Archive for urban homestead

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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Ready, Set, Garden!

My seeds and tubers are finally all ordered. I still need to research one more fruit tree (self-fertile?) to order to add to my other orchard items – 2 more rhubarb, 2 more raspberries. If all goes well, we should get our first harvests of raspberries and gooseberries from last year’s plantings. I don’t really have plans for the gooseberries except maybe in a pie. My great grandmother Bessie and grandmother Mary Helen used to make a gooseberry pie now and then from wild gooseberries that grew near their property. I think I even recall picking and baking one with my grandma one time, but I don’t have any memory of eating it. The varieties I ordered said they were good for table eating too, unlike most sour varieties. I hope this is true.

Our apricots won’t produce for a few more years yet and harvest is always iffy given the usual late frosts. Nature’s got to have her way. Last year, there weren’t many flowers on fruit bearing trees at all – no crab apples or plums, for the most part. I  think the squirrels are a bit desperate because of it. I’ve been helping those critters along with some sunflower seeds and peanuts and an occasional handful of walnuts or my son’s leftover breakfast and half-chomped apples. I’d rather feed a hungry creature than the compost. If I had chickens, they would be benefiting from much of the still edible scraps my kitchen generates. 

Chickens. My two attempts to eat eggs were failures. I ended up with nearly a full dozen hard boiled eggs that had to be tossed after sitting in the fridge for a month and a half.  I could always give eggs away – or eat them when the mood struck. I just want a few hens for pets that could roam around our backyard muttering to themselves in that cute chickeny way – brrrrpppp, brrrrpp.  We saw a small flock at the zoo in Colorado Springs this weekend. My husband is the only one opposed to having chickens because of the extra work involved. Of course, I would never order them from a hatchery. I don’t want to support the hatcheries because they kill most of the male chicks. Most likely, I would take a few hens off the hands of a farmer who didn’t want them anymore. My CSA, two years ago, made an offer to it’s members who were looking for hens. And, there’s always Craigslist. 

Though I would love bees, I think they are probably not a possiblity because our backyard isn’t large enough to accomodate them and the kids and maintain a safe distance between both parties. I’ll continue to research and maybe consult a beekeeper. 

My seed orders are already arriving and I need to get busy and organize them and put together a gardening calendar :  when to plant out what, when to start seed indoors, tentative harvests, etc. As usual, I’m sure I went overboard and ordered way too much. I need to get better at saving my own seed, so I need to research with what vegetables and fruits this is feasible in the small growing space I have. I know I can save tomato seed, even though I grow several varieties, and still be relatively sure that the seed will be “true” because tomatoes are self-fertile/self-pollinating (not sure which term is the most accurate). 

I’m being ambitious this year and have plans to deconstruct the raised beds in my backyard. I think they just don’t work in my drought-prone climate. The water seems to seep rapidly out of the soil in the bed and the soil ends up like a brick. They were supposed to allow me to have loose, loamy soil so that the veggies (especially root crops) could really dig in, but that has not been the case. If anything, my beets and carrots have suffered. So, if I have the time and inclination, more sod will get dug up around the beds, the wood frames of the beds will be ripped apart and the 12″ of soil will be spread out a bit and dug in with whatever native soil is beneath. I just can’t decide on a pretty shape for the new uncontained garden to take. 

To the drawing board…

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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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In all earnestness

I haven’t been able to blog in a few days – a week? Heck, when was my last post anyway? I have a two-year-old who hasn’t napped more than 20 minutes a day for a while now. I’m hoping today will be different. But then, I’ve hoped that for the last week…and well then I’d hear little feet making their way across the floor to my in-home library where I write. Darn it! So far, so good today. I’ll get on with it.

“Most of our citizens wake up in the morning and worry about the morning commute and getting the kids to school and paying the mortgage and thinking about a new car or vacation…and this is simply too narrow a scale of thinking to address the problems that we have.” – Joseph Tainter, professor and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies (quoted from the documentary The 11th Hour)

I watched the documentary The 11th Hour the other day and have been inspired to get with the program and really take steps to ensure that our family’s carbon footprint is small – though our being vegan is already lessening our impact in a big way. Sometimes, other than shelling out $20, 000 to convert our house entirely to solar or kissing our cars bye-bye, I feel a little lost about how just to go about what I should be doing. I’ve read a couple of books, but they were more along the lines of Al Gore recommending we trade our incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents. Done that, duh.

I’m also delving into Sharon Astyk’s new book Independence Days:A Guide to Sustainable Food Storage and Preservation which arrived yesterday. She says, and I believe her, that we have a moral imperative to take on the actions that lessen our impact on the planet. And, gulp, that we owe it to our children and future generations to do without and experience a bit of discomfort (like lowering the heat) so that they HAVE a future. Now I really feel guilty about all of my excuses – how I don’t have time to preserve much food or hang the laundry; how I can’t stand the cold and keep my heat at a toasty 67. But, I should give myself some credit for all of the things I DO (or have done) and all of the future projects I plan to attempt in earnest. 

I recently emailed Ms. Astyk and told her how much I admired her efforts, but made some glib comment about how I bet my house is cleaner (she’s admittedly laid-back about housekeeping). So, when the real crises start to hit, my family will be freezing (we have no heat other than our boiler) in our very tidy house and begging for food. Her family will have adapted fairly well and have ample wood heat and enough food to last the winter. What an ass am I?

 So, in the hope that I am actually making progress in my goal of being more self-reliant and in lessening my impact on the environment, here’s a list of what I have already done.

Things Done:

  • Replaced all bulbs with compact flourescents
  • Buy used clothing and household goods whenever possible (I could still improve a bit in this area and hunt out garage sales)
  • Cloth diapered my first son. Tried with my second, but no matter what I did, he got terrible rashes on his legs, so now I use 7th Generation diapers and feel guilty every time I throw one out. I tried a few times to switch back to cloth, but no luck
  • Vegan diet and lifestyle
  • I keep a pantry  – enough to last (I hope) about two weeks. Plus freezer in garage (obviously useless if we lose electricity).
  • Breastfed my kids forever (the first for 3 1/2 years, the second is currently two) thus eliminating the need for icky and expensive formula
  • I buy about 99% organic groceries and other products from our small health food store and try to avoid the mega corporations, though that’s next to impossible since they’ve all been bought out
  • I buy in bulk when possible (though our “bulk” commodities come pre-packaged)
  • I shop weekly at the farmer’s market to support our local growers and get to know them
  • I joined a CSA last year, but found that even a half share was too much for us with our own garden producing so much and I like being able to pick my own produce at the farmer’s market. Still, I recommend it for people who don’t garden or make it to the farmer’s market each week.
  • Tore up 2/3 front lawn this year and converted it to vegetables, herbs, and ornamentals (mostly xeriscape types)
  • Planted two apricot trees and raspberry patch(raspberries should give us a harvest next summer)
  • Four large raised bed veggie gardens, herb garden and strawberry patch in back yard
  • Raise 97% of my own vegetables from seed, including heirloom tomatoes
  • Took a class on herb gardening and herb use
  • Took a class on water bath canning
  • We recycle as much as possible
  • Canned and or froze a good amount of peaches, peach jam, red currants, raspberries, rhubarb, cherries, green beans and zucchini
  • Actually accomplished a fall planting of lettuces, bok choi, tatsoi, kale, and spinach this year!
  • Joined a local urban homesteading group. Though I an seldom attend meetings because of work/childcare conflicts.
  • Hosted our first annual kitchen garden open house – complete with heirloom tomato tasting and informational handouts
  • Am trying to monitor our electricity usage (checking out a wattage meter from our local library -cool huh?)
  • Am washing most of our clothes in cold water
  • Occasionally hand a load on the clothesline (could improve MUCH in this area)
  • Our cars are old (10 years or more) and we won’t buy new again. I’d get rid of one car if I could find a feasable way to accomplish errands without a car during the day. Biking isn’t safe for the route my husband has to take and he takes our eldest son to school with him in the mornings. Given enough time, however, I can bike to my part-time job at least part (or most) of the year. Working on that…
  • We take mostly driving vacations and usually fairly local in-state ones 

I could do more. And, I’m working on it. I need to take this much more seriously. It weighs on me. Every time I do something like throw away the last of the cherry tomatoes that didn’t get eaten or put another load of laundry in the dryer, I see Sharon Astyk peeking over my shoulder sadly shaking her head.

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The Egg Experiment

This year, after 10 years of being a vegan, I embarked on the Great Egg Experiment. The factors leading up to this were two-fold. First, I had grown extremely skinny. The kind of skinny that isn’t attractive on most women. I felt gaunt, bordering on holocaust victim in appearance. This comes, perhaps, from a combination of nursing on a constant basis for the last five years, chasing after two kids, and my natural propensity for leanness. It’s not for lack of good food, I assure you. I’m a great cook and make nearly everything from scratch. However, a vegan diet is not calorie dense. It takes fairly large quantities of food to even get close to 2000 calories a day. Second, this spring, after reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and a handful of other books about eating locally and raising your own, I was inspired to research the possiblity of keeping our own hens for eggs.

I picked out possible names: Midred, Bessy, Turtle. I searched the Web for sites on backyard chicken-keeping. I talked to neighbors about the prospect of adding a few hens to our yard. I checked out ever book from the library on chickens that I could find. I made plans for the perfect coop. I dreamed of all of the recipes I could now make that simply cannot be adapted to vegan – brioche, popovers, eclaires. I envisioned quick fried-egg sandwiches for lunch and hard-boiled eggs for snacks. I would gain a few healthy pounds. I would join the ranks of true urban homesteaders. If my husband hadn’t put the kabosh on the project, there would likely be three hens happily pecking around in my back yard right now.  

We decided to take baby steps. Just to test whether I could become an egg eater after nearly 10 years as a vegan, we found a local source on Craigslist for humanely raised, organic, truly free-range eggs. I talked to the lady on the phone and she understood my dilemma and welcomed me to bring my family to see her hens and decide for myself. She had started with what was supposed to be 25 chicks from a mail-order hatchery (something I don’t really support), but instead, 50 chicks had arrived. Now, she had about 100 because she let a few of the hens raise chicks each year. She had one rooster who mostly lived apart from the hens. She said she never killed the hens and that even after they were retired from egg-laying, they lived out their natural lives with her. She took them to the vet when they were sick and she found homes for any cockerels that she hatched out, though she couldn’t say honestly what their ultimate fate was. 

It sounded like the most ethically sound operation I could possibly hope for, other than raising my own hens who had been “adopted” from a farmer who no longer wanted them. The kids, to say the least, were excited to see so many chickens. One faithfully followed Cedar, my four year old, around the back yard step-for-step. The “yard” appeared to be several acres, including a wooded ravine area where most of  the chickens were milling about. Despite the number of chickens, there was no odor and the yard and hen houses were immaculate. Just a few smatterings of chicken poo here and there, which would be expected. The chickens all looked healthy and happy and we even went into the hen houses and observed a few hens laying. The lady picked up one of the hens who had been purring at her for attention and stroked it while we made the tour. We left with six eggs (her refrigerator was overflowing with them!) for $1.50. 

I talked with my sons about how beautiful the eggs were  – some white, some brown. On the car ride home, they held them carefully as if they were jewels.  

I should tell you that I have a “thing” for chickens. They are cute in a obsurd, exotic way. Reptilian feet to match reptilian eyes, jerky head tilts, poufs of feathers. I have chicken stationery and chicken stickers to match. I get books from the library about exotic breeds of chickens. I am predisposed to imagining myself as one who keeps hens. I do not, as it turns out, particularly enjoy eating eggs. 

We tried them in pancakes. We sampled them scrambled. My husband and kids weren’t thrilled. In fact, I think the kids maybe had one bite each. My husband, to humor me, ate them, but without any enjoyment. We then bought a dozen more to dye for Easter – something we’ve never done as a vegan family. The kids loved that. Then, mommy ate a few of the hard boiled eggs. Surprisingly, this was how I liked them best. 

In the end, I think we had about three raw eggs that sat in the refrigerator for two months until I finally threw them in the compost pile.  The reality is that I wanted the hens more than I wanted the eggs. I still do. I guess I’m just “too far gone” to undo being vegan on a permanent basis. I’m sure many vegans, if there are any reading this, are appalled. But I wanted to test whether there was such a thing as an ethical egg – there is (see below). And, whether it’s possible to be an imperfect vegan and still be able to live with myself. I find, I can. 

Perhaps, one of these days, I’ll attempt the grand experiment again…maybe next Easter. But mostly, I just want a few hens to keep me company in the garden.

Ethical egg:

  • adopt unwanted hens from a local farmer (thus saving them from slaughter?)
  • provide hens with all of the henly amenities (good food, forage, free range to stretch wings and legs and be chickenly, warm coop for safety and cold weather, love)
  • keep hens for their natural life span
  • if the chickens produce eggs, either eat them, feed them to cats, or compost them
  • use manure in garden

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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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