Nothing like an injury to bring you up short, and make you reassess. It’s been six months since I hurt my knee, and with lots of gingerly stepping here and there, and physical therapy under my belt, I feel ready to spring into action…he, he well sort of. Over winter, with more time to think, and pretend to be wiser, I have come to the conclusion that I need to, want to, cut back on my gardening endeavors. A variety of factors came together in my mind this winter, perusing garden notes, pantry inventory, and just plain being tired of being stressed out about weeding, etc., brought to my current garden plan of cutting back in some ways and changing how I am gardening. I grew a lot of food last year that we just didn’t eat. Sure I can feed the surplus food to the hens or now the piglets, but in reality it represents waste, and a waste of effort that may be better spent in other areas.
I am going to make good on my yearly threat of using half my space for gardening and half my space for fallow/cover cropping. Using drip irrigation last year was a freeing practice. After years of doing dryland and bioextensive gardening, I am ready to
give up change to more intensive plantings and drip irrigation.
My experiment with sudan grass last year as a winter-kill cover crop was the cat’s meow. So much biomass and so dead. I am weary of green manures that never die. Too much tillage, and always the potential that you get a wet year and end up with cover crop like this back one in 2010. No thanks.
Intensive is the word this year. I quickly learned last year that I was still planting too much at one time despite my strict succession planting schedule. Tiny baby seeds are so innocent, even tiny plants are innocent, my biggest downfall was harvesting and processing, those innocent little seeds and transplants grow up to be big demanding plants. So this year, I may plant as many plants or row feet of a vegetable over the course of the growing season, but I am going to break the successions into smaller bites. Smaller bites means less to harvest and freeze or eat, and represents a change in my mindset of freezing 10 gallons of snap peas (or whatever), I may end up with 10 gallons, but they will be in more manageable quantities spread out over time, not several gallons at a whack.
So without further ado, here are my plans (not set in stone, my family still doesn’t believe that I will actually plant less) but I’m pretty much sticking to the paradigm shift and breathing a sigh of relief. One less guilt trip to contend with. I’ll start with the main garden pictured above and just move from west to east to give you an idea of our layout. I use my tiller for my bed shaping/row width so in my garden binder I just use ruled notebook paper, and each line represents a row. It’s easy to jot down variety notes and dates with this format, and the margins are wide enough for more long-winded notations. This garden has nine rows including the fallow outside rows, leaving seven rows to plant if we choose. In this garden we will only plant two rows and work on stale seedbeds (weed the soil not the crop) for the remaining rows and sow to a late summer sudan/field pea cover crop for winter.
Next up is Greenhouse 1, we usually start planting in this greenhouse because it has power, and we can consolidate seed starting and planting. It’s a nice space to be in during late winter, while unheated there is still some solar gain even on a cloudy Pacific Northwest winter day. We treat this growing space just like an early garden, greens successions, early potatoes, snap pea, carrots and beets planted in successions, and some summer onions like Walla Walla Sweets and Red Long of Tropea that can just be harvested as needed.
Sugar Sprint peas from transplants.
This entire row is devoted to quick succession salad blocks, and some later maturing early cabbages, kale and broccoli. I just move south down the row when the next succession is ready for transplanting, in this row is arugula, tokyo bekana, joi choi, kohlrabi, cabbages (3 varieties), kale (4 varieties) broccoli, and one small block of romaine lettuce. As blocks age out, I will just amend and plant again to a fast growing crop.
Directly adjacent is Greenhouse 2, which suits warm weather crops better, although I do grow some cool weather crops in here on occasion. This greenhouse has six rows also to play with. The plan this year is to work on the cleaning up the weed bank in rows one and six and planting those to overwinter brassicas. Not so much for winter protection because the poly will come off come November, but more to neaten up the outside garden space and allow us to plant a complete cover crop outside, without a row in the middle needing harvesting.
In order to use plastic mulch and drip irrigation we prepared the entire space even though we have only planted about two and a half rows. The tomatoes (red row) and strawberries are all planted, and a few zucchini and slicing cucumbers are planted in the cucurbit row, leaving room for later successions of melons, butternut squash and a few more cucumber plants at a later date. I have to say I am not entirely convinced that the red mulch makes a difference over other colors, but I have a roll of it, and I am determined to use it up. Truth be told, I am so enamored with the results of the Sunbelt weed barrier I am using, that I will at some point probably invest in that, something that can be used for many years.
The final space is our square garden that consists of twenty-two rows, and will be easy to divide in half. One half will be planted, and the other half fallowed and cover cropped. Next year we can swap. The plan is to plant less potatoes and winter squash, and probably skip a year of flint corn, since we just didn’t eat as much of those items this past winter. The jury is still out on sweet corn too, I’ve got two months to decide on that one, and possibly the corn space just may go to popcorn this year.
So the plan is loose, but it feels right at least for this year. As long as I take care of my garden space by cover cropping, it would be easy to scale up if the need arises. Even though I will be doing less gardening it is kind of exciting to be doing something different with the garden spaces this year.
All those little tiny seeds I wrote about back in February had to be dealt with this past week. Either by transplanting in their final home or in the case of teeny tiny little herbs and flowers, potted up to the next size with fresh soil.
A true testament to how wet our winter has been, it took almost two weeks for the soil to dry out enough for basic tillage after reinstalling the poly cover. Last year after our extremely dry winter, the soil dried out in about 5 days.
I experimented last year with sorghum sudan grass as a cover crop in the greenhouse and in part of the garden. My early planting in the greenhouse was perfect, it supplied a good smother in late summer early fall and kept weed seeds from germinating or getting much of a foot hold and grew tall enough to provide a good amount of biomass. One note of interest is that an early summer cover crop of buckwheat suppressed the growth of the following sorghum sudan cover crop. The sorghum sudan on that side germinated fine, but grew much slower and was about twelve inches shorter than the side of the greenhouse that had grown vegetables all spring and summer when the first hard frost knocked it out.
A weather year like this is pretty typical, and where the greenhouse really shines as garden. Going back through my garden notes, some years we haven’t been able to plant outside until mid or even late June, more typical though is mid to late May. Two or three months on the early end is a lot of season extension, and well worth the expense if you want to avoid going to the store for your produce, and you like to garden. A recent ad in our farm paper for hoop houses like these were priced from $1.20 to $2.00 per square foot depending on style. Not bad considering how much food you can grow in a structure like these during the shoulder seasons.
Early potatoes – Dark Red Norland, and Desireé
Tokyo Bekana Chinese cabbage
Joi Choi Bok Choy
Parris Island Romaine lettuce
Almost Black & Chocolate Flake Sweet Pea
Detroit Dark Red beets
Gem Marigolds – Red, Tangerine, Lemon
Chocolate Lace Queen Anne’s Lace
Now that seeding and planting season has begun, my goal is to start or plant something each week.
Now that my daughter and I wrestled the plastic back on one greenhouse – ugh – we are waiting for the soil to dry enough to work for planting, and for a day when we have more help for the next one. Too. Much. Work.
The sorghum sudan cover crop winter killed as I had hoped and really protected the soil from our heavy winter rains. In December we received 25.4″ of rain, it’s a blur now, but I don’t think we had more than a handful of days without rain that month.
Plants I seeded in early February are almost ready to transplant in the ground or be potted on in the case of slow growers like herbs and flowers.
Heat mat real estate is at a premium so I have to be on my toes when planning how to best use the heat mat to my advantage. The heat mats I have utilize 1020 flats, which means the flats are 10 x 20 inches. You can purchase inserts with many different cell sizes to maximize the use of each flat. I most commonly use 200 cell, and six-pack size that give me 48 cells per flat. Determining cell size depends on what each type of plant needs. Or actually how long that seedling going to be in the cell before you transplant or pot on is the most important. The heat mat supplies bottom heat for germination and usually runs about 20°F more than the ambient temperature. We start our seeds in an unheated greenhouse, where the temperature ranges from 30°F at night to as high as 100°F during the day with a few sun breaks. We don’t use a thermostat, so we have to rely on our wits and paying attention to the weather to keep from freezing or burning up our plants. Most days the heat mat is off due to higher temperatures during the day even if it’s cloudy or rainy. Definitely not a hands off system.
My goal always is to get the seeds germinated and off the heat mat as soon as possible and use that heat mat space to start more plants. If I use the 200 cell flats as opposed to the 48 cell for instance I can start 200 plants in the same time that I can start 48, and the sooner you can get the flats off the heat mat, the less it costs to use the heat mat. To make sure I am not wasting time though by being so efficient with my 200 cell inserts, I have to make sure I group my seeds in groups of plants that need the same temperatures to germinate and most importantly, seeds that have the same germination times. I does me no good to plant slow germinating celeriac that may take 21 days to germinate in the same insert with quick germinating bok choy or something of that nature. To remedy this, I simply took some of my 200 cell packs and cut them in half length-wise to give me 100 cells, and that will take up only half the flat. Many times I use the home-made 100’s with each other and simply remove the fast germinating 100 insert when it’s time, and then I can replace it with another, or 6 packs and still use that heat or actually not waste it.
Size does matter in determining what and how many seeds to plant. Fast germinating and fast growing peas can be started in a 200 cell insert too, we just need to move them out sooner than some other plants. By starting peas in a flat instead of direct seeding we can shave off about a week of worry in case the weather turns on us. With a hoophouse you make your own weather, so to speak. And a 200 cell flat works out perfect for our pea system. We use hog panels for pea trellising, simple to move and install, a couple of t-posts and some scrap twine and you have an instant trellis that lasts for years, and can even keep a hog in too. Note: if you are growing tall peas you might want to use a cattle panel to give your peas enough trellis height.
Hog and cattle panels come in 16′ lengths, and it just so happens that 32 row feet of peas (a row on each side of the panel) is about all I can keep up picking during the growing season. So how many peas do I need? First I determine plant spacing which can be found either on the seed packet or in a seed catalog under the culture box. I usually plant peas about 2″ apart, so I need to know how many inches I have to work with. I figure it out like this: 16′ (hog panel length) x 12″ (number of inches per foot) = 192″ / 2″ = 96″ Perfect, I need 96 pea plugs (or seeds if direct seeding) per side of my hog panel trellis. If you round up, and I always do with live things, a 200 count cell insert is perfect for pea starting. Simplified, one flat of 200 starts is needed for each panel, this is good to know if I want to increase my plantings, or if I need to squeeze another succession of peas in on the heat mat. I could use less cells and give the peas more room, but then I would need 2 or 3 more flats to germinate the same amount of starts.
Our peas we planted the other day are already showing signs of germinating, so we really have gained about a week with just this crop alone.
I learned my lesson long ago to not be in too much of a hurry, one year with grow lights on my plants allowed me to start plants too early. I ended up with a lot of plants and cool, inclement weather. Now I wait until our greenhouse has enough natural light to sustain the seedlings and it seems to coincide with proper conditions for planting when the plants are ready.
A couple of rules I stick by:
♥ Organic potting soil for seed starting. It has a little bit of organic fertilizer and when the plants get started they don’t miss a beat. It also is less troublesome than seed starting mix when it comes time to keep the flats properly watered. For plants that will be in the cells for a month or so, we add extra fertilizer to the mix before filling the flats.
♥ I make sure my heat mat is working before I want to start seeds. Hard lesson learned by the Queen of Procrastination.
♥ I buy extra and seed more than I think I need so in case of some type of failure, I will have enough plants to fit my planting plans.
♥ Keep good garden notes, so I can see what worked and what didn’t.
I think the hardest part of writing a blog post is a conclusion…no way to conclude a post about seed starting except to say Happy Seed Starting!
I think if I were ever to write a book, it would be about teaching people to discern deliberately about farmsteading, or how to live a more deliberate life. When we realize that three generations ago, many people were involved in some way with growing their food, or at least preserving it, it’s easy to see how we have lost our way. On our journey to specialization and simplification we have lost many nuances of living close to the land. It’s a no-brainer for me to understand why Jane can’t be on deep bedding, but my beef cows can, to the casual observer though, Jane and my beef cows are cattle, and need the same things. That’s true in the vaguest sense, but that is like saying a Prius and a 3/4 ton farm pickup are vehicles and can be used for the same thing. Following me? I don’t say this to sound condescending, we all know what we know, I know a lot about farmsteading, and home economics, other stuff not so much. But I have seen that many times people assume that farmers are dumb, and that you can just start out with a piece of land and farm and grow your own food, it’s easy right? What’s to know? We all still have to put in our 10,000 hours making mistakes along the way.
What does any of this have to do with a well-stocked pantry or larder? A lot. Our larder is just an offshoot of how we live and farm, and our location. The larder will also be a reflection of how you cook and eat. We prefer moderation. I don’t want to can everything, or dehydrate everything, ferment everything, freeze everything or eat everything raw. So we do some of all things, canning, drying, fermenting, freezing, storing and fresh. Many dishes from our kitchen are a combination of all these “preservation” methods.
(I should probably go out on a limb here and say we are not concerned with being “off-grid” except with our food supplies. I have friends who say they are off-grid because their freezers are kept at a friend’s house and they pay a portion on the electric bill, I also have another friend who claims to be energy conscious by only keeping a small freezer for their preserved garden goods and purchased meats, but when pushed they cop to eating rotisserie chicken and many meals away from their home. I guess I believe that it takes a certain amount of energy to prop up a human, if you buy food at the store, that food is still being kept fresh, frozen or stored on a shelf that is maintained by the grid. So yes, you may have a small electric or gas bill, but a portion of your food is still using the grid, you just are paying for it each time you go to the store or restaurant.)
So how does one pull that off meals that come from all your different stores? You get creative, and you learn what and how to store food in many different ways. It helps that we live in a great climate for year round harvesting, that is if you like root crops and members of the cole family. Pictured above is the bok choy in the first photo, above it are the first starts (hanging on their mouse-proof shelf) of the parade of successions that will be planted soon. This is the hardest part of the year, the days are getting longer and last fall’s plantings of brassicas are starting to bolt, and the days are still short enough that new plants are growing slowly. Hurry up and wait. I don’t want to damage the new young plants by harvesting leaves, since they need all the leaf surface they can muster to grow larger, and we have to practically gorge (darn) on the bok choy, kale and cabbage before they get bitter.
Yesterday’s greens harvest became this morning’s breakfast, along with some fried eggs. But to prepare this breakfast, I had to be mindful last July and start those kale seeds, then again in August I had to start the bok choy. Then you say a little prayer to yourself or whoever will listen, and you do your darnedest to watch over those winter garden plants as if your next meal depended on it.
You also make a backup plan. This is where canning and freezing come in. Some foods just taste better canned than frozen. Dark cherries canned, while not fresh, taste much better than their frozen counterparts, probably due to the fact that you leave the aromatic pit in and after some time in the jar, that almond flavor seeps into the cherries and juice and is a great wintertime treat. Canned carrots? Yeah, not my favorite to eat since we can harvest them weekly from the garden all winter long and not bother with canning them.
But as a convenience food (convenience as in cooked, not necessarily heat and eat) coupled with frozen cooked chicken, I have the beginnings of chicken curry potpie, which we love. I for one am not convinced that cooked food is dead food. Explain to me the difference in this jar of carrots, that were dug fresh, prepped and processed for 25 minutes in a pressure canner from carrots that were prepped and cooked in a stew for hours on the stove? A friend recently told me about trying a low oxylate diet that was helping with some of her food issues, so I looked into it, and was surprised to see that boiled carrots were lower in oxylates than raw? Which I think proves there are so many things we don’t know about the foods we eat, and what effect they have on our bodies. Taking a moderation approach to how we preserve or not is well worth looking at, me thinks.
I am fortunate that I live in an old farmhouse that was built in the era of home food storage. These days of central heating and cooling along with the supermarket and refrigerated space have taken the food storage component out of house design. Couple that inconvenient truth with the fact that most people don’t know what type of food stores well or how to store it, a well stocked larder can be somewhat of a conundrum.
What we store and where:
Unheated bedroom – Winter squash, dry beans in glass jars, dry corn in mesh bags, seeds in plastic storage boxes or totes.
Ferments are in a category themselves, room temperature, basement refrigerator? Personal preference takes over on that.
The easiest storage method in our climate for many things is the garden. Unless we get a doozy of a winter, most years we can leave carrots, beets, kale, cabbage, celeriac, parsnips, leeks, rutabagas and turnips in the ground and harvest as needed. While I know that can’t be duplicated everywhere, it’s worth pointing out for folks that are new to gardening or to the Pacific Northwest in general. But, if you don’t feel comfortable leaving root crops to chance, you can always root cellar, or put up in some way.
Long term food storage is not a bad idea, each system has it’s weak points, our weakest point is our freezers. I guess in the long run being prepared is what comes into play. I could can our meat in the case of a power loss, I have enough canning lids, jars, and propane to do that on a Camp Chef. Meat is one of those things that you just don’t go out and harvest fresh like a salad. On the vegetable side we are continually trying to close the gap in our succession planting. Insurance comes in the way of some frozen vegetables in case we can’t harvest fresh, and retraining our supermarket/restaurant thinking away from the green salad every day days to more roasted root salads, or braised greens. For us, it’s a continuing journey that is constantly changing bit by bit each year.
It’s no secret that a big part of our “pantry” utilizes freezers. Of course cute photos of sweet porkers, chicks and calfies make for better blog viewing. Freezer pictures are a little boring, actually.
But this is the reality on the farm, the meat and other food items end up here. Growing up we had a small freezer, and kept the bulk of our meat, and frozen produce at the locker. Six miles away. Inconvenient as heck, except that my mom did the books for the store that served as the country store, butcher and locker, so you would assume that she would grab something from the locker while she was there on Saturdays doing the accounting. What happened though is that no one ever wanted to go to the cold locker and get all the unidentifiable stuff stored there. My mom worked full-time in town, so to stop at the locker on the way home in your town clothes was not a favorite thing either. Subsequently, I
think know a lot of what went in that locker got thrown away each year when butchering and harvesting time came. As we all know, its hard to stop that preserving train once its left the station. I swear my brother and I got more laughs out of trying to figure out what those unrecognizable globs of stuff were, since we were tasked to go to the locker and “make room”. At least the meat was properly wrapped and marked so it was clear what year it was from. Needless to say our dogs ate well… . (I think my mom invented meatless Monday, we just didn’t think it was cool, because really, when you raise beef cows… . Just sayin’) The locker wasn’t free either, I can’t remember what the monthly rental was, but we had three, and they were terribly hard to deal with, it was colder than you know what in there, and it was like an archaeological dig in an ice field to find what you might be looking for.
As for having all our eggs in one basket, I worry way less about our freezers in the event of some disaster. Mostly because that little country store changed hands several times, and I still kept that locker rental going. Then the new owners decided to remodel and offered to keep our meat in their extra freezer there during the construction. One day we got a phone call, it seemed that all was copacetic until someone asked the store owner if they had a dead body in the basement. The dead body was our meat and theirs, someone had inadvertently unplugged the freezer during the remodel, and no one noticed. We decided to invest in a couple of freezers right then. So no, I don’t worry much. Stuff happens, my desire to eat canned meat is pretty low, compared to having it frozen and ready to be prepared as we choose.
Which brings me to some of the details of how and why we freeze some things and not others. To simplify the description of my preserving style, I would have to say my goal is to stock ingredients, whole foods, not prepared foods, including soups. I don’t keep freezer inventory, nor do I menu plan. It’s all in my head, and if something happens to me someday, it will be someone else doing the food keeping, they can keep records if they choose. Because we raise our own, we know there is an end to the supply, if we run out of something, we run out, we don’t just buy more to fill in the gap. Keeping a plan and inventory are just more chores that don’t change the fact of what is in the freezer. It frees my mind up in all actuality because I don’t need to “stick to the plan.” To make it easier on others around me, I keep the food somewhat sorted and labeled if the item is not obvious. Frozen broccoli needs no explanation, just the year, something like romesco sauce or pesto does need a label in addition to the year. Today I’ll concentrate on our freezer contents and follow-up on the next post with other items we can, store, or dehydrate.
What we freeze:
Beef, pork, chicken, soup bones, colostrum, butter, cheese, tallow, lard, bone broth, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, nectarines, melon, broccoli, cauliflower, romanesco, corn, mushrooms, snap peas, shell peas, corn, peppers, pesto, and romesco.
Without further ado here are boring pics of several of the freezers, taken with my phone so I didn’t get all the shelves in the photos. We have five freezers, I took photos of three. Of the other two, one is full of whole chickens, the other flotsam and jetsam for pet food, not much to see in those. Keep in mind these are freezers for a three person family that eats three meals every day from the farm. We probably eat out five times a year total.
This freezer is our most used one and is in our basement. Berries, butter, bacon are in here. We don’t eat bacon every day but I want to know where my bacon is all the time, since we stick to our rule of only eating bacon from the pig we harvest. I could eat bacon every day, but we like to think we’re being responsible nose to tail eaters by sticking to our guns on that. Do I get wistful when I see bacon on everything and in every flippin’ recipe? Yes, but that’s living pretty high on the hog even though bacon is on the bottom of the pig. I didn’t take a photo of the door, it contains bone broth, spices, flour, and colostrum frozen in various containers. I try to keep a spot open on one of the shelves to store things I might bring in from the other freezers that are in the shop. When I go shopping, it is to the shop.
I’d like to think I am organized, and have all my freezers empty before any harvesting starts, but ha ha, that never happens, except in the chicken freezer. This freezer has beef roasts and steaks on the top shelf (not shown), ground beef on the next two shelves, pork on the bottom shelf, and misc mostly bones for stock and some overflow frozen broccoli. I try to stick with my rule of meat below veggies and fruit, but to tell you the truth the only blood that gives me the willies is chicken blood, I would not care for that on my veggies or fruit, but beef and pork blood not so much. Still it’s a good idea to store meat below your vegetables and fruit.
This is the door to the same freezer, unrendered lard and tallow (Bee I feel ya, this is just a small portion of fat I need to render), soup bones and some ’14 cauliflower. I do freeze a goodly amount of broccoli and cauliflower, with the hopes we probably won’t need it as long as we keep our successions going. It’s easy to grow, blanch and freeze, so when the next crop comes in this usually goes to the hens. The dates really help with that, something I learned from those scarring locker experiences when I was a kid. I make stock each week, and find it easier to just store the bones and make stock as needed. But this is also a place where you could free up some freezer space by making your stock in one or two big batches, reducing and freezing or canning. We store chickens whole too, and break them down as we eat them. This again is a place to free up freezer space, by breaking down your chickens instead of storing the whole carcass. The way you approach your meals and meal prep really determines the manner in which you freeze your food.
This freezer has the oldest beef that we need to use first, mostly steaks, roasts, and organ meats and a few straggler ground beef packages. In the canning jar boxes are wide mouth half pints full of pesto, romesco, shell peas, & chopped garlic scapes. Bags of sliced nectarines, whole strawberries, and chopped peppers are in here also. I don’t bother with pre-freezing anything on a tray anymore before committing the item to the freezer bag, everything still comes out of the bag just fine in the amount needed. Part of that may stem too from skipping the washing step since we are harvesting our fruits here and bring them right in and put them in the freezer. There is nothing to wash off.
This the door to the same freezer, corn off the cob, sauteéd chanterelles, and some wild blackberries. Nothing too exciting, but very useful nonetheless. By using freezer jars, I have these items in pre-measured amounts that come in handy for cooking. One thing I do that might not work for folks that purchase their meat, is that I thaw out ground beef and pork and make breakfast sausage and then refreeze the sausage. I say it might not work because one time we were out of pork so I purchased some very expensive pork at the “best” natural food store meat counter and had the pork ground to order. It got that off-smell within three days, and was a little slimy. Which leads me to believe that even though this was organic pork it still was handled along with many other animals and contaminants in a large plant. Which also goes to show you that it’s not just what the animal was fed it is how the meat is handled after the animal is dead. I would eat a neighbors conventionally fed, small abattoir butchered meat before I would buy organic pork at the store. Lesson learned. Back to the as-needed sausage making thing, when I refreeze the sausage I freeze it in containers that hold about 5 days worth of breakfasts so we make sure we use it up in a timely manner just in case. I do the same with our chickens. I break down the carcass for three meals, a meal of oven fried wings, thighs and drumsticks, each breast is a meal, one for fajitas, one for stir-fry, and the backbone, wing tips and neck go into the stock pot and usually because I am sloppy on purpose with the knife I can pick one to two more cups of meat off the carcass when the stock is done, and that is reserved for chicken pot pie. Out of that chicken, usually the breasts go back into the freezer to be refrozen and used later in the week. Again, I don’t know if I should go out on a limb and recommend this method just because it works for me, but I’m throwing it out there in case you don’t want to spend a day breaking down 25 chickens. Mileage may vary.
Stay tuned for the next episode, I am off to take photos of what we’re eating in the hunger gap in the way of fresh food.
That pretty much sums up this farmers life. Growing, harvesting, preparing, eating and storing food. A not so delicate dance of decrepitude, as food starts to decay immediately upon harvest and many times in the case of winter gardening, overnight after a hard freeze. Sigh. Where to begin? It is a chicken and egg thing. Humans have engaged in stopping the spoilage of food since they started eating. These days we have it a little easier with refrigeration. I have no desire to be off-grid, so you won’t find any tips on how to get rid of your freezer or things like that. The grid we want to be off of is the supermarket food grid. I for one believe that you’re not saving any power by not storing more food in a home freezer and instead buying food at the store. No, we don’t grow everything we eat, but quite a bit of what we eat we do grow. Preserving takes many forms, freezing, a bit of canning, dehydrating, and fermenting all play a role in addition to eating fresh for many months, and growing specific crops that store well with added preservation tasks.
Our personal food system has evolved quite a bit as I alluded to in my last post. I grew up planting garden in May as soon as we could work the soil, then direct seeding everything just about, except tomatoes and pepper plants bought at the store. Then you would wait, you might get your first lettuce salad mid-July and the first ripe tomato in late August in our location. Meanwhile you concerned yourself with the march of fruits coming on, and those were preserved into canned fruit, jams, jellies, juice etc. I knew no one who dehydrated anything except Italian prunes when I was a kid. If you had a dairy cow, you would be churning the bounty of grassfed cream to beat the band and freezing your butter.
But, I think the biggest change in our preserving/eating habits has come about because we built a greenhouse for season extension. I know it may seem silly to some to build a structure to garden in, when maybe a cold frame or some wire hoops and row cover would work, but we just don’t have the heat units here to ripen several summer crops that we really like, so for us a greenhouse made the most sense, it’s pretty disappointing to babysit tomato plants all season and then as soon as the fall rains come, bam! Late blight.
Because it is serious garden real estate, we cram as many successions and different types of crops in the greenhouse as possible. Tomatoes take all summer to mature, and they provide shade and a microclimate in the greenhouse for cool weather crops too. In the photo above you see the tomatoes on the left and on the right a row of brassicas shaded from the hot afternoon sun and near the sidewall where a cool breeze blows. It may seem counter-intuitive to say the brassicas inside get a little more shade with the tomatoes and lower light due to the greenhouse poly. Make no mistake, it’s hot in there, but outside in the garden those brassicas might be in a real hot spot.
Another benefit of the greenhouse that didn’t dawn on us until reality slapped us on the face was that a greenhouse (as long as the doors are shut) is an excellent deer proof gardening space for some particularly sumptuous crops that eluded us for many years due to deer pressure. The sweetest to come to mind, is strawberries. Oh the joy, to have strawberries every week of the summer, instead of walking to the garden with colander in hand only to find that overnight the deer have eaten every last ripe strawberry! The next part of that saga is that deer
like love strawberry plants too as a chaser to their previous night’s strawberry drunk. It smarts a little to have to stop at the berry stand to buy overpriced non-organic strawberries, when you already spent $$ and countless hours of labor tending your crop.
In all honesty I had wanted a greenhouse for years. I had no idea how I would use it other than “to grow things.”
Now it’s our everything garden space from late winter through to late fall. We start our seeds in there, we start our first regular garden crops in there, and we use it as a hardening off space to transition tender transplants for their life in the outside gardens. Who knew?
Next a peek in the freezers to see what we can see.
Darn kids, give them a camera and of course they like to take photos of you when you’re not aware. I’m fair game I suppose, and since I don’t really look at the back of my head much, if at all, I was a little surprised to see I still had a fair bit of dark hair. I would like to think that I am a little wiser after all these years of gardening and larder stuffing. Each year I’m a little more satisfied with our food supply. Not worrying as much about food and how I store it as I used to be, and learning that being obsessed with clean food has a name, Orthorexia. You can read about it here. I’m probably in denial, but seeing these cool, vintage photos that I absolutely love, start to circulate on the interwebs really opened my eyes to how much my goals have changed in the last 15 years or so.
I love these old photos, but being someone who grew up with a fruit room exactly like these, I can see that the items while representative of the prowess of the makers, were staged for the photos, Gram’s Instagrams if you will. Food Styling for pantry nerds. Apples and cut rhubarb and potatoes exposed to the light? Onions, squash and possibly celery down in the corner? All those things would be present at a farm home, but most likely kept in different areas for the longest possible storage. Gramma knew dark was the name of the game for potato storage, a thing I failed to pick up on when my old burlap bags gave up the ghost, I used modern white plastic burlap bags like I use for my dahlia bulbs, and guess what? I ruined my potatoes, they turned green in the root cellar from the whiteness of the bags. Lesson learned, pay attention to detail.
This is our fruit room, or actually one side of it, and I have actually seen it stuffed to the gills before with home canned goods from the garden and orchard. I’ve even stuffed it a few times myself. Those old root cellar photos used to be my goal, now I can see them as historical photos showing what was happening then, not what I need to do now.
These days, the shelves hold more empty jars than full. We have changed the way we eat and garden. I still can a few things, but not near what I used to do. We just have lost all desire for canned fruit, except chunky applesauce. Ditto for most canned vegetables, but I still really like canned tomatoes in all their forms. I grew up with the idea you planted your garden and then you canned or froze everything you could harvest in long marathon canning sessions to put that sunlight in a jar for the dark days. Necessity, and much better than going to the store for sure. But these days, some things have changed or at least they have for us.
I think where the orthorexia comes in, is in the form of over-correction. Depending on who you talk to they will tell you that you must eat the way they do. Raw, vegan, vegetarian, paleo, omnivore, gluten-free, fermented, fresh, etc. I get the proselytizing about probiotics, but you have to realize we eat a lot of raw food and dirt each day already, we drink untreated spring water, and I get the avoidance of factory farming of animals. So we’ve preferred to take a moderate approach, and keep some of the old and the new ways of larder stocking. As much as I would like to erase plastic from my life, it’s nigh impossible to completely erase plastic in some form in the food storage arena.
I think if you go back through my blog you will find posts about making 10 gallons of sauerkraut at a time. That is how I learned to do it. Grow it, shred it, salt it, pack it, and you’re done. Sometimes unlearning one thing means you learn something new, or change what you’re doing a bit. Sauerkraut is a live food, what you put in the crock in November surely tastes much different than what you pull out in April… . The single most important thing about all these styles of eating and preserving? You and most of the household must like the product, no matter how good you believe it is for you or your family, if they don’t like it, it’s a wasted effort. None of us like lacto-fermented cucumbers, no matter how much brow beating we endure, we just don’t like them. So we move on. And we make and eat vinegar pickles, and we enjoy them, down to the very last piece in the jar. That is what makes all the work worth it.
So now I try each year to make some kraut out of fall cabbages, but smaller amounts, and just relax and enjoy smothered cabbage as a vegetable side dish. Succession planting of different types of cabbage that mature at different time allows us some freedom from the old way of putting up.
People change the way they eat because they grow weary of eating the same thing. By expanding my gardening season I can expand my pantry too. I know too some of you are thinking yeah, easy for you to say, you live in zone 8, so I say read some Eliot Coleman, he lives in Maine, same parallel as here but a much colder gardening zone. “Well, then ignore what I have to say and go with what works for you.” -Eliot Coleman His four season gardening techniques are not to be sneezed at no matter what zone you garden in. I would venture it’s more the idea of gardening year round that turns off lots of folks, more than their climate limitations. Many make a greenhouse work for them in cold climates, with added row cover they fashion a greenhouse within a greenhouse ala Coleman and his four season farm.
Now in February maybe I am tired of cooking and eating smothered cabbage, and if I planned my winter garden and planted it in late summer or early fall, and the weather cooperated, I can make fresh kraut now with fresh cabbage, carrots and stored garlic, instead of dreading the 10 gallon slog through the October kraut.
Gardeners are gamblers for sure. I know the supermarket is a sure bet, but seeds are cheap and I have learned for sure that if I don’t plant something, it is guaranteed I won’t be harvesting anything. So I plant. Sometimes the stars are aligned and we have great abundance, some times the fare is meager due to pests and weather, but it is there, and still a good alternative if you have just a little bit of space to devote to winter gardening.
I can’t say growing your own food will be guaranteed to be cheaper, many times it’s not. The labor and space required for growing, and drying down dried beans or corn for cornmeal may seem silly when you can just go to the store and purchase these items. And maybe a little orthorexia is in order, after all we should fear some things, but we shouldn’t paint ourselves into a corner either.
I hope the yearning for a full pantry like those depicted in the vintage photos never goes away, but rather the full pantry just takes on a different look.