Archive for June 16th, 2009

Fall Garden Course Syllabus

Sharon June 16th, 2009

Hi Folks - I’ve still got spots in my fall gardening class coming up in July.  The class will run four Tuesdays, from July 7-July 28, and cover most of the details of setting up a fall garden.  For those of you in really warm or cold climates, or in the southern hemisphere, the information will be relevant but you will have to do some adapting to make it your precise schedule, but for most of you in zones 4-7, not only will we be talking about it, but more or less at the same time we’ll be doing it.  So this is a great chance to get motivated and start a fall garden.

Here’s my syllabus:

Tuesday, July 7 - The basics of cool season gardening - what to plant, when to plant, light, temperature and other necessities, and how to eat in the winter.

Tuesday, July 14 -  Variety selection for cold weather cropping and overwintering, summer seed starting, dealing with heat in cold weather crops, and cool tricks for getting things to survive tough conditions.

Tuesday, July 21 - Season extension techniques from the ridiculously simple to the complex - mulches, row covers, greenhouses homemade and otherwise, and other ways of keeping things going, crops you probably haven’t thought about.

Tuesday, July 28 - Bringing it all indoors -what you can bring in, what you can’t, root cellaring and in-garden storage.  Also, season extension on the other end - how to get things started (or restarted) earlier in the winter.  Making the most of fall and winter crops, preserving the winter harvest.

The class is conducted online, and asynchronously - that is, I post my stuff and the assignments on Tuesday and you follow along on your own schedule.  Cost of the class is $100, and includes one phone consultation to help you plan your autumn garden.  Email me at [email protected] if you are interested in joining us.


Why Dmitry Orlov is Absolutely, Positively the Best Peak Oil Writer Ever

Sharon June 16th, 2009

Read it yourself and find out:, and if you haven’t already, go read his book.

 I should not admit this on the internet, but I got asked to blurb _Reinventing Collapse_ and after reading it, I sent to our shared editor my real blurb (which is on the book if you actually care) and the one that I didn’t want her to publish, which was “After reading this, I’d do Orlov.”  I still can’t figure out why they didn’t put that on the back cover.

Now I wouldn’t actually, since I’m married and he’s married and I’d never even met him at that point, and even after I did, it wasn’t that kind of meeting, and it was really more of a metaphor…well, you get the point.  But smart and funny are always attractive, and Dmitry Orlov is so smart and so funny that it is well…kind of hot to a certain kind of over-intellectual peak oil geek.  (As Sharon prays rapidly under her breath that he doesn’t actually ever read this, but she’s always said that the peak oil movement needs more salacious gossip if it is ever going to attract critical membership mass,  so I guess I’m embarassing myself for a good cause ;-) )

Anyway, all of this is just a long way of saying “Orlov wrote another really fabulous thing - go read it.”  I should probably just stop talking now ;-) .


Whither America without China?

Sharon June 16th, 2009

Someday, someone is going to ask me what happened to the United States - wasn’t it once one of the biggest economies in the world?  I’ve already got my answer ready - we sold ourselves to other countries for flat-screened tvs and other plastic toys.   And weirdest of all, for a long time, we actually thought we got the better of the deal.

Of course, that’s an over-simplified answer, but I think there’s enough truth in it that I can get away with it as a short answer.  We can see it right now.  In April, 2009, foreign purchase of dollars and related assets fell to 11.2 billion dollars - 1/5th of what it was just a month ago.  And this happened just as we desperately need more and more purchases - to afford our wild deficit spending and compensate for lost tax revenue.  Our credit limits are now being revoked. 

So what now?  As far as I can tell, the US government has two plans.  Restore growth so fast and so hugely that we just don’t even notice our giant deficit.  Anyone want to make bets on how likely that is?  Right now, there’s the real possibility that all the growth we’ve seen so far is illusory - the Wall Street Journal posted a few days ago that the entire stock market rally seems to be based on the stimulus package. Hmmm…what will happen when that money is spent?  The same could be said of housing starts and purchases…hmmmm…. The second plan clearly involves magic fairies, all the leaders of China suddenly developing brain damage and wishing really, really hard. 

So where do we go from here?  Nowhere good - all of the assumptions made by the Obama administration have included that idea that China needs us just as badly as we need them.  We are being told, quite bluntly, that’s not true.  As those foreign investments dry up and the dollar is increasingly not the currency of choice, we are facing a new world, no plan, enormous debts and little hope of growth.

What got us out of the Great Depression was a war economy and massive borrowing.  The difference is that we’ve already spent more than we spent on WWII, on nothing - on keeping the ride going around one more time.  We’ve already borrowed nearly as much as a percentage of GDP as we did in WWII - the difference is that we’re borrowing not from allies that need us desperately, in a position of strength, as the only untrashed major economy in the world, with the largest energy reserves available at the time, but as a begging creditor that have nothing to offer but an appetite for plastic.

The mere idea that America could flourish by becoming the best shoppers on the planet and not much more is bizarre, and yet it has held a grip on us for decades.  Our job is to consume, while China and other states produce for us.  The reality is that an economy based on devouring what other people produce, mine, build and make is ummm…due for a refit.

My suggestion is that we refit it voluntarily, and rapidly.  It is time and well past time to begin making things in the United States again.  And by making things I do not mean “asphalt paving and cars” - the private car is doomed, and none of us are made much richer by acres of highway, which only increase our dependency on foreign oil and its toxic cognates. 

By making things, I mean things we actually need. I’m sure you can think of some - socks and shoes and tools and trains; beer and books and beans and bikes; hoes and hats, fiddles and fishing poles.  And on a small scale, keeping fossil fuels to a minimum, near where you live and I do.   Because the other choice is this - we become China’s supplier of things they want that we have - food, mostly, since we’re the biggest exporter in the world, and they can’t feed themselves.  And we do it on China’s terms, at China’s prices, with all that that implies.  There’s a kind of horrible justice there, since we’ve been doing that through globalization to countless poor nations - but there are better things than ironic justice.

Point me to one single piece of evidence that suggests the US will be fine if other nations stop buying our debt, please.  Point me to our plan - one that doesn’t involve rapid growth or actual fairies.  Otherwise, better get started making something useful.


Prepping for Holidays

Sharon June 16th, 2009

Yes, I know it is late June, and the quiet season for most communities in terms of holidays.  And yet, I think it bears talking and thinking about - that we should be thinking now about preparing so that we can engage in basic celebrations of whatever feasts and festivals are important to us.  By this I don’t mean “time to do your Labor Day shopping” or anything along the lines of what most Americans mean when they talk about preparing for “the holidays” - I mean making sure that in the worst kinds of personal or collective exigency, we’d have the basics to make something special.

Think about how archetypical the ability to celebrate in difficult times is - in mainstream American literature, for example, Christmas is the archetypical celebration, but it crosses cultures - there are plenty of stories in every culture about the holiday that almost wasn’t.  Think about the literature of an American childhood - Tiny Tim, Laura Ingalls and the March girls of Little Women are always figured as pulling together a way of making Christmas different, real and special, even in the most troubled of times.  And this is no accident - the ability to celebrate central holidays is proof that “we are all right even if things are tough” - proof to children, certainly, who need stability, but I think proof to adults as well.

When you build your food storage, it should include the components of festival foods - those few special things without which it “isn’t really Passover” (note, the beauty of matzah is that it tastes pretty much the same whether stored for 10 years or fresh ;-) ) or “that we always have on Dia de los Muertos.”  This may involve some recipe triage - can you make good stollen with canned butter, or with coconut oil, which lasts longer than butter?  How long does cranberry sauce store, anyway?  What would you do if you couldn’t get a goose, or a tofurkey or a ham - or whatever the traditional feasting meat is.

You may have to let some foods go - one of the things I learned when I converted to Judaism and began keeping kashruth is that it is surprisingly possible to adapt most recipes to keeping kosher.  Vegans, those dealing with gluten or other intolerances, etc… all find these things out.  They also find out that there are some things that probably they just won’t get.  I can make decent mashed potatoes without butter.  I cannot make really fabulous mashed potatoes without butter, nor can I make my father’s mashed potatoes with carmelized onions and cheese, at least not with a turkey at Thanksgiving.  So I’ve accepted that that’s no longer in my repetoir for Thanksgiving, and while I like the basic mashed pototoes ok, have decided that our family likes roasted potatoes with garlic and chiles even better.  So, mashed sweet potatoes, but no mashed potatoes (they show up as the centerpiece of dinner now and again as a treat, and that’s actually better, since they are so rich - really, who needs that much lily gilding, along with the turkey, the sweets, the pumpkin pie, the roasted onions, the…)

But I think it is important to keep as much basic structure of your accustomed meals as possible - if not the turkey, at least the ingredients of pumpkin pie, if not the marinated brussel’s sprouts, at least Grandma’s marinade, applied to some other available green.   This is the time to invest in the things that make your family identity special - the ingredients for the lasagna you always have, the wine that marks a special meal, the favorite preserve you only bring out at the holiday.  These mark the day as “like the past” and tie us to family and tradition, even if family can’t be here, or we can’t afford to go to them. 

You can endure an austerity diet, a great deal of stress and poverty much better if a few times during the year, there comes a moment of excess - one in which you eat as much fat and sweet as you could want, in which you drink more than you usually do, and in which you feel yourself momentarily freed from your constraints.  In our ordinary lives, where we often can eat and drink to excess routinely, where we are pressured to make the holiday perfect, or spend too much, we can think we’d be glad to be freed from these excesses - and sometimes that’s true.  But the stripped down version, in a stripped down life, one that maintains essentials in tough times, is, I think another thing all together.

My family can’t imagine Chanukah without latkes, or without gingerbread cookies, which come from my own family’s Christmas celebrations, but are now, made in Jewish shapes, part of our Chanukah.  Passover must have matzah, of course, and Sukkot and Thanksgiving both require pumpkin pie.  The sabbath means grape juice (wine for the grownups) and the ingredients of challah.  These are small things to add to my storage - I don’t need a six month supply of cranberry sauce, a couple of jars will suffice.  But they matter vastly in excess of their space - they remind us that the cycle of the year goes on, and that joy goes on, even when it seems most difficult to remember.


Glut: Dealing with the Harvest

Sharon June 16th, 2009

If I ever write a cookbook, I’m going to call it “Glut” - partly because I just love the word, and partly because I think there’s an actual need for a cookbook that helps people deal with the feast or famine realities of putting away food.  Whether you have just butchered a pig or bought a side of beef, whether you are dealing with the spring rush of eggs and milk, or with the steady stream of overflowing harvests all summer long and into autumn, food preservation, and sustainable eating, are both about how to deal with wretched, glorious, wondrous excess!

And obviously, the first tool for facing the glut is food preservation.  Food comes upon us in tiny dribbles, than in overflowing quantities, and then, the tap shuts off, and there will be no more cherries for a whole, long, dark year.  Unless, of course, you put the cherries away for the winter - unless you can capture summer’s excess. 

But even our best laid plans of preservation sometimes get overwhelmed by the truly excessive harvests.  Last year for me, it was cucumbers.  Now I normally try and time my cuke harvests for late in the season, when the heat of July and August is gone.  So I planted my cukes mostly late - but they boomed last year, and I brought in bushels, very early and very late.  I made pickles and more pickles, all of them wonderful, and I’m grateful for the jars full.  But after a while, I got tired of making pickles, and wondered, well, what else can I do with cucumbers. 

Of course I can slice them into salad, but how much salad can any family eat?  I can make quick pickles, japanese style, and that was good too.  But what else.  Well, it turns out that cucumber salad freezes pretty well, if the cukes are sliced very thin.  And curried cucumber yogurt soup freezes even better.  It also turns out that my children will eat lemon cucumbers straight up.  These are good things.

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but her grandmother is excess, and the sense that one can’t bear to let good things go to waste.  How else did we get cornsilk tea, corncob jelly, watermelon rind pickles and other inventions to minimize waste and reduce drama.

And speaking of watermelon (which I just don’t get gluts of here - too high, too cool - I’m happy if I get a few) - I bet you didn’t know you could dehydrate it.  And it is pretty great that way!  Pureed, it makes a great juice for winter - mix it with water for the kids, or with vodka for Mom and Dad. 

Even zucchini gluts can be faced - small zucchini make excellent pickles, large zucchini, grated, drained and frozen make an excellent extender for ground beef or turkey.  Dried zucchini, coated with spices, make super chip substitutes.  What’s not to like?

The big issue of gluts is time - ok, you picked a bushel of tomatoes, and it is 87 degrees in your house.  Now, what do you do with them?  The freezer is full, and the idea of chopping and cooking and canning is overwhelming.  Well, how about the dehydrator - you can dry not just paste tomatoes, but the regular kind and cherries as well (sungold cherry tomatoes when dehydrated are fabulous, btw). Can you make the sauce today, and can it tomorrow?  Sure, life would be more perfect if you did it all on the same day, but so what?  Stick them in the freezer until you have time to deal with them? 

One solution to the glut is generosity - give your food away.  Bring it to the food pantry (and not just the giant zucchini, please - give people food that they would actually eat), or see if you can get a local school, scouts or church group to come gather your food.  If you’ve got a glut you just can’t handle, call your friends, call your family. 

Throw a party - historically, the butchering of a large animal was a day to throw a party.  Even if you are putting some away, invite everyone in for a feast - feasting is important.  Throw a tomato tasting, a “best zucchini recipe competition” or a pumpkin-cook off. 

Take a look in old cookbooks - what did people do with all those eggs, or with the flood of milk once upon a time before refrigeration?  Chocolate beet cake or Zucchini-caramel cake evolved for a reason.  Experiment - the worst thing that happens is that the worms or the chickens or the compost pile get your experimental “Chile-corn-zucchini muffins” - who knows, you might invent a prize.

Enjoy the gluts - recognize that “I’m sick of strawberries” feeling is the predecessor to a longing for them - no matter how many you dried or jammed or sauced or pied, there will come a moment when you wish only for a red, ripe, dripping strawberry straight from the dirt to bite - and it is still February.  The cure for the glut is action, commitment - and the recognition that too much is followed by too little, new gluts, and then the quiet of the season in which nothing overflows.