Archive for May, 2011

10 Years of Food Preservation

Sharon May 31st, 2011

On June first, Eric and I and Eli (and Simon who was there in-utero) will celebrate a decade on our farm.  That’s a pretty amazing thing to me - a childhood full of moves, a young adulthood in which I changed apartments every school year - ten years is by far the longest I’ve ever been in one place. And while I had made some forays into food preservation before we moved - mostly involving alcoholic beverages (yeah, yeah, grad student stereotype come true) and condiments (homemade mustard, mint oxymel, almond milk for pouring over chocolate ice cream), the idea of seriously preserving what I actually grew hadn’t kicked in yet.  The balcony gardens I’d had in Somerville, MA hadn’t led me into serious food preservation.  Farmer’s markets just weren’t as prevalent as they are now.  Moreover, homemade food itself wasn’t as trendy.  Although I had a plan to grow and produce what we ate, I hadn’t fully made the mental leap into recognizing that one of the central steps in that process was going to be learning to put by.

I did learn it, however, the first time the zucchini exploded, the first time we had more peas than we could eat.  I learned it when our first year household budget was a grand total of 17K for Eric, Eli, me and new baby Simon.  The vast majority of that money was going to be spent on the mortgage.  3K of it was eaten up almost immediately when our well line burst.  That first year garden I planted turned out to be a big chunk of the food budget.

I found books at the library and in bookstores about food preservation, but most of them weren’t that concerned about energy usage - I wanted to know what the most efficient way to keep food was.  A lot of them didn’t seem that concerned about taste, either - yes, home canned green beans taste better than grocery store ones, but is that really the best we could do?  And they left out a lot - I was getting three gallons of milk in barter for our eggs from a dairy farming neighbor.  How do you make butter?  How long does it keep?  Another neighbor shared her garden produce - the USDA said canning pumpkin wasn’t safe anymore.  Were they right?  What else do you do with it.

I had time (or as much time as a graduate student writing a doctoral dissertation and the mother of a toddler and a newborn 20 months apart ever has) more than I had money, so I could experiment.   I did experiment - a lot.  We were given a huge bag of figs, and I pickled a bunch of them.  I learned not to pickle figs.  We went to the pick-your-own to get strawberries and then dried them, because I didn’t have enough canning jars.  I learned definitely to dehydrate strawberries.  I made butter.  Because of my pregnancy, I was  throwing up every 45 minutes, and an elderly Russian lady at our synagogue suggested I try fermented foods.  Kimchi and pickles became my best friends.

Despite our tiny budget (which did get bigger after that first year), we ate well.  Actually, we ate better than we had ever eaten before.  We felt good.  Even our picky toddler ate the fresh, delicious stuff we had.  The second year, the garden got a lot bigger, and again, we learned more tricks of the trade for food preservation.  Moreover, I was more and more concerned about resource use - how did we optimize this - how did we balance our energy consumption for preservation to ensure we came out ahead of industrial food.  And how did we make it more delicious still?

It felt, in a lot of ways, like we had to reinvent the wheel.  Don’t get me wrong - I had a lot of mentors - most of all the late, great Carla Emery, who became a personal friend.  I had a long human past to go back to - after all, food preservation is one of the oldest of all human activities, long predating agriculture.  And yet, inventing it for here, on a local diet, with a modern food sensibility and concern for health and safety felt new, as much as it was very, very old.

I decided to write _Independence Days_ in large part because of an encounter with a woman at the 2007 Community Solutions conference.  She asked me what she should do to eat locally when her 20 week CSA delivery ended.  It was a familiar question - my own CSA customers asked me the same thing, or they puzzled - why was I giving them so much cabbage and garlic in the fall, more than they could eat in a week?

It occurred to me at that moment that we’d lost our attachment to the cycle of preserving, the sense that this was natural, that abundance could be met by strategies to extend its life.    The Independence Days Challenge and the book of the same name emerged from that encounter - from the recognition that others were asking the same questions I had asked about how to keep eating locally.

I’m still learning.  I still consider myself a low-level cheesemaker, with a whole host of new projects I want to try.  Since my grad-school days, I’ve done little experimentation with alcohol making - now that Eric keeps bees, I want to make mead.  I’ve got plans to try some new lamb sausages and Carol Deppe’s book _The Resilient Gardener_ has challenged me to explore squash drying more thoroughly.  Lots of new stuff to get at.

Last year, I had my best preserving summer ever - and my worst preserving autumn in years.  We went away for 10 days in early September on  trip I wouldn’t trade for the world - my kids got to see the National Zoo and Monticello, we met new friends and took our first ever family vacation that didn’t involve mostly relatives.  I got to speak in front of Thomas Jefferson’s vegetable garden.  Given that I suspect that kind of travel may close to us over time, I’m grateful we got it. But the one-two punch of ten days gone (and more days in catch-up) and the Jewish high holidays coming in September meant I got almost no preserving done in the early fall - and an early frost meant that I lost my chance for a lot of good things.  The fall raspberries were gone before I got more than a dozen jars preserved.  I missed some of my favorite apples,  I didn’t get enough tomato sauce done to last the winter.

As I said, I’m still learning. I suspect this year, as we add to our family will bring new imperfections and failures.  I’ve come to terms with the fact that I may never get it all right.  My years of Independence Day Challenges, however, have taught me to appreciate what I have done, what I do try - what has come to be part and parcel of my life, as routine as laundry and dishes.  It has taught me to count every jar with pride, and to remember that next year comes again with new possibilities.

My eighth food storage and preservation class starts today - I feel like I know more than I did for my first class, I’m better prepared.  I also feel like I’m never prepared enough - on the one hand, this stuff is important, it can be the difference between security and insecurity, sufficiency and insufficiency.  Food matters.  On the other hand, I feel just as uncertain as I suspect my students do - worried they’ll have questions I can’t answer.  But I was a teacher for a long time before I started this subject - I have come to appreciate questions I can’t answer, because they take me places I didn’t know to go.

I have rhubarb to can, rhubarb I planted a few years ago that came back despite the depredations of chickens.  I have raspberry leaves to dry for tea, and some to feed to the rabbits - they just appeared under the spruces, and we let them grow.  I have bok-choy bolting in the heat that could still make kim chi - or could be tosssed over the fence to the goats if I don’t get to it.  My place, this place I know better than any other I have lived in, is filled with abundance, tolerant of my imperfections and ready to go.


BTW, I still have two spaces in food storage and preservation. If you’d like one, email me at [email protected]!

Bad Blogiste, Bad!

Sharon May 31st, 2011

So I know I’ve been pretty slack here on the blog in the last couple of weeks - the combination of flooding, spring, foster parent prep, spring, garden work, plant sales, Goat Camp at my house, spring and a few other things have meant that my online work has gotten the proverbial lick and promise. And now I’m about to go off and be a total slacker on y’all.

You see, one of my oldest college friends is getting married this weekend. This is something of an event in a whole lot of ways. First there’s the fact that we’re pretty heavily excited for Jesse. Jesse is one of those people everyone loves - he’s the godfather of my oldest son - and about 17 other children He’s been part of every event in my life from college on. And for the last few years before he met Rachel, he was lonely. So much so that I offered (threatened?) to take over the search for a suitable partner for him if he didn’t get it together. Fortunately, Rachel came along before that extreme was necessary - and we’re really happy. So we’re off for a busy week of partying in celebration!

More importantly, Jesse played extensive pranks at my wedding to Eric, at my first wedding, and at *at least* one wedding of each of our friends involved in the wedding. These included things like hiding alarm clocks set to go off every hour on the hour during the wedding night and changing the music we walked into to something err..inappropriate. Now I don’t hold a grudge - I believe strongly in no quarter asked or given in this sort of friendship. Indeed, I cheerfully helped him with other wedding pranks on people we both love - painting the getaway car with “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” (in the english and the original, thanks), filling a car with popcorn through the sunroof, etc…

However, quite a lot of us owe Jesse a little err…attention. Moreover, I feel personally that since I became a farmer with livestock, my potential pranking options have dramatically increased. Chickens, for example, belong at every wedding ceremony! Now Rachel, his future bride, is an innocent here. We bear her no ill will, and have promised we will be just as careful to protect her from collateral damage as our own government is in protecting civilian casualties. I can’t think why she isn’t reassured.

So I hate to say this, but I just won’t have much time to blog between now and Sunday - between wishing Jesse and Rachel well and wishing them well…umm…. I’ll be busy. I realize this makes me a bad, bad blogiste, and apologize for leaving you in the hands of the rest of the internet. I know that they will provide you with plenty of blonde jokes, information about 2012 and fashion news, however - or you could read some of the nice folks on my sidebar or at Scienceblogs.

If, however, you are in or around the North Shore of Boston, I will be giving a talk on Local Food Resilience and What to Eat in the Future in Newbury, MA onThursday at 7pm. I hope to meet some of you there.. Otherwise, I have to go pack my chickens for the wedding!


Food Storage and Preservation Class Starting Soon!

Sharon May 25th, 2011

It seemed up here in the north that spring would never come - and now we’re headed rapidly into that time of year when everything is ripe and abundant in our gardens and at local farms, and learning to put food up can make it possible for you to enjoy summer in winter, and continue eating locally as long as possible. It can be overwhelming when you start preserving, so if you’d like a friendly voice to walk you through it, please join us, starting next Tuesday!
The class is on-line and asynchronous, and you can participate at your own pace. Every week we’ll have projects involving what’s growing in gardens and markets to get you familiar with the basics of preserving the harvest, and also help you build up food security by building up a reserve of stored food.
My hope is that at the end of the class, everyone will have a plan for how they want to go about increasing their food storage reserves, and will have tried the major methods of food storage. You will be able to watch the jars increase as the class goes on, and you’ll be ready for peak preserving season.
Here’s a rough syllabus:
Week 1, May 31 - Introduction to Food Storage, How much, where to put it, and how? Can I afford this? Low energy overview of food preservation methods. Storing Water, making space.
Week 2, June 7: Water bath canning 101, Preserving with Salt, Sugar and Honey, Bulk purchasing, sourcing local foods, finding food to preserve, what food storage can and can’t do.
Week 3, June 14: Dehydration basics, Tools you need and where to get them, Menu making and how to get people to eat from your pantry, Setting up your kitchen for food storage, Storing herbs and spices, Sourdoughs and grain ferments, Preserving foraged foods.
Week 4 June 21: Lactofermentation; Special needs and health issues; Storing food for children, the elderly, pregnant and lactating women; Storing medications, gluten-free storage; Basic dairy preservation and cheesemaking; Building up your pantry and Managing your reserves.
Week 5, June 28: Pressure Canning; Beverages, Teas and Drinks; Preserving in Alcohol, Coops and Community Food Security; More Menus and Recipes; Root Cellaring and in-Garden Storage.
Week 6, July 5: Season extension, Preserving Meats, Sprouting, The next Steps, Getting Your Community Involved, Teaching others, Food Preservation as a Cottage Industry.
We will try and track the seasonal produce coming in, support each other as we experiment with new techniques and build up our pantries as we go - and have a lot of fun! If you are interested in joining, cost of the class is $150 or equivalent barter if we can come to a mutually agreeable arrangement.. I also have three scholarship spots remaining for low income participants who would otherwise be unable to afford to take the class. If you’d like to donate to the scholarship fund, just let me know - 100% of your donation goes to making classes available to low income participants. Email me to enroll or with questions at [email protected].
Ok, off to do something with the rhubarb coming in!

The Medicinal Ornamental Garden

admin May 19th, 2011

Ornamental edible gardening gets a lot of attention right now.  Consider a new book  _The Edible Front Yard_ by Ivette Soler that The Peak Oil Hausfrau has just reviewed.  I did a post a while back on ornamental perennial edibles, and I wanted to do a companion piece on ornamental medicinal herbs.  If you are looking for something to put up front, your medicinal herb garden is a really choice.  Not only are many of the plants useful, but they are also drop-dead gorgeous.  And just as perennial edibles run “under the radar” - meaning that neither zombies nor your local zoning board are likely to even realize that your garden is  (gasp!) useful as well as purty - medicinals do the same.  Just as I did in my perennial ornamental edibles post, I’m going to give you gardens for both sun and shade.  Obviously, this will be most useful to people who live in my climate or something like it - hey, if you can grow saw palmetto or chasteberry, go for it.  I can’t, but there are plenty of gorgeous options here.  Oh, and a lot of them are highly scented as well - even better!

First, let’s do a sunny border with a lot of general-purpose medicinals, useful in most households.  I’d suggest you throw in a handful of low-growing sunny annuals as well to add some brightness - calendula perks everything up, and german chamomile makes a great, cheerful understory plant.    This is for a site of ordinary soil, with ordinary moisture levels.

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First, large backbone plants.  You’ll definitely want Valerian, which is a beautiful plant with vanilla-scented flowers in bloom.  It gets huge, so give it plenty of room.  Valerian is a reliable perennial, and can be dug and divided when you harvest the roots.  The roots smell like dirty socks, but tinctured they are one of the best relaxants out there, and a natural sleep aid.  Valerian does like some moisture, but will grow in ordinary garden soil.

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All the mallows have roots with soothing properties - particularly good for coughs or irritated urinary tracts.  Marshmallow, above, is a beauty with pink flowers, but you can also use Malva sylvestris or garden hollyhock!

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Angelicas are cool and weird looking.  They umbels with dark stems are odd, but beautiful.  Carrot family members, they attract insects like crazy and also attract visual attention.  If you have anyone female in your household, I’d recommend growing A. sinesis, also known as Dong Quai.  It is used for both menopause and menstrual cramps, as well as to gently help regulate high blood pressure.  It is not a safe herb for pregnancy, however, as it increases the risk of miscarriage.

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You either love elecampanes or you hate them - I love them, huge and strange looking sunflowerish things that they are.  They were a common ornamental during Victorian times, but they’ve fallen out of favor - and I can understand, but I find them structural and cool.  Their roots are used for bronchitis and persistent coughs, but a grad student in Ireland has also found that extracts of elecampane in alcohol kill MRSA, which is certainly a non-trivial usage.

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Moving up to the middle of the border, an obvious candidate, one that does well in almost all gardens, are the coneflowers.  Generally what you want are Echinacea purpurea or augustifola (shown) as the easiest to grow, but if you can grow one of the rarer species, please do - they are often endangered and very beautiful.  The medicinal qualities of the ornamental hybrids are probably lower, so stay away from those.


Meadowsweet is one of my absolute favorite herbs for its tidy foliage, beautiful sprays of creamy white flowers, wonderful fragrance and medicinal usage as both a painkiller (this is the plant from which salicytes were originally isolated) and a stomach soother.  It does cause hayfever in some people, however  and those with asprin-sensitive asthma should not use it, but unless I was terribly allergic, I’d have this plant around - it is just too useful. Its flower heads have also been used to flavor ales and jams - it imparts a slight sweet almondy taste!  The roots also produce a black dye.

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You have to be careful with tansy - in some of the drier parts of the US it is an invasive pest and can become weedy.  You also have to be careful with internal use of tansy - not for kids, pregnant women and I personally wouldn’t take it internally unless the benefits outweighed the risks - but it is a great worm killer for internal parasites.  Best of all, however, are its natural insect repellent qualities, its delicious fragrance and those cheerful bright yellow buttons.  Tansy just begs to be mixed with reds and oranges, so it is a great companion to calendula! 2820 rbgs11jan.jpg

Pretty mounds of tidy leaves with lovely wands of purple flowers - I’m surprised that Betony (stachys officinalis) doesn’t make it into more gardens.  It is great for headaches, and the leaves taste pretty much like black tea - and has similar antioxidant qualities.  This is a fond favorite plant in my garden, and you can never have too much of it!


I’d have feverfew in my garden even if it wasn’t a medicinal - but it is, with good documentation on its ability to affect migraines.  The flowers are just gorgeous - and they come in double forms as well.

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Yarrow if a favorite of mine as well, and it tolerates almost any conditions, from dry as a bone roadsides to damp spots in my garden.   The flowers are used to treat hayfever and allergies, the aerial tops for colds and the leaves can be used as a styptic to stop bleeding.  Yarrow looks like a lot of umbelliferae, and some people have occasionally mistaken poisonous plants like water hemlock or cow parsnip for yarrow, which is all the more reason to grow your own!  You want the true white yarrow, not the ornamental colored species, although the chinese species A. asiatica, which has lovely pink flowers, is also extremely ornamental and used for fever pains and arthritis.

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I can’t grow the traditional Arnica montana in my garden - elevations aren’t high enough and my soils aren’t naturally acidic enough - but A. Chamissonis grows well for me, and the bright, low growing flowers are easily tinctured or added to salves to ease sore muscles and bruising.  This is an external use only herb - but it is heavily overharvested in the wild, so growing your own becomes imperative.

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Lady’s bedstraw is a lovely, low growing, incredibly fragrant plant that ought to be in more gardens.  Besides its use as a natural curdling agent for cheesemaking, a decoction is also used for urinary tract issues, and the roots produce a red dye, while the leaves produce a pretty yellow one.  But the honey scent and the way it flavors cheese would be enough for me!

Add in calendula, california poppy and german chamomile in the front of the garden, and you’ve got something no one will ever believe is useful!  If you are looking for more of my herbal writings, check them out here.

Ok, next time - the ornamental, medicinal shade garden!


We Have to Cancel Our Open Farm Day ;-(

admin May 18th, 2011

We’d invited those of you nearby to come join us this Sunday, but unfortunately, we have to cancel.  Crap.  We’ve had 5 inches of rain in two days, and there’s a lot of flooding here - the barn, the driveway and the garden are all flooded, and the creek has breached its banks in the back, with more rain in the forecast before the weekend.  We won’t be in good shape either to show off the farm properly or really to keep everyone safe - I’m particularly worried about cars being damaged trying to come down the driveway and child safety around our exploding creek.  With another 2 inches of rain expected before Saturday, it just isn’t going to work out. Stupid rain!

Profuse apologies for messing up anyone’s weekend plans, and we will be rescheduling for July when hopefully it will be less damp!


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