Archive for January, 2009

Questions to Ask Yourself When Designing Your Farm or Garden

Sharon January 30th, 2009

Note: Aaron wrote these out - good stuff, and useful to everyone, IMHO! 

Questions to ask yourself before designing your garden. 

What would you like to achieve on your property in terms of the landscaping of your home and its ability to feed you?  This is the time to dream big and long term. 

What is your timeline- can you make changes quickly or do you plan to make changes over several years? 

How much money do you plan to dedicate to initial changes? 

How much money can you dedicate on a monthly or annual basis? 

How much sun do you get on your property?  It helps to think in terms of number of hours of directly sunlight between March and November and think in terms of the different areas of your property. 

Are you willing to remove trees to increase the amount of sunlight? 

What is your source of water if irrigation becomes necessary?  Can you harvest rain from your roof?   

What is currently growing in your yard? 

How important are the aesthetics of your yard to you?  To your neighbors?   

Are there neighborhood covenants, rules or regulations that are suppose to keep you from growing food or raising certain types of animals? 

Will children be using the yard?  If so what age and how many? 

Will pets be using the yard?  If so how many and what kind? 

Do you use your yard for entertaining purposes?   

Are there special activities like bonfires or hog racing for which you will need to set aside room? 

Would you like to include fruit trees, bushes and edible perennials (plants that come back every year) in your landscape?  If so how much room can you devote to these plants?  (Remember trees are big and produce lots of shade.  Shrubs can get big too.) 

Do you plan to grow annual vegetables (plants you start from seed or transplant every year like corn and tomatoes) and if so how much room can you devote to these vegetables.  By the way you’ll want at least 6, and better yet 8, hours of direct sunlight for this area. 

How much time can you commit to your garden each week? 

How much food, on a percentage basis based on your weekly menu, would you like to harvest from your yard?   

Do you have physical limitations that would make typical gardening difficult for you? 

How much help (significant others, reluctant in-laws, children, household pets pressed into the service of chasing away squirrels) do you have at your disposal?   

How much experience do you with growing plants and gardening? 

Do you have room to over-winter potted plants in your home?   

Do you have sunny windowsill useful for starting seeds or growing sprouts? 

What kinds of animals would you be interested in raising: chickens, turkeys, rabbits, goats, cows, pigs, sheep, llamas, bees, fish, or others? 

What equipment do you own or could borrow?  Think hand tools like shovels and rakes but also mowers and tillers. 

Do you have natural sources of mulch available including baled straw, fallen leaves or grass clippings?  How about cardboard (any appliance stores near by?) 

Do you have room for outdoor containers on patios, decks or porches for growing food? 

Do you anticipate a problem with animals such as rabbits or gophers visiting your garden and helping themselves to your produce?   

Do you anticipate encountering soil contamination due to exterior lead paint or other chemicals previously used on your property?   

Measurements you’ll need 

The easiest way to get the measurements you’ll need to draw up a master plan for your yard will be to dig up a site survey of your property.  You might have a copy tucked away in the material associated with the purchase of your home.  If you rent your landlord, pleased that you’re improving the property, might offer you a copy of such a survey.   

If you don’t have a survey handy don’t worry.  You can take the measurements yourself.  It’s best to invest in some graph paper.  You can by a pad or print some out.  Here’s a source: 

Using the graph paper to record your measurements and a tape measure or other measuring device, record the measurements of the perimeter of your house and any other structure on your property.  Try to also measure the boundaries of your property.  Often you can find pins or stakes or other marks that indicate property corners.  If you can’t than your best guess will have to do.  Try to measure the distance of your home and other structures from the edges of at least two property boundaries.  This will help to more accurately place these structures. 

Don’t expect to get this drawn up accurately on your first try.  Typically your going to use several sheets of paper to record the measurements outside and then come inside to piece them all together for a base plan.  By the way you can use the grids to represent a certain distance, say 5 feet.  This will vary between properties because different scales will be necessary depending on the size of your property.  Count the number of individual squares on the length and width of your paper and divide that number into the length and width of your property.

Or you can just try and get close in proportion to everything you want to show on your property.  This should include all structures but also trees, shrubs, driveways, patios, decks, wells, existing gardens, walls, and anything else you see in your yard.  When trying to measure and place these items accurately it helps to triangulate or take measurements to a certain object from several locations. 

Again don’t try to get all this right on your first try.  Get as many measurements as possible and then go inside and combine your efforts.  It’s likely you’ll have to go back and remeasure a few elements but the more accurate your base plan, the less frustration you’re likely to encounter as you move forward with your plan.  You don’t want to plan for and purchase 15 blueberry bushes only to come home and find that you only have room for 8 or that the play lawn you promised your children for purposes of Frisbee and football really has only enough room for a game of tag. 

This base plan and the questions you’ve answered below will serve as a reference for the design process as we plan your garden.  Keep them handy as we move along. 


Sharon and Aaron

Garden Design Course Syllabus

Sharon January 30th, 2009

 Note, if anyone wants a last minute spot, we have a couple remaining.  Email me at [email protected] if you are interested (click on the sidebar “classes” to find th details, or query me).  Unfortunately, all the scholarship spots are presently filled.  And obviously, there will be plenty to follow along with here on my blog, and Aaron’s - note, not all posts will be crossposted, so if you are interested, you’ll want to track both sites.

Also, if you are registered for this course and HAVE NOT received information about registering for the discussion group, please email me ASAP, so we can get you set up.  We have one registrant whose email address has been bouncing and we are anxious to get in touch.

Garden Design Syllabus:

Tuesday, February 3: Sun, Soil, Water; Taking Measurements; Mistakes We’ve Made; The Project of Design

Thursday, February 5: Meet Your Graph Paper ;-) ; Small Space and Urban challenges, Container Gardening; Gardening on the Cheap; Design Project 1 – A courtyard Garden

Tuesday, February 10:  The idea of Permaculture, Calorie Crops, Trees, Bushes and other Perennial Provider; Seed Selection and Starting, Taking Inventory Making Gardening Accessible

Thursday, February 12: Transforming a City or Suburban Lot, Dealing with Zoning, Small Livestock and Polyculture; Design Project 2 – A Suburban Yard

Tuesday, February 17: Making Money From Your Garden or Small Farm; The Transition to Farmer; Mushrooms, Medicinals and other Possibilities; Pests and Diseases

Thursday, February 19: Community and Garden; Children’s Gardens; Succession and Long Term Planning; Season Extension; Garden Design Project 3: An Urban Farm – in Many Yards

Tuesday, February 24: Maximizing the Harvest, Marketing Your Products, Larger Livestock; Cycles & Long Term Fertility; The Realities of Feeding Your Family and Community

Thursday February 26: Visions for the Future, Becoming a Victory Farmer; After the Design Phase; Garden Design Project 4: A Larger Farm – In Smaller Pieces 

I’m also going to put up Aaron’s superb list of question to ask yourself before you get started!

A good weekend, all!


Food Storage Class Wrap-Up

Sharon January 29th, 2009

Wow, I’ve now done this class three times, and much of the material will now be part of a book.  I finally got to cheese making, sourdough and sprouts.  I mentioned zombies at least 6 times.  I did more material on community issues (no, I haven’t forgotten about the handouts to allow other people to teach and distribute material in their communities - those will go up as soon as I get the printable formatting write - I have PDF issues - hopefully in a week or two).  I’m hoping that all of this means that there are legions of emissaries out there talking and teaching about food security, and building up their pantries (I always wanted some legions ;-) ).  It makes me feel more secure and hopeful about the world.

I still think the ending of my first class was the best wrap up I could write.  So here it is again:

My littlest, Asher is a head first kind of guy - we calling him “the flying squirrel” because he thinks he can fly, as long as an adult is holding his hand (we hold on TIGHT).  He has no fear, merely boundless enthusiasm.  And when he was about 18 months old, he would yell “Bunt to the Whee!” when ever he was about to leap head-first into things. 

Well, it occurred to us that everyone needs a battle cry, and since “Spoon!” was already taken ;-) , “Bunt to the Whee!” is ours. (His present battle cry, btw is “Ears!  Local Ears!”  Don’t even ask.) 

Just in case you don’t have a battle cry, I wanted to offer to share mine.  Because I think you might need one too. Enthusiasm, and the courage to screw up are what is needed to feed yourself these days. Food preservation and storage  is one of those things that takes time and practice, and gets immediately clearer once you start doing it.

Growing food, storing it, preserving it - all of these things are overwhelming at first.  And despite my hubris in teaching this class, we certainly haven’t mastered everything.  Every year we mess new things up, and forget old things and make new mistakes.  But every year we get a little closer to our goals - to having a reserve to share with others, and to living off our own homegrown and home preserved, to taking fewer trips to the store and to being able to accomodate guests at any time. 

The thing is, sometimes you just have to dive in even to know what you don’t know.  Sometimes you have to make foolish mistakes so that you can figure out what it is that you are trying to accomplish, or how to adapt an idea from me or someone else to your real life.  To an extent information can help.  And to an extent, it probably can’t - you just have to dive in.

So I offer you my son Asher’s battle cry - Bunt to the Whee!  Now is the time to dive in - to make that first bulk purchase, to save those first seeds, to start cooking one or two meals a week from storage, to try the pressure cooker or canning jam, to experiment with whether you can dry those things in the sun, to build that solar oven and try that new lentil recipe, to ask the farmer at the market about buying bulk peaches or your neighbor whether she wants to come over for a day of canning. 

Most of all, I hope you’ll all jump in, and not be afraid to make a mess of it.  The mistakes are part of the process, and the process is central to the project.  What project?  Well, economic security - saving money so you can either do other things that matter to you or keep your house and meet other needs.  Food security so that you can feed yourself and help out those in need around you.  Political action - so we can stop giving our dollars to industrial agriculture, and start voting with them for something better.  And a little step back towards democracy - the ability to no longer be beholden for the food in our mouths to corporations we abhore.  The chance to depend on and trust in our neighbors and those around us building real and good food systems.  Community.  Better food.  All those good things.

That’s why we need a battle cry.  This isn’t just about the rice or the garden or the canning jars.  This is a small but important step in making a better way of life.  And I admit, it brings me a great deal of joy to know that some people out there are trying new things and making changes.  I sort of think about it (of course, I’m clinically insane, as we all know)  and my own efforts as a whole bunch of us, holding up our seed packets, jar lifters, grain grinders (the not-too heavy ones - we don’t want anyone getting hurt) and wooden spoons up above our heads, ready to take on the world and the screwed up food system.  BUNT TO THE WHEE!



The Menu Project

Sharon January 29th, 2009

Food storage pushes us in the direction, often, of eating new foods.  We may be choosing them because we’re trying to shift our diet to a lower impact, more ecologically sound one, because we’re trying to develop a truly local food culture and cuisine, because we can’t afford more expensive foods or because we want to eat what we store.  Getting started with new foods can seem overwhelming, particularly if you are looking at a 50lb sack of wheat berries for the first time.

 A simple way to get started is simply to start asking - what do we eat that is compatible with food storage, and with the food we can preserve or get from our gardens (I’m assuming for the purpose of this discussion that I’m at the worst garden season of the year - which, actually, I am now ;-) ).  What home-based meals will we enjoy?  How can we adapt the menus we eat now to work with our pantries?  What new foods might we integrate  into our diets that our family members would actually eat?

Then we put together a week’s worth of menus, and look at the ingredients list.  Do we need anything we don’t have?  If you can store ingredients for this, you’ll have a solid, if somewhat repetetive diet set up.  You can start by trying this one meal at a time, first one a week, then two or three.  Then do another day or week’s worth to add variety.

When I started to write my own menus out, I was tempted to embellish them a bit.  Hey, I can make the people who read this think that my kids eat apple-cranberry muffins for breakfast - and that Mommy rises before dawn to make them (yeah, right, I rise before dawn, but only because the kids make me and let’s just say that my eyes aren’t usually wide enough open to safely mix food). 

Probably like many people, we eat the same stuff a lot here ;-) .  Breakfast is particuarly unimaginative at my place - that is, my kids already eat either oatmeal or toast with jam or peanut butter for 90% of their breakfasts.  The other 10% they might get eggs, or rice pudding, and three or four times a year, they get muffins.  I mention this because sometimes I think we go around making menus and think that we have to be really imaginative with them - and yes, imagination is great in food.  But there’s something to be said for “we all like it and it gets to the table” meals that my family, at least, relies on - we’re content to eat these more than once a week. Oh, we might prefer something new, but it is food, it is good.  So don’t make yourself nuts, unless you already live in household where elaborate and complex meals are made new three times a day.

 Here’s my family menu

7 breakfasts: toast or oatmeal, eggs (occasional) real tea for me, herb tea with honey for kids. 

Storage ingredients: wheat, yeast, molasses, salt, brown sugar, rolled oats or groats, earl grey, peanut butter, chicken feed.

Home produced ingredients: Homemade jams, lemon-mint herb tea.

Snacks: Dried fruit, nuts, homemade fruit leather, cheerios, carrot sticks, yogurt, applesauce, lollipops, wheat pretzels, bread and jam (see above), cheese, apple cider.

Storage ingredients: Dum dum pops (these are cheap little bulk industrial lollipops - did I say we weren’t perfect yet?), dried cranberries and raisins, cheerios, organic dry milk, pretzels, rennet and cheese cultures, cider.

Homemade: Dried strawberries, dried cherries, dried apples, dried peaches, dried plums, fruit leather, carrots, applesauce, nuts.

Lunches (we drink only water with meals anyway):1. Roasted root vegetable wraps, garden or cabbage-carrot salad depending on the season  2. Baked potatoes with greens and chipotle sauce (adults) or salsa (kids)  3. 3 bean chili, cornbread, and stir fried greens or cabbage.  4. Pumpkin Pancakes with applesauce and fruit (fresh or home canned), 5. Vegetable Soup, bread and dried cranberry and sprout salad. 6. Sandwiches of herbed yogurt cheese with onions, pickles and sprouts, carrot sticks and apple slices 7. Dal and Curried Rice with greens and stir fried vegetables.

Stored ingredients (does not include items listed already): balsamic vinegar, olive oil, sesame oil, rice wine vinegar, canned chipotles in adobo, dried beans, tvp, dried corn, buttermilk powder, canned pumpkin, sprouting seeds, lentils, brown rice, mango pickle, tamarind paste, spices, mushroom “oyster” sauce, kecap manis, coconut milk,

Home preserved ingredients: mint chutney, root cellared vegetables including most roots, cabbage, apples, pears, daikon, etc…, greens (garden or season extended), chicken broth, homemade salsa, applesauce, home canned fruit, dried sweet peppers and mushrooms, herbs, pickles, parsley in a pot.

Dinners: 1. Drunken Noodles 2. Laotian chicken soup with greens or stir fried sprouts and rice.  3. Salmon cakes and beet-carrot salad 4. Onion Soup, Crusty Bread and greens with lemon dressing 5. Spaghetti and “Wheat Balls” (much better than it sounds, btw), cabbage, carrot and sesame salad 6. Pita bread, falafel, labneh, beets with tahini and parsley- quinoa salad. 7. Lamb stew, Challah, applesauce and lemon-pepper cabbage

Stored ingredients: Tahini, honey, lemon-pepper, quinoa, fava beans, sesame seeds, bulghur, parmesan cheese, fair trade, wild caught canned salmon, matzah meal, canned pineapple, soybeans (or shelf-stable tofu), dried rice noodles.

Home preserved: Basil plant, keffir lime, lemongrass plant in a sunny window, Lamb Stew base, garlic, onions, canned lemon juice.

 Now some of this may look like a lot, or a lot of work - but that’s simply because I’ve chosen the meals we like best, not the easiest ones.  Were I starting from scratch, I’d probably choose more peanut butter and jelly (we eat that too) and less Lamb stew.

 How about you?  What’s on your routine food storage menu?


Won't The Zombies Just Take Your Food Storage Away Anyway?

Sharon January 29th, 2009

Whenever I do these classes and start posting about food security, we come up against what I would call “the zombie issue” - the idea that marauding hordes of some sort will immediately emerge if we ever need our food storage, and promptly take it away from us.  There are a host of reasons I don’t buy this, one of them being that I think the “0 to Zombie in 30 seconds model skips over the fact that a whole lot of grey areas exist in between 0 and zombie ;-) , and most of the middle territory is far more likely to be enacted than the most apocalyptic anxieties/fantasies. 

 But for the purpose of the discussion, let’s imagine that there’s been some major disruption in food supplies and the undead are getting hungry. 

Now I’m still somewhat skeptical of the “zombie theory” for a number of reasons.  They include:

1. The assumption is often made that the zombies all come from cities, and by implication are often one of those “thems” - which to me suggests that underneath our zombie worries are some older and uglier assumptions about who we’re really worried about.  We saw how this played out in New Orleans, where reports and assumptions about violence were far greater than the reality - most of the violence that actually occurred was caused by people who thought they knew that bad guys were coming for them - even though they weren’t.  Our fears of the other from the city are complicated, and not always rational.  Sometimes, they create the situation they fear.

 2. The zombie theory tends to assume a well organized, armed populace of people who have guns and maybe gas (or maybe walk in an organized fashion), but no food, descending on a population of unarmed, pacifist agrarians.  This is seriously messed up for a host of reasons.

a. The trip out of the cities is longer than most people think.  Let’s say that a mass of angry, hungry zombies plan to march out to the countryside to get food, say, from New York City.  Well, before the zombies get to me, they’ve got to cover 200 miles of suburbia, not filled with food.  Then, they have to be able to recognize and obtain food from the farms - that is, they have to be able to look at the oats and say “yum, let’s take those…and thresh and hull them and roll them into oatmeal and eat them!”  If they are on foot (and let’s assume this isn’t winter), they are going to run out of steam somewhere in White Plains, long before they hit my neighborhood. If they might make it here, and run into the harsh reality - most rural areas don’t have a lot of gardens, and the things they produce often are the components of food, rather than food as most people who don’t cook recognize it. 

b. Rural people are armed and work together well.  Guns are usually among the tools of ordinary work out here  - people hunt, they run off predators, they butcher livestock and use their weapons.  Is it possible that zombies could overrun things?  Sure, but it would take a fair number of zombies. How did they get trained?  Where did they master the territory?

3. For the most part, and there are historical exceptions, zombie hordes are not what you have to worry about most in difficult times.  That is, if people are truly hungry, what people will worry about most is not the “random evil folk from far away” but their near neighbors who compete with them for resources.  This is much more likely to be expressed as a rise in the crime rate - less zombieism, much more “I beat you up and took your cash and food on hand.”  Now that’s not good either - but preparation for dealing with those basic crime security issues is rather different than for preparing to fight off the local zombie warlords.  In that case, your community is needed and essential.

Crime rates against people didn’t rise much in the great Depression, although light theft of food or small amounts of money did.  For people who wandered about looking for work or food, they were more likely to be victims than the perpetrators - in many towns the homeless during the Depression were thrown in jail, and used in forced labor, simply for the crime of being poor.  They were victims of crime quite often.  Crime rates did rise in places like Russia after the Soviet collapse, but the zombie reality never kicked in.  More crime has its tough parts, I don’t diminish this, but people who live now in extremely high crime areas find strategies for dealing with it.  I’ve lived in such areas myself. 

My point isn’t that no one will take your food away - maybe someone will.  Or maybe you’ll lose it to fire, flood, or having to evacuate.  Life doesn’t really come with certainties.  But I think we have a disproportionate fear of being targeted, in part based on the idea that we’re all going to experience things equally.  Now if everyone stops getting food all at once, it may be pretty obvious who has the food.  But how often does that happen?  There will be some rich folks and poor folks in most likelihood.  We probably won’t know what our neighbors have - some will still have a job and maybe some food coming in, some may be relying on stores, some may have virtually nothing.

I don’t find myself compelled by the idea that your stores will make you a target - or rather, any more than having a job or any other thing most of us don’t plan to give up unless we have to makes us a target. In fact, most of the victims of rising crime are poor people in poor neighborhoods - that is, right now, the targets aren’t the fortunate, but the unfortunate.  And that tends to get played out over and over again - it is the refugees and those without anything who lose the most.  Not always.  But history stands against the “your stores will mark you” analysis.

 But most importantly, all of this assumes that your stores exist entirely in isolation - that you in your house sit there with your food and eat when others are suffering.  But I think that’s very much unlikely for most of us - I’m sure if things get really bad, we’ll develop some kind of insulation against suffering, simply because we can’t help everyone.  But at the same time, those we’re in relationship with aren’t going to disappear, either.  And we are very much unlikely to live in a world where we know now, today, that this is the last crust of bread, and there will never be any more, and thus, sharing will starve our children.  That happens in novels, and not much in real life.  In real life, what happens is that you share, and the next day, perhaps your neighbor shares the food he found with you.

Indeed, in most poor cultures, the obligation to share is taken far more seriously than it is here.  In poorer times the fairy tales about the widow who gave the last crust of bread to a poor stranger, and about greedy rich people taught the cultural message that you shared because it was right, and also because what you shared returned to you. 

Joetta Handrich Schlabach, writing in _Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook_ (a wonderful book) writes of a story a friend of hers who was visiting Lesotho. She visited a friend ‘Me Malebohang. They discussed the bad pumpkin harvest, and how ‘Me Malebohang had only 8 pumpkins for the whole winter. As the friend got up to leave, ‘Me Malebohang offered her guest the largest of the pumpkins. When the guest refused, saying she couldn’t take one of her pumpkins, ‘Me Malabohang answered, “We Basotho know that this is the way to do it. Next year I may have nothing in my field, and if I don’t share with you now, who will share with me then?” 

And even if you imagine that the worst case scenarios came true, the “last crust of bread” scenario becomes a reality, there is this - for some of us, how we live our lives matters as much as the lives themselves.  In the end, if, G-d forbid, we are confronted with that choice, I at least have to believe that those harshest and most uncertain moments are the ones that you  most need your own moral underpinnings - doing right may be more important than one more day.

But realistically, I don’t expect that most of us will face anything like that particular set of tragedies.  That doesn’t mean life won’t be harder, and that some people won’t go hungry - indeed, America has plenty of hungry right now.  But not because we’re all fighting over one last crust of bread.


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