?  I’d suggest you ask yourself these questions.  I won’t offer any real answers, just things to think about.

1. How old am I, and how good is my health? 

- I was sitting around at dinner with several young CSA farmers in their 20s, and we all agreed that about 2 acres is the absolute maximum that one young, healthy person can farm by hand on their own.  While I nodded my head, because I think I could do two acres if I had to,  at 35, with young kids, I think an acre or an acre and a half is more like it, if you aren’t using powered tools.  By 50 I suspect my estimate will go down to 1/2 acre or less.  And that’s assuming I’m in good health. 

So comes the question - how old are you? Who else will you have around to help?  How healthy are you?  Are you likely to be restricted by health or by something temporary, like pregnancy and babies?  What else do you have to do?

Now these numbers apply to land that you will garden intensively with minimal or no powered equipment - maybe a lawnmower, but not a tractor.  You can stretch that number by adding things that take less attention that an annual garden - orchards and fruiting or nutting plants, livestock, etc… I’ll move on to that in a second.  I’m also assuming you are starting from scratch - that is, if you move to a property (good luck finding it) with an acre worth of carefully tended, established garden with good soil, I would tend to think that someone over 50 could go on managing it as long as they were physically able.  But starting from scratch, and building soil while growing stuff, that’s more work.  More experienced farmer/gardeners will know the management techniques to do more with less, but also to do more with more.  Again, I’m assuming you are fairly new to this.

I would say that a 2 acre hand-tended garden is the absolute outside of what a young, healthy person should attempt to produce by hand working full time.  A 1 acre hand tended garden is plenty for a family with older kids who can help out, with one partner working full time.  A half acre is probably enough for a healthy older couple or people with young children.  And a quarter acre or less should be the absolute maximum for people with health issues mild enough to let them garden, but enough to constrain them.  And these are limits assuming that you really need the food, and that other things aren’t so pressing - you might actually want less garden than this, I’m talking about outsider rabges.

2. What can I use to expand my limits?  And is there really a compelling reason to try?

Obviously tractors fall into this category, as do rototillers (I don’t actually think the latter are that useful in many cases, but I do mention them), but affording the gas to run them can run into real money, and sometime it might not be available.  Plus, there are real limits in practical terms - yes, I know people with tractors on 3 acres, and if you really are farming them full time, that might even make sense if you can share it with others.  But for isolated ownership, the tractor isn’t going to pay for itself unless you are super-handy and can press into service an older model and maintain it.  Everyone I know with a tractor spends a *lot* of time maintaining the thing - and that’s time you aren’t planting or growing.  I know the lure of the tractor - but I’ve never quite given in to it, and mostly, I’m glad.  Since some of my neighbors have them, I can often enrich one of my neighbors for far less than the yearly amortized cost of a tractor.  Is it a pain?  Yup.  But the world doesn’t need more diesel engines, and I don’t need to spend more time with the internal combustion engine ;-).

So what else is out there?  Well, there are draft animals.  But the thing about those is that your draft horses, jacks, mules, oxen, water buffalo, etc… are going to eat a lot of pasture, probably some grain and a good bit of hay over the winter.  You have to have enough land to justify their presesnce.  Since only 8 of our acres are open (the other 19 are woodlot), we simply don’t have that much land - if I got even light draft ponies, I’d use them mostly to…grow feed for my ponies.

Then there are middle options, animals that can eat pasture or the bugs on it or some combination and harvest a lot of their own food, and then provide something you want, like milk or eggs or meat.  But if you are trying to net a better deal (as opposed to just doing it for a hobby or for a better food supply) think carefully about how much land you are devoting to them, and have a plan for what you’ll do if you can’t afford to buy outside feed.  A big herd of sheep looks great until you have to put all their hay up by hand with a scythe - you might find that you want fewer sheep then.  We do put up hay with our scythe, and both of us really enjoy scything - but we don’t try to do 10 acres, either.  And buying grain for animals that require some supplemental graining (poultry for example) can run into real money.

Still, animals can do a lot of work for you - pigs or waterfowl, for example, can do moderate scale tillage and fertilization, while living on mostly pasture and food wastes.  Penning pigs on a piece of land you plan to garden can really be worth doing.   And well maintained permanent pastures can sequester a lot of carbon as the organic matter builds in the soil.  Peter Bane estimates that Joel Salatin’s pastures sequester as much carbon as a comparable forest. 

But if you have a dry or cold season in your climate, you will need to put up feed for that period.  And animals do involve management - that is, you have to have both the time and the ability to handle them for hoof trimming, birthing, etc…  And if you have livestock or perhaps even pets, and the economy tanks, I hate to say it, but there is a decent chance you will have to kill something at some point.  Some of us are ok with this, some not, but because it is not part of contemporary American culture for most people, it is worth thinking about -  there is no retirement home for extra male animals, and meat is valuable in a poor world,  and sooner or later you will have something sick and dying and not be able to afford the vet.  Decide *now* whether you are prepared to do all the work of management involved, before you add livestock to your dreams. 

The other method of extending your management is with perennial plantings that don’t require as much attention as annual cultivation.  My own experiments with this suggest to me that in the first couple of years, while you are planting and establishing and dealing with pest weeds, etc… perennial agriculture isn’t that much less work, if any, than annual agriculture.  Or rather, it is less work for me, because my husband likes to dig holes, but most people who have to do it themselves won’t find that true ;-).  We’re just starting to see our orchards and forest garden plantings pay off (the first ones we planted we planted in a drought year on a field we didn’t realize ordinarily floods repeatedly- proof that hurrying doesn’t always save anyone time and that getting to know your land is key!) 

I would generally say that another 1/4 acre of perennial plantings can be added to any estimate *if* you have help with the initial establishment - that is, an older couple who can manage a half acre garden could also manage 3/4 of an acre, with a 1/4 acre orchard, if they had additional assistance in the establishment phase, or could hire some work out.  

I’m no expert on draft animals, but generally speaking, I think if you have less than 10 acres of pasture/hayfield large draft animals won’t make sense - permanent garden plantings without tillage are easier to establish than to maintain horses.  The exception would be if you have a large woodlot, and can use the animals for logging.  A smaller draft pony might work well on a smaller holding, but finding equipment can be challenging.  But sharing draft animals might well make sense. 

A lot of us have more animals right now than our land can strictly support, because we can afford to buy hay or grain.  It makes sense for both those of us with livestock now and those who want it to think hard about what happens if the cost of transporting and buying feed rise beyond their capacities.  Are you prepared to butcher more animals, or keep a smaller flock?  Think about what strategies you might use to extend your land’s capacities - I’m experimenting a bit with growing root crops from seedballs, so that we don’t have to do any tillage on our hayfields.  But we’re still in the experimental stage.  Amaranth for our chickens seems to be a success as well, but we’re still buying some grain.

Water is another huge issue - all of what I’m talking about implies that you have water, and a reliable way of getting it.  If you have to hand-irrigate your garden for it to produce, you will want the most fertile soil with dense plantings that you can manage - you will not be looking to maximize your scale, but to minimize it, after just one day of hauling water.  The same is true of livestock - if you don’t have a reliable water source, think hard about how much hand pumping and hauling you will want to do in February. 

I haven’t included precise discussions of how many animals land can support, simply because it varies so much - and much of what varies is defined by water.  At the same time, water means that some land is suitable only for grazing - either because it is lush and green but too steep and erodable for easy gardening or because it dries up and turns to desert if it is tilled.  Knowing your place is essential, and choosing animals and plantings that can withstand the outer parameters of your soils, climate and water is the best way to succeed, but I can’t help you with that - the people who live near you who engage in food production can.

The other factor is figuring out what you want to accomplish.  A lot of people when they come to their land either want or imagine themselves to have to be completely self-sufficient, and that generally isn’t realistic.  A lot of us who have come at this through homesteading have played around with a lot of things - tried a little bit of this here and a bit of that here, and that’s a great thing - those experiments teach us all storts of stuff.  But people buying land right now may have to focus in on essentials early on. 

The truth is that most of us are never going to move 100% into the informal economy.  It is also true that the things that pay now aren’t necessarily the things that will pay later.  For example, I can buy 50lbs of potatoes for about 12 dollars in my region.  The seed to grow them would cost me more than that - so potatoes don’t “pay” - but I grow them anyway, for three reasons.  The first is that I can save seed, and the costs get spread out over years.  The second is that potatoes are a staple food crop, and while right now I get a greater return growing grapes or tomatoes or herbs on my food dollar investment, in the longer term, if I need to keep eating, potatoes are essential.  The third is that home-grown potatoes are one of those things that just taste better.  So I grow potatoes - but someone with a smaller garden space might choose now to grow other things, ones that cost more at the market and save her more money, while maybe experimenting just a little with potatoes, enough, perhaps for seed and a few to eat.

Right now, we’re in a transitional phase, and it might make more sense to focus on high value items that lower the grocery budget, and purchase staples - but with staples rising rapidly in price as well, we need to have the ability to shift towards meeting our needs for basics.  For example, right now I grow a lot of greens - we love them, eat them nearly constantly and eat a huge variety.  So I grow bok choy, collards, chard, 15 lettuces, arugula, edible chrysanthemum, beet greens, mizuna…and the list goes on.  On the other hand, my property grows all the lambs quarters, chickweed, plantain and dandelion I could possibly need for me.  While I like these things very much, I still grow the others because I like them.  But many of them will go by the wayside if I ever need the garden beds to grow more potatoes, amaranth and corn, and I keep enough seed to make this shift. 

The other issue is fuel - low input grown biofuels for tractors or chainsaws are one possible permutation that one might want, but in cold climates, wood for heating and cooking is even more likely.  In reasonably wet areas like mine, the estimate is that you can take one cord of wood per acre under good management practices - we’ve been taking a couple of cords (as much as we have time to cut ourselves) off of our land each year - in dryer areas this may be much less.  Very small amounts of woodland and brush should be sufficient to make very small hot fires to cook over, but if you require heating, besides reinsulating and getting used to being cold, you will want more wood.

Given my own concerns that the great eastern forest will be deforested by over harvesting in the coming decades, my own personal feeling is that I want private control over woods that can’t be logged - and having much more woodland than we need permits me to share with friends and family while still keeping the harvest contained. 

The place we’re in can argue for both bigger and smaller.  If you can get a reasonable amount of staple grains, gardens don’t actually have to be that big to keep you well fed - a well managed (note that term - well managed matters) 1/4 acre can grow all the fruit, vegetables and eggs and a little meat and fat for a family of four.  Less would be adequate too.  And the truth is that it is much easier to manage a 1/4 acre than a 1/2 acre - in many cases, a well managed 1/8 acre might produce more food than a 1/2 acre that a family is struggling to manage.

But what you can do now may not be what you need/want to do in the longer term - that is, if actual shortages of staple foods arise, you may find that it isn’t as hard as you thought to manage your 1/2 acre.  And if you can sell your surplus produce for cash or barter, that too has virtues.  Some of us may find ourselves with more people living in our houses, expanding both our need for production and our ability to do the producing.  Or we may shift from a one-gardener to a three-gardener situation as jobs are lost. 

So I have three possible answers to the “how much land do I need” and a bunch of caveats.

1. As much as you can afford.  This applies I think best to younger, healthier people (or the parents of young healthier people who imagine they may be joining them), experienced older farmers, etc… who see themselves working towards personal self-sufficiency plus surplus sales in their community.  In some places this may not be very much at all, for some people this may be quite a lot.  The old “God isn’t making any more land” comment really does apply here - bioproductive land is likely to be the basis of our “new” economy in a more direct way than in the past - that is, land is worth what it can produce, and food and warmth are going to be worth a lot. 

In this case, I’d say, manage and maintain your land for future use - grow woods, plant trees, put in perennial plantings, keep pastures down enough to keep them from turning into something else if you will want them, but don’t feel compelled to use every acre.  You are holding land for the future - this is a good thing. Meanwhile, concentrate your efforts on a small, well manage part and work outwards. 

2. Less than you can afford.  If you live in an expensive area, the idea of getting “land” can be intimidating, particularly if you are young and poor and tied there.  So don’t sweat it.  Astounding amounts can be done on small pieces of land. At first it will see hopeless, as though nothing can be accomplished, but every year you will find a bit more space, and have new ideas.  Commit yourself to managing what you have with the greatest intensity - think of yourself as the next Dervaes family. And recognize the power of sharing - Aaron, my co-author “farms” several of his elderly neighbor’s yards.  You don’t have to own it to grow on it.

For those who are older, in ill health or have their lives taken up by other pressures - elderly family members, babies and small children, etc… it is probably more important that you build fertility and intensively manage what you have than that you push yourself by trying to use a lot of land.  With limited resources, you essentially have the choice of building up or out - that is, you can make less do more or you can make more do less - and the former is usually the better choice, particularly since you can then work on adapting the property not only to your present abilities but to your long term situation.  And instead of trying to meet every need, think in terms of a balance between basic needs and reducing your costs.

3. None at all.  Remember, I mentioned that you don’t have to own land - right now is a difficult time to buy property - first time buyers find it hard to get credit and jobs are unstable.  So for some people, buying land will be a bad idea.  It is often possible to rent space, borrow it from friends or family, get an employer, church or community group involved in bringing land into production, etc…  Tons can be done in containers on a balcony.  Getting involved in your food systems is, I think, non-negotiable in the coming years.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean buying land.

 BTW, on that last note, my family is still looking for another family to consider moving to our property - I’ve described the situation we have here:  We have more house than we need, ideally set up for sharing, and we’re still looking for the right people.  We’ve talked to a bunch, but it is always hard for people to relocate and give up what they have - but still, I have to imagine there’s someone out there who wants to share.



The First Garden Day

Sharon April 7th, 2008

I’m not real zen.  That is, I am not the sort of person who finds it easy to simply be in the moment.  Ok, I’m really awful at it.  Which is one of the reasons I enjoy reading Colin over at NoImpactMan so much - there’s a mindfulness that comes across in his posts that you simply will not find in mine. 

I’m very good at multitasking, and am often contemplating my next post or something I should be writing while I’m simultaneously sorting laundry and helping Isaiah write his name.  And while that ability makes parts of my life more manageable, I have a very hard time getting to a place where my mind and body are doing the same thing at once.  It is a useful skill when it is wanted - but it doesn’t have an off button.  Sometimes all that stuff, all that thinking about the next thing and the next gets tiresome, and I wouldn’t mind if it would simply get a little quieter in my brain.  I’m told meditation techinques could help me with this - and it is something that’s on the 50,000 item list of “things to do when I get a chance.” 

Today, however, I am reminded of why all this noise in my brain does not drive me stark raving mad.  I had almost forgotten, in the months since I touched dirt out in its natural habitat, what it is like to go into the garden.  And then I got to do it. 

Today it was *finally* warm enough and dry enough to plant out in the garden - pansies along the side of the house, peas, mustards, tatsoi, mache and spinach in the main garden.  And so we trooped out, the three boys and I (Eli was at school, Daddy off teaching astronomy) with our respective tools (Asher had a spoon and bucket, Simon a trowel, Isaiah a small garden claw (not sharp), me my big pointy serious one), our seeds, inoculant for the peas, greensand and kelpmeal to feed the plants.  It was rather a production, and we made a proper bit of pomp and circumstance about this first venture. 

And then we were out there, and getting dirt under our nails (and in our hair in Asher’s case).  And all of a sudden, things went quiet.  I don’t mean the children were quiet - they weren’t.  We discussed earthworms and why plants need minerals and what molecules are.  They were doodling about and being their usual noisy selves.  But instead of spending the time working in my head on an essay about what to do with your appliances once you don’t need them anymore, I just gardened.  I just touched and smelled, put my hands into the soil, and loosened it.  I was just there.  I could hear myself again in the quiet.  And I remembered - I garden for food, but also, I garden because it is the best way into myself that I know of.

In springtime, we say a lot of schechechayanu.  This is the Jewish blessing for things you haven’t done in a long time, as they come around in cycles again.  We say the blessing at each holiday and special occasion, when we first seen the trees bloom and the birds return.  And the kids and I said one today, for the planting of the first seeds of our season. For me, it was a moment of gratitude, as the season of raucous, noisy life begins again - and the season of quiet starts too.


Anticipating the End…

Sharon March 30th, 2008

No, not of the world as we know it!  Right now I’m fixated on two end points - first, the end of winter.  I know a lot of you are all done there and have been a while now, but this is rural upstate NY, and on Friday we had six freakin’ inches of snow.  It is melting - slowly.  But the reality is that spring does not come in March, but is solidly a product of April here - and usually mid-April at that.  But while I know that in my head, in my heart I-AM-DONE-WITH-WINTER!!!  It need to leave…now.  So I’m looking at my daffodils, which have been up slightly since early February, and praying they get bigger faster, and that their growth somehow magically destroys the snow.

 The other thing I am finally anticipating is the end of the Book Marathon.  Last year in March, I committed to writing two books in 15 months.  On June 2, I will finish _A Nation of Farmers_, and can I just say “Hallelujah!!!”

The thing is, we live the way we do in part because it means we have a reasonable life pace.  Eric and I did the two career academic thing for about a year after Eli was born, and then promptly said we’d never do it again.  We hated racing around all the time, and the sense that we barely saw each other and our kids.  So we decided that we’d work as little as we could and get along - no more than one full time and one part time job, and that was gracious plenty with family and farm.

 But that hasn’t been the case this year - this year I’ve worked full time and more, while Eric has had his own full time job and picked up my slack, doing the majority of the homeschooling and an enormous amount of additional housework.  I’ve done less of a host of things I love than I wanted to - and that isn’t going to change between now and June 2.  But more, we’ve been running to keep up - and while we can do this, it isn’t what we dream of.  I miss that I had the time to hang the laundry the slow way, with a toddler hanging on my ankles and “helping” instead of frantically hanging it while saying “go play with your brothers.”  I know that’s a reality of motherhood sometimes, but it feels like we’re cutting corners we don’t want to cut.  I’ve had to scale back spring garden plans, and other ambitions - and these are the things I honestly care most about in my life.

I know it is for a good cause - it is more and more urgent that we relocalize our agriculture.  The recent 30% overnight rise in rice prices and the announcement that many nations are restricting exports or raising tariffs means that it is especially urgent that we build local food systems - and not just in the developing world.  I believe in this project - but I still wish it was over, and my family could go back to a slower pace.  Again, I’m ready for it to go away - but it will only do so in its own sweet time - like winter, the book will be done when it is done.  Me jumping up and down and screaming at it won’t help ;-).

I wrote 34 posts in the month of March - my guess is that April and May will have many fewer, most of them about food, as I work through ideas for the book.  So expect a quieter blog until June comes.  Knowing me, I won’t be able to resist writing about other things sometimes, but I’m going to try and keep it to a minimum. 

I do have one request of y’all, or anyone with free time and the relevant skill set.  _A Nation of Farmers_ will include more than a dozen interviews with people with important stuff to say about food systems in a lower energy world.  Some of them are famous: Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibben, Albert Bates,  Alice Waters, Gene Logsdon and some of them are not, but have a lot to say about growing food, or cooking it or eating it in a low energy world.  We’ll be including recipes from each of our interviewees - don’t you want to know what Richard Heinberg thinks we’ll be eating when the gas pumps run dry ;-)?

 Writing this book is, shall we say, not a high paying proposition (I think I’m showing a net loss so far ;-)), so we were hoping to find among my readers or Aaron’s one or more volunteers who would be willing to transcribe our interviews for us.  Each one is about half an hour long.  The only payment we’re offering is a. a chance to read the interviews before anyone else, including me ;-), b. our gratitude and acknowledgement in our books, c. if this is a profession for you, I’ll run a free ad on my site for your transcribing services for six months and d. a free copy of the book.  If you are interested, email me at [email protected] or Aaron at [email protected].

 Edited to Add: Thank you all!  We actually now have more volunteers than we have interviews, so we don’t need any more.  But wow!!!  We’re so appreciative of all who volunteered and all who would have!

Ok, off to write another book.  More soon!



Growing or Buying Fresh Food For Root Cellaring

Sharon March 12th, 2008

If you are going to use natural cool storage to keep vegetables and fruits in a root cellar, it matters a great deal which varieties you grow or purchase from farmers.  Some varieties simply will not keep, others will last nearly forever.  So as you are planning, make sure that if you intend to root cellar, you are choosing seed varieties (or talking to your local farmer) with keeping qualities in mind.

The definitive (and highly recommended) book on this subject is Mike and Nancy Bubel’s _Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables_ and they list many varieties there.  I’ll list varieties that have done well for me here, but their book is definitely worth owning if you are using natural cold temperatures.  

(BTW, I’m going to try and put together a store section of books on preserving food fairly soon, so you should be able to get most or all of the books I recommend through my site, if you’d like to.)

One note on root cellaring - while you don’t have to keep your food in a cellar (we keep ours in a partly insulated above-ground porch), you do have to keep it in a place that gets fairly cool.  In warm climates, even shallow under-ground spots may not be cool enough  - but if you live in a warm place, you may be able to grow year ’round, and not need a root cellar.  So think about whether your location has the right combination of cool temps, frostlines, and a need for storing fresh food for long periods.


Apples - We store *tons* of these, and the best keeping varieties we’ve found are: Roxbury Russet, Northern Spy, Winesap, Lady, Winter Keeper, Smokehouse, Winterbanana, Mutsu, Sheepnose, Cortland. 

Some apples, by the way, turn into mush instantly - Macs and summer apples are the worst, but lots of other varieties don’t store well, so make sure you are storing the right kinds. 

Beets - Lutz Longkeeper is by far the most famous storage variety, but Fedco reports it may have been dropped entirely from the commercial trade - Seed Savers still has it, a good reason to become a member and save your own!  Detroit Dark Red does reasonably well, but our favorite storage variety is Rote Kugel, huge and dense and delicious.  Seed is available from

Cabbage - January King and Glory of Enkuizen are my best keepers - I got seed for both from  Mammoth Red Rock, a red cabbage, stores almost as well.  I’ve had great luck with older heirlooms, and not bothered with hybrids here.  We’re still eating our own cabbage, and will run out before it spoils.

Carrots - I’ve found that most large carrots store fairly well. “Oxheart” stores very well for us in buckets of moist sand, but any thick variety will do well. 

Garlic - All my garlic lasts just fine - no issues there.

Potatoes - The big issue with potatoes is that you want to store late-crop potatoes, for the most part, because they haven’t been sitting around. Katahdin, Green Mountain, Carola, Yukon Gold, German Butterball, Purple Peruvian - all store well for us.

Pears - Bosc, Anjou, Bartlett and Kieffer all store a couple of months

Quince - I’ve only grown one variety - it seems to keep several months. 

Rutabagas - Laurentian keeps very well in sand.

Turnips - Purple Top White does the very best keeping for us, but Golden Ball is a close second and tastier.

Daikons - all seem to keep a couple of months

Onions - Of the OP Onions, New York Early does very well for me.  Stuttgarter, the common set hybrid also does very well.  For sweet onions, Candy will keep a month or two.   New York early came to me through Fedco, listed below.

Sweet Potatoes and Squash like the same winter temps we have - 50s and 60s houses.  So don’t store them in the root cellar, bring them into the house and keep them in  closet, under your bed, or in a convenient corner.  I’ve not noticed any difference between the sweet potato varieties we grow (Georgia Jet, Porto Rico). Johnny’s sells northern adapted sweet potato varities as does Pinetree

 Squash varies a great deal - there are lots of excellent keepers out there, but some of our favorites are - Marina de Chioggia, Butternut, Green Hubbard (the big ones keep much better than the little hubbards), Pink Banana, Futsu, Hopi Orange, Thelma Sanders - I get most of mine either from seed savers or Fedco    

I hope this helps someone!


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