Thursday, February 28, 2008

How did I get here?

It is a snowy day here in Western North Carolina, as I find myself reflecting on where I come from, I am realizing that the choices that I make for my family are based not only on the state of the world today but on my own personal history.
When I was in kindergarten, my family went on a Sunday drive in the countryside on Long Island and stumbled on a goat farm. Now this was back in the 60's and there really was still some country left on Long Island in those days. I remember duck farms and potato farms and other small farms. But we managed to stumble on a goat place and stopped to check it out.. Well my Mom fell in love with the idea of raising goats. Funny how well I can remember that day even now. It was all she could talk about on the way home. But we lived in a township that did not allow farm animals and so began the search for a place where we could have goats. We had always had a big vegetable garden and I remember their first discovery of the hornworms on our tomato plants and the big stir that they caused. Mom and Dad gathered them in a jar and pulled out the reference books so that they could look them up and figure out what they were. So odd looking and morbidly fascinating to us kids. It's been 40 years and yet I still remember that jar and the writhing worms!
Anyway the talk at our house was all about goats after that Sunday drive and "back to the land" and homesteading and where could we do it. I love this part of the story! My parents decided that Pennsylvania sounded like a good place to "do this" and so they got a map of Pennsylvania and blindfolded Mom and she "stuck a pin in the map"! She landed on Middleburg, PA. And we went on our first of many farm hunting trips to Pennsylvania shortly after. We looked at farms in Middleburg and then other Pennsylvania towns and then into New England. Nothing was quite right and eventually another Sunday drive turned up a very old house in Sayville, NY also on Long Island (not far from our original place) that was in a township that did allow farm animals. It was an old center-hall colonial house build pre-revolution and had been in the same family ever since it was originally built. It had no electric and no plumbing, three outhouses out back, an old chicken shed and another big out building. I think it was an acre. They added all of the modern conveniences and my Dad, a cabinetmaker, faithfully restored each part of the house to the period that was built in. It was an amazing process of research and restoration. It was a combination genealogy and archeology project. Old houses always have a story to tell hidden in the construction techniques, add-ons and items lost in the floor boards or tucked away in other places. But add to all those clues, the house and shed were filled with old letters, magazines, newspapers, clothes and more. These people did not throw anything out and Mom was able to piece together the family history of these original inhabitants.
So our first family homestead was on a town lot in a small town setting. We had goats and chickens and a big organic garden. We kids always had our own garden plots that we were our responsibility. We ordered most of our seed from Gurneys back then. Each of us would choose one vegetable that we wanted to grow and we'd each also get several "penny packs". In those days Gurney would package for kids the "penny pack". It is not in their catalog anymore. But Dad always guessed that after a day of packaging seed they must have swept the floor to fill these "for kids only" packs as you never knew what you would get from these seeds. It was a magical things for a kid to have this wonderful mystery only to to be solved as the plants came up and revealed themselves.
Books like Grow It and Stocking Up and magazines like Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening were standard family reading.
Our in-town homestead continued on until I reached the 7th Grade when my parents became restless for that "back to the land" life. They had a real desire to "get out of the rat race" and move to the country.
We started this farm search, as we had begun the first hunt, in Middleburg, PA and there, nearly 10 years later, we found our place. It was an overgrown Christmas Tree farm where the land either went up or it went down.. not much level land there but it was 53 acres with a barn and other out buildings. The 100 year old covered over log house had electricity but no plumbing. Okay it had plumbing.... a hand pump in the kitchen, a galvanized wash tub in the "back room" for bathing, and an outhouse on the hill between the garden and the house.
Whenever I tell this story, I hear that old John Prine song running through my head..." Blow up your TV, throw away your paper, Go to the country, build you a home, Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches, ...." because that is just about what we did. No more TV, we grew most of our own vegetables in a terraced garden. Besides the goats, we raised chickens, ducks, and geese. We always had at least one beef calf and a pig or two for meat. We tried rabbit and strange but memorable things like beef tongue. For staples we shopped at the original Walnut Acres in PennsCreek, PA in our same county. (The original Walnut Acres, both the central Pennsylvania farm and the mail order food company founded in 1946 by organic pioneers Paul and Betty Keene, went out of business in the summer of 2000. The name and label is now owned by the Hain Celestial Group.)
This is how I spent my teenage years, milking and feeding the animals before school each day, helping in the garden and with the canning and preserving food for the winter. I am the oldest of five children and I know that I was often not a happy participant in this family experiment and way of life. But today, as I look at my life, I realize just how formative those years were in my view of the world and the choices that I now make for my family. When I look back into my deepest roots, I realize that my own urban plot and the path that I am on today first began in my family's homestead garden so many years ago.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Itching for Spring!

My young assistant (Rebecca age 6 and 3/4) and I spent last Sunday afternoon starting our seeds for the Spring planting. It is so exciting that it is finally time to get started! One of the most interesting parts for me was to gather together all of the containers that I have been saving to reuse for the seed starting. What an amazing array of cast-offs.

So what do I use you are wondering?!
1. My favorite seed starting containers are paper egg cartons. I get friends to save them for me so I have plenty. They make great "peat pots" and don't cost a thing. Four egg pots will fit comfortably in a plastic mushroom container (the 8 oz size). I like to label the mushroom container with a permanent marker, so I know what is what. If you label the egg carton part.. well it will eventually disappear even if you use permanent marker. (I speak from experience here!) I use the egg carton starters for seeds that I would ordinarily start in the garden but I want to get a jump start on the season and plant them sooner.. because you can plant the entire thing in the garden and not disturb the delicate roots. The paper carton does a great job of holding moisture so that the new seed starts stay nice and wet for initial sprouting.

2. Last year I purchased one of those make your "own peat pots out of newspaper thingies" (shown here in photo). I love it. I use it for planting things that will be around for a while before planting out in the garden...tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, tomatillos, etc. Here are some step by step photos.

First you cut newspaper strips to the right width and wrap them around the wooden cylinder.

Then, the newspaper that overlaps the base of the cylinder is folded in to create the bottom of the pot. With some practice you will find just the right place to start the folding in process for you to get a nice neat bottom that will be suitable for holding the soil in your little pot.

Next, the newspaper wrapped cylinder in pressed into the bottom disk of the wooden pot-making contraption. You press it in and twist with pressure 8 or 10 times around to get the bottom of the pot tightly wound.

Finally, you slip and gently twist your newspaper pot off the cylinder and presto! you have a free peat pot and have found another way to recycle newspaper for your garden and the planet!

Fill with soil and get those seeds started!

I must say that I take great delight in looking over the containers that I use for my seed starting. It it is veritable whose who in recycled containers and makes me feel good that these items will do my garden great good before being used up and sent on to their final place!
I find that the clear plastic "to-go" containers make mini-greenhouses as do the clear plastic lettuce containers from the grocery store. The mushroom containers and styrofoam packing trays are great under the both the egg carton pot and the newspaper pots.

Monday, February 25, 2008

More on the Rising Costs of Food

Yesterday, I stumbled on a blog called Food and Fuel in America. There are some eye-opening posts that have changed the way I think about buying food. When I need to buy food for my family, I want to buy as local as possible!
from the site....
The volatility of foreign oil poses an economic and security risk to the United States. Higher oil and gasoline prices impact all aspects of the economy. And with many Americans already feeling the pain of a slowing economy, these higher prices will continue to cause economic pain and suffering.
Source: Energy Information Agency, Department of Energy

This combined with another article in the Des Moines Register makes me even more convinced that gardening in the only way to save the family food budget.
from Corn isn't what's driving up the cost of food....
Corn prices have little effect on the cost of food. Only 19 cents of every dollar spent on food goes back to the farm, and corn is just a fraction of that 19 cents.

More than 80 cents goes to labor, transportation, energy, etc. Americans who are upset about prices should point their fingers at the effect of a 29-percent increase in energy costs in 2007.

That gobbled up more of the family budget than the 4.8 percent rise in food prices - only slightly above the general inflation rate.

Imagine that... only 19 percent of the cost of the food we buy actually goes back to the farm. When I garden, my food is not free. But I do know where it has come from, I get to make the choice of what tasty varieties I will have on my table, I get to walk out to the garden and pick dinner.. what looks good today, what is in season, and so on. It is empowering. And for me, any place in my life that I can find ways to empower myself is a big step. And if by empowering myself, I in turn empower the people whose lives mine touches, well, even bigger strides are made!

Friday, February 22, 2008

Food industry says prices headed up again in '08

Today I was pointed in the direction of this article from Raw Story.

USDA Chief Economist Joseph Glauber forecast that consumer food prices would rise 3.0 to 4.0 percent this year after a similar 4.0 percent hike in 2007.

He added that "overall retail food prices for 2008 to 2010 are expected to rise faster than the general inflation rate."
It is these very trends that intensify for me the importance of my garden project. If we all produced some of our own foods in our own yards for our own families, the impact from rising gas prices would not affect us in the same ways that they do when we are totally dependent on someone else to grow all of the food for our families! Growing our own along with choosing to buy locally produced meat and staples will minimize the impact we will each feel and support our local economies and be better for our environment!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Pondering the Lessons of Last Year's Garden

The seeds are coming, the seeds are coming! I love this time of year. It all starts with getting the catalogs....WOW! I requested SO many catalogs, I just could't help myself. Then the browsing through all those seed catalogs and the lists.. oh the lists.. what worked last year? and what do I want to add for this year? Where will I plant things? How will I rotate repeat crops from last season? It is quite a process and one that I really enjoy, an annual reflection time and a chance to start all over again. A gray day like today has me pondering the successes and lessons from last summer's garden. I like this chance to review the past and look forward to the future.
I ordered from Johnny's, Gurney's, Cook's Garden, Territorial, Burgess, and Wood Prairie. I think that almost everything that I have ordered is finally here except for the fruit trees and strawberries.
I decided that it was time to start my mini-orchard this year. So I'll be putting in three bush cherries, one 5-in-1 dwarf apple tree, and one "fruit cocktail" dwarf tree. The fruit cocktail tree has nectarines, peaches, plums, and apricots all one one tree... it seems a little weird to me but interesting.. so we will see how it does. Hard to imagine how cool it will look!

Last year I had SO many volunteer tomato plants from the year before that one of the things I decided to do this year is cut back on the number of tomato plants that I start. The volunteers were so productive and healthy that I want to leave room for them in the plan for this year. I have added a new variety or two and we'll just see. I also plan to plant the basil along with the tomatoes again as we did not see a single horn worm. I had read that basil would repel them.. and it seemed to work. I was amazed as I never in my life grew tomatoes that did not attract dozens of horn worms!
Look for more pondering in my next post.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Extreme Simplicity

Sometime last year I was at Malaprops (a most amazing locally owned book store) going through the garden books... can't help myself...Out jumped a book called Extreme Simplicity: Homesteading in the City by Christopher and Dolores Nyerges.
It rocked my world! No kidding. I opened the book and there it was.... my garden project, only bigger than I had even had a chance to dream up!

from the book...
"Simply put, we have chosen to live lightly on the earth right here in the city, and to do so in a way that represents solutions to the problems that today confront everyone. Our way of living more lightly on the earth has been described by many names: voluntary simplicity, living country in the city, an ecological lifestyle, and so forth. We regard what we do as practical survival."
The Nyerges have been at this since the mid-1980's at their home in Southern California. Check out their School of Self-Reliance.

More from the book....
"We have come to realize that it is not possible to change the world. It is hard enough work to change one's own thinking and to actually live one's life in a manner that represents a solution to at least some of the world's problems."
The book shares their many experiences while transforming their new home. "A duplex rental with a distant owner and careless tenants, the building had been sorely neglected." I loved reading about not only what they did, but how they did it and the philosophy behind the choices made. When the entire process is laid out, it is a gateway to really understanding a new way of looking at the world we share.

and again from the book....

"We regard our small urban homestead as a research station. Here we are able to try out many gardening, recycling, and building ideas to see if they will really work or if they need refining. We had endeavored to let our living home laboratory be truly an extension of our values and our thinking."
Extreme Simplicity is really worth a read if you are at all interested in how to create your own homestead in the city... no need to move to the country to make this happen! And they will show you how! They really are extreme! but take what you can use and don't worry about the rest... Every little step that we take on this path is SO worth the effort and is a big step away from our collective dependence on the gigantic corporate machine that does not have our best interests at heart no matter what they tell us!

Monday, February 11, 2008

Fallen Leaves

The sounds of leaf blowers ring through my neighborhood each Fall and well into the Winter months as my neighbors do battle with the bountiful harvest of fallen leaves. As a gardener, I think of it as noise pollution and a real waste of great compost material. Here it is February and I have been driving around the neighborhood gathering bags of leaves to bring back to my garden. I empty the bags out and run them over with my composting lawn mower. It makes a fabulous mulch. I could go on.. but you can READ MORE on Basic Leaf Mold @,7518,s-3-79-1273,00.html

If you can't get enough leaves from your yard and your neighbor's yards you can call the City and get them to bring you leaves! That's right... they will bring you leaves. I found the following at the City of Asheville website:

Delivery of Loose Leaves
Fresh leaves can be delivered to your home or business free of charge. Contact Customer Service at (828) 251-1122 to request a leaf delivery. When you call be ready to provide a name, phone number, number of loads and the location of where the leaves should be delivered within the city limits. The date of delivery is based upon when the trucks are in the delivery area collecting leaves. Check the schedule to determine when the leaves will be delivered in your area. If you have any questions or concerns about the above, please feel free to contact Customer Service at (828) 251-1122.

The Second Year of Garden Bliss

During the beginning of our second year, I still had some help for my garden partners. We expanded the vegetable plot to 47' X 48', double the first year! We re-did the fence to include the expanded area. But after ordering seed and getting our starts going, another gardening friend lost the place where she had gardened for 7 years. So began the rescue effort for S's garden. We got as many of her starts as we wanted along with a worm bin and shitake logs. Let me tell you, it was a bounty! J. was helping S. dig plants and move them and I was at the garden putting them in and preparing the expanded garden area for use. It was a busy few weeks but we salvaged great plants. I didn't initially get as much planted as I had planned but we still had 53 tomato plants, enough basil to still be eating pesto that I put up through the summer, dried hot peppers, tomatillo salsa, canned tomatoes. We just ate the last of the potatoes and the sweet potatoes and we are still working on the garlic and onions that I braided after our harvest.
Help in the garden got more and more sporadic and now J. has moved back to Georgia and I am on my own.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Recap of the First Year

So it all began over a pot of tea in December of 2005. J. had just moved from Atlanta and was living in an apartment just down the road from me. She was happy to be in Asheville but complaining that living in an apartment she didn't even have ground for a tomato plant... Me, I commiserated that while I had plenty of land to garden, I had no energy to get it started. We decided to pool our time and resources to get a garden going together.
We made our lists of what we wanted to grow and ordered seed from the Cooks Garden Seed Company in short order. By February we started our seeds...tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli, was SO exciting!
We spread
4' X 4' squares of old carpet out on the lawn to begin killing the grass. On Easter Sunday we rented a tiller and had a tilling party. We tilled a 47' X 24' area right out in the front yard. As well as a large bed to plant the strawberry plants I had gotten on Freecycle!
There was a post on Freecycle that week by a woman who said that she was tired of the weeding and up-keep on her strawberry bed and would someone please come and dig them up!
Well I got about 75 June-bearing plants. They transplanted well and are thriving.
We also planted our first 25 Asparagus crowns. Following instructions in one of our many gardening books, we prepared our asparagus bed deep to really establish healthy plants. As I planted each crown I said, "You will feed my family for the next 20 years! Thank you!" There was a real sense of ritual in planting asparagus. I had read that Thomas Jefferson's Asparagus Beds were still producing! That is inspiring.
So in the end we had 50 tomato plants and had an amazing harvest. The frozen and dried tomatoes fed us throughout the winter and until the harvest began again! We had lots of peppers and even a good crop of eggplants. The seeds from Cooks Garden were great. They offer great mixes of seed variety packs so we were able to grow a wide variety of both sweet and hot peppers without having to purchase lots of seed to get the variety. I really like that.
By the end of that first season I had planted 5 blueberry bushes: Patriot, Jersey and Bluecrop. We did battle with the rabbits and a few ground hogs, installed a fence and I built a number of raised beds. I also accidentally got an extended season....growing well into the winter with kale, arugula, swiss chard and a few hardy lettuce varieties. I still had these things growing and used some row covers to keep them going. We had greens from the garden all winter-long.

Some history to get started

Four and a half years ago I bought my little house in the Oakley area of downtown Asheville, North Carolina (photo is of front yard of my place just before I purchased it in August 2003). The house is small but the lot is immense by urban standards, just shy of a half-acre! And what a lot of lawn to mow... I immediately saw in my minds eye the potential to make my place an amazing eden of edible delights! But alas, as the solo parent of Rebecca Grace, professional 2 year old.. it was a daunting task to think about making this dream a reality.
So I paid a guy to come and mow every other week and every time I wrote that check for lawn care I wished for a way, the energy mostly, to get my dream going...
Well, 2 years later, a friend moved to Asheville from Atlanta.. and as we sipped tea in the height of the winter season we hatched a plan to garden together.. It did not seem so impossible now with the promise of help!
And so began the conversion of the unwanted lawn into a bountiful edible landscape. For the first two years of this garden adventure we operated loosely as a community garden. We invited other friends to participate and all shared in the work and the bounty. We had 3 committed partners the first year and it all worked pretty well... it was my land so I was the lead gardener and planner. In the second year, well the amount of time the other partners had to share diminished greatly and I found myself without help. It was more work for me but the rewards were great and oh so satisfying!
I wish that I had started a blog in the beginning of this project to really tell the story as it unfolded.. but better now than never!