Archive for gardening

Farmers who avoid the outdoors

Written Aug 25:

We have become a family of urban farmers who only emerge in the early morning and dusk to harvest, weed, plant a few winter greens, give the garden a little extra TLC where needed, and then retreat back into our “cave” to escape the heat. It has been blastin’ hot for weeks. I’m talking 90s. And in Colorado, we don’t have the humidity, but the sun here is intense at higher elevations and just bakes our skin. I’ve even managed a few sunburns this year when I wasn’t being particularly careful about sunscreen.

I don’t like that I’m not getting outside, but the kids don’t even want to go out until we get afternoon shade. And believe me, I’ve tried to shoo them out the door because they’re driving me flippin’ insane being inside all of the time. Most of our outdoor activities like taking a walk or a bike ride have been reserved for the evening. 

I know if we were “real” farmers, this outdoor avoidance simply would not be an option, but as long as I have a 2-going-on-3-year-old, I kind of have to be where the kids are unless I want to re-enter the house to find the furniture in shreds or that the kids have decided to make a “mixture” in the living room from accessible pantry ingredients that will most decidedly include food coloring. So, I do a bit of gardening here and there when the kids are preoccupied in the house, but honestly, not much. 

Something positive must be said on my behalf, however. I have been much better this year about using everything I grow. I’ve put away  a few things for winter – frozen green beans, frozen tart cherries, canned apricot jam, dehydrated local peaches and apricots. Our potatoes are about ready for harvest and I’ve got to come up with somewhere to store them. What I wouldn’t give for a basement!!!

Our garlic harvest was magnificent and I’m making plans to expand our crop and maybe even sell some in the future. The garlic I see at the farmer’s markets is pretty puny and unappealing. I could probably make a little extra money with dried flowers and garlic if I had access to a bit of land. We’re starting to give some serious thought to buying a couple of acres and a house, but so far haven’t found anything even remotely in our price range. I may have to enlist the help of a real estate agent. 

Other decent-sized crops: beets, lettuce, raspberries (fabulous), potatoes

Crop failures: squash and pumpkins – all varieties. You would think that a woman who has gardened for about a decade now could manage to successfully grow a zucchini, but not this year apparently. I’ve hear the same from a few other experienced gardeners. The heat? Too much potassium in my soil? I don’t know. I’m going to have my soil tested for the first time this year. I’ve always just amended the garden with a couple of inches of compost and sometimes manure, or top soil. I occasionally use organic fertilizer, but not more than once or twice in a growing season. Who knows? The climate here in Denver can be pretty harsh on vegetable gardens – extreme sun, usually drought, extreme temperature changes. 

More crop failures: greens – collards, kale, broccoli, various asian greens – first eaten by cabbage moths, then infested with aphids in clumps so thick they could not be washed off. Cabbage – eaten by tiny pests I don’t recognize. Most could not be salvaged and were composted. Next year, I’ll use floating row covers. I’m trying fall plantings to see if they fare any better, but so far, after two plantings, my seedlings have failed to emerge (weather still unseasonably hot!). Tomatoes – small harvest. Enough for fresh eating, but nothing else. Even with 13 tomato plants! The plants are all pretty small in comparison to previous years, so I’m a bit perplexed. Bad batch of compost?

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If you can’t beat the Bushmen…

My latest foray into the gloom and doom literature predicting our bleak future is Workman’s book Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought. Cheery title, don’t ya think? I especially like the word “endure.” Maybe it’s just me, but crouching under the minimal shade of dry brush all day, limiting my brain activity and physical movements to dusk and dawn, and burying myself in urine-soaked sand to keep cool are not at the top of my “Things I Want To Do In This Lifetime” list.

Nothing against the Bushmen, of course. These tough people are the closest genetic link to “first man.” Even when threatened with military force, separation from their families, and death if they don’t give up their “primitive” ways, the bushmen choose this lifestyle over a more leisurely, modern one. I admire and respect them, yet I confess that I have no inclination to join them. 

For months, I’ve been reading books about the coming emergencies due to climate change, peak oil, possible pandemics, etc. And, I’ve been taking some reasonable steps to prepare my family: storing water, stocking a pantry, buying cast-iron cookware, making sure we have adequate warm clothing and bedding. But, the thing is, if there’s no freakin’ water, what the heck is the point in learning food preservation, baking my bread, grinding my own grain, learning to garden,stockpiling food, buying all sorts of survival gear…

My brain reels after I read books like this. I’m left with a strong sense of  – I wish I could say urgency, but it’s more like PANIC. There’s no possible way to prepare! And, even if we take huge steps to cut global emissions and the planet doesn’t warm up any further than it already has, looks like the desserts will continue to spread anyway, the water evaporate, rains cease to fall, ice caps melt. We’ve already screwed ourselves with technology and changed the weather patterns so drastically that there’s no turning back.

It’s hard to know what to do with all of this information. Colleagues at work urge me, “Stop reading that stuff!” But, it’s addictive. I can’t get enough. I keep hoping some resource will give me a comprehensive list that I can follow methodically and somehow avoid the unpleasant future: 100 Things You and Your Family Can Do To Avoid Being Wiped Off The Face Of The Planet. 

If it were just me – or even me and my husband, that’s one thing. Say, “black tongue and dehydration-induced delusion” and I’m all over it, baby. But I have kids. Someone please hurry up and create the list that will get us through this.

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Next Year

I blogged yesterday about a few things I already do to try to lessen my impact on the environment and to ease my family into the hardships that may be coming. Now, I’d like to talk about the future.

Every year, as the first frosts turn my tomato plants to mush (no worries, green tomatoes already safely inside), I start to make plans for next year: what to grow, where to put it, what didn’t work out. In the middle of winter, when the first seed catalogs start to arrive, I’m already rarin’ to go.

This year, I did much better about harvesting and using what I grew – even if that meant giving away some of our produce so that someone (other than our compost pile) could make good use of it. If I’d had a dehydrator, I would have been able to put up small quantities, but our tomatoes, especially, didn’t produce enough at one time to justify canning. Strange year. Lots of rain, but no real hot weather until the very end of summer. 

This upcoming year, I’d like to tackle some projects to make us even more self-sufficient and to ensure that we utilize our small harvest to the utmost. 

Plans for Next Year:

The Garden

  • Build trellises for cucumbers
  • Don’t bother growing my own melons
  • Expand herb garden to include chamomile, dill, and reintroduce lemon balm (in pot!) and borage
  • Get better at drying and using my herbs
  • Plant more plum tomatoes and can sauce, whole tomatoes, salsa, etc.
  • Try growing quinoa
  • Order more garlic for next fall’s planting (Music and Siberian varieties were delish
  • Plant at least double the potatoes I grew this year and larger varieties – keepers. Don’t bother with fingerlings (except for seed stock I saved this year)
  • Order two more raspberry canes (Caroline)
  • Order 1 – 2 more fruit trees depending on space and pollination factors

Building Projects

  • Build or acquire solar oven and dark colored pot to cook in
  • Build solar food dryer
  • Bees? Consider building top-bar hive over winter. Read up on this and be sure of city ordinances and safety factor for kids

In General:

  • Can more of our own produce or produce from farmer’s market 
  • Go to pick-your-own organic strawberry place and get enough for jam and dried berries
  • Host 2nd annual Kitchen Garden Open House
  • Paint some signs for our garden (once I decide what to call our “farm”)
  • Vermicompost?
  • Find bulk (hopefully local) resources for dried beans and some grains and order more
  • Build up enough food stores for three months
  • Put together my tofu press and try it out
  • Create more food storage areas in the house
  • Salvage, thrift, and garage sale more

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Summer’s End

My thighs are looking a bit flabby these days because the gardening season is winding down. Sure, there are things I could be doing out there: digging up sod around my old raised beds in the backyard in preparation for next year’s garden expansion and renovation, planting a few more winter greens, getting the cold frame ready for service. Somehow, around this time every year, I’m a bit tired of it all. This Spring’s gung-ho burst of energy is gone, replaced by a sluggish me who would rather , oh, I don’t know, start planning next year’s garden, which is a lot less work than actually toiling in this year’s.

Cool weather has moved in and I’ve been watching the forecast in case I have to make a mad dash to the garden to bring in the last of the tomatoes. Usually, this coincides with the arrival of a sudden wet snow. The kids and I throw on our winter garb and they stand on the porch whining while I scurry about plucking snow drenched tomatoes with my raw, red fingers, hollering, “It’s ok, guys. Just a few more and we’ll go in and get hot chocolate. This is fun, isn’t it? Look at it snow. Wow!” I pick until my frozen knuckles won’t bend and we dump the muddy bucket of tomatoes on our kitchen counter to deal with later.

My tomatoes are still producing, but not enough to bother processing. Mostly, I’m getting buckets of cherry tomatoes (Peacevine) and another smallish variety called Stupice. Both are remarkably tasty, but not good for much other than fresh snacking and salads. My pole tomatoes (San Marzollo) are hitting their stride, but I’ve had some problems with blossom end rot, so again, not enough to justify putting up. My family is eating as much as we can and giving the rest away to grateful neighbors. 

My winter greens are up and flourishing (chinese kale, lacinato kale, collards, lettuces, spinach, bok choi). I’ve done two plantings and some of the seeds obviously didn’t make it, as I have large bald patches in two beds. Old seed? I’ve taken an inventory and purged old seed to be replaced with new next year.

The last of the bush and pole beans I’m just letting go to seed for next year’s crop. We had very prolific beans this year – especially the yellow wax and royal burgundy. I did manage to freeze about eight packages in addition to all of our fresh eating.

The melons are tiny, but not ripening and are being pilfered by squirrels. In the three years I’ve been planting melons in our yard, I think I’ve managed to taste two melons and those were ones I stole back half-eaten from the squirrels. Perhaps I should just focus on crops with which I have relative success.

Yellow squash and zucchini. Can we just be done already! I’ve grated and frozen; I’ve chopped and sauteed; I’ve made batches and batches of muffins; I’ve snuck them into soup. Enough! Why don’t the squirrels develop a taste for these? Next year: two plants. That’s it!

The garlic (Music and Siberian) was absolutely wonderful this year – nice big, juicy bulbs! Our wet, cool spring is probably to be credited for this. Sadly, we’ve eaten almost all of our harvest, except the six bulbs I’ve reserved for replanting. My hopes of finding locally grown seed stock garlic have been fruitless. I thought surely farmers’ markets would have a couple varieties of garlic for sale and that I’d just buy a few bulbs for planting. No luck. And, when I checked seed catalogs, all but just a few varieties are already sold out! Everyone must be thinking much further ahead  than I this year. 

We’ll get maybe eight or so winter squash if the squirrels don’t get too hungry between now and harvest time in a week or so. Some squash already have a few bite marks despite my efforts to wrap each squash in metal screen cloth. 

Strawberry sweet corn – got about five tiny ears. Pollination problems combined with dastardly squirrels. Still, the ears we did get are “gorgeous” as my two year old says. We may actually try to pop a couple and keep the rest for offerings on our harvest altar.

Next year, I’ll focus on fewer crops overall and on growing greater quantities of those – enough to make it worth my time to process some for winter. The seed catalogs are just so darn beautiful and look so promising in the midst of winter’s bleakness that I’m always overcome by greed.

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