Monthly Archives: July 2010

Gardening for the Long Haul

Recently I read about a guy in a big city who spent more than $10,000 to “buy” himself an urban farm for his yard: tons of imported top soil, seeds and seedlings (when his own failed), a chicken coop and chickens, a rabbit hutch and rabbits.

From the article it was clear he really had no idea what he was doing. His seedlings were light-deprived and leggy. His rabbits suffered maggot infestations and heat stroke. One of his children accidentally injured a duckling so badly that it had to be euthanized. His laying hen ate her own eggs. And that’s just for starters. But he spent a month eating only what he had grown and from that, landed a book contract.

This is an extreme example, and I am so turned off by the gimmick and extravagance — not to mention the suffering he caused his animals because he couldn’t be bothered to learn to care for them properly before purchasing them — that I won’t offer a name or location that might give him any sort of free publicity. But it seems indicative of a trend of “just-add-water” urban farms that has sprung up out of that classic American desire for instant gratification. In the Atlanta area alone I know of two companies who for a few hundred bucks will come to your home or business and install a garden complete with raised beds, lining, irrigation (the garden hose kind, not the recycled rainwater kind), soil, crops, and mulch.

A recently installed raised bed not doing so well.

They may be out there in plenty, but I have yet to see a successful installation of this sort. One company dropped some raised beds on the grounds of a new local business recently. They got a very late start in the season, however, and the plants, which are under-mulched, have been stunted by heat and drought. And a neighbor of mine purchased raised bed kits from a similar service, but the soil she received was so unbalanced that most of her summer vegetables didn’t make it.

It’s difficult to superimpose a garden on a place. It’s much easier to cultivate one from the ground up, but it takes longer. You enter into a commitment, an ever-evolving relationship with a piece of land, and you accept that your garden is never “done.” The blueberry bushes you planted five years ago are only now beginning to bear enough fruit to make a pie. The asparagus crowns you buried this year won’t provide harvestable spears until 2012.

Raised beds are a reasonable short-term concept, but you have to pay attention to the soil you put in — its nutrients, its pH — and you have to monitor and maintain it. When I dug out some sod and expanded my own vegetable garden two years ago, I knew that it would be several years before that newly cultivated soil was up to par. But I’m digging in for the long haul, and each year it gets a little better.

Unexpected gift 2010: green tomatillos

Please don’t misunderstand me: I want more people to learn to home garden and to reap its many gifts. But one of those gifts is the pleasure of delayed gratification. Insta-gardens may provide some insta-reward, but it is short-lived. You also learn to receive the gifts you are offered, rather than the ones you expect. This year I started some purple tomatillo seedlings, but they were ravaged by the rat in my shed, so no purple tomatillos for me. But last year I had such an abundance of green tomatillos that they reseeded themselves from the fruits that fell on the ground last year, and this spring I pulled up probably a hundred volunteer tomatillos in my garden, leaving four sturdy plants. And now I have another bumper crop of green tomatillos that I didn’t plan on, but boy is it beautiful, as is my salsa verde.

I picked these figs last week from a tree that has been in my yard longer than the sixteen years I have lived here. The best thing that's ever happened to it was a tree falling on it during Hurricane Opal in 1995. The perfect natural pruning job improved its production.

Another gift is deep knowledge of a single place accumulated over time. Some years are better for some crops than other years, and history gives you a unique understanding of how things grow. This year, because of our rainy spring, was the fruit year. Last year it was tomatoes and tomatillos. I still think longingly back to the summer eight years ago when my basil plants — for reasons I still don’t understand — grew 3 1/2 feet tall. And you learn through the years to watch how your garden changes, and you adjust accordingly. The trees in my neighbors’ yards have finally grown so much that they throw too much shade over my back bed, so this will be the last year for a summer garden back there. It will be a fine spot, however, for some cool season crops to overwinter while the leaves are off the trees.

I realize not everyone will agree with my message here, and I don’t want to discourage anyone from installing raised beds. But I do encourage starting small and simple, seeing it not so much as a finished project but a beginning, and celebrating and building on successes.

Study your plot over time. Be at peace with some failure. Garden for the long haul, for deep knowledge and unexpected gifts.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Flockkeeping, Gardening

Peck A Little, Talk A Little: More Chicken Chat

Your pullets getting picked on? Wondering what makes a hen happy? Questions from backyard flockkeepers just keep pouring in! Here is the second installment of Chicken Chat.

Q: Any advice on our pullets? They hide in the coop ALL DAY LONG, and appear only to eat and drink when I close the door so that they have free rein in the coop. The big girls are so mean!

A: Give them time. You could try setting them out among the big girls in a cage for a few hours a day. But really it just takes time.

Follow-up: All right — we’ll try to be patient. The pullets must be bored out of their skulls.

A: Just remember how tiny those skulls are. They don’t require much entertainment. Throw them some extra handfuls of something tasty when you feed them and they’ll be thrilled.

Q: Someone just asked me how you can tell chickens are happy. If they’re not they won’t lay as much, right?

A: I think you can tell a lot from their general health and physical comfort. They also know when they are safe from predators. Those are two conditions of their well being, I’d say. Their laying rate is dependent on lots of things — weather, light, diet, breed, and age, for starters — so I don’t think you can really count on that as an indicator of hen happiness.

Can you tell which one is our egg and which is commercial?

Q: My next-door neighbor gave me some eggs from his chickies, and the one I prepared this morning (softboiled) had a very tangy and unpalatable taste. I only ate one bite and threw out the rest. Do you think it was something the chickens ate, or was the egg spoiled? It smelled fine, so I’m hoping no GI distress lies around the corner.

A: It’s said that if you let your chickens eat pungent foods such as cabbage and garlic and onions that it will flavor the eggs. We have kept these foods out of our birds’ diet and have never had strange-tasting eggs (at least to my palate). You might ask your neighbor if they’ve had any of those things in their diet.

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Filed under Community and Citizenship, Feasting, Flockkeeping

A Hill of Beans

Beans have so much going for them. They are very easy to grow. There are countless varieties. Countless ways to preserve them and prepare them. Combine them with a grain and you have a perfect protein (which is great for vegetarians). Like all legumes, they gift the soil with nitrogen.

And they are tasty!

Because some areas of my garden are relatively new and the soil could use some help, I planted lots of beans this year. I generally like bush varieties. I planted two rows of blue lake bush beans because they aren’t stringy and two rows of nickel French fillet beans because I love the delicate flavor and crunch of those skinny little beans (and they aren’t stringy). I also tried interplanting more blue lakes with my sweet corn, mimicking the old Native American “three sisters” concept of planting beans, corn, and squash together (my butternut squash went in off to the side of the corn and beans). This works because again, the beans give the corn nitrogen they need, and the beans also help stabilize the corn plants, which tend to blow over easily.

Then one Saturday afternoon in the spring I was listening to one of my favorite NPR programs, The Splendid Table, and the host was interviewing the author of a book about beans about his favorite beans. He mentioned the yellow Indian woman bean, an heirloom variety of a shelling bean that when cooked, he said, is “weirdly creamy.”  And like many heirloom vegetables, it comes with a cool back story—that the yellow Indian woman bean was grown and passed down for generations in a Swedish family that settled in Montana, where it is now commonly found in Native American communities. He also said it was very prolific.

Of course, I had to have some. I searched around and found that Seeds of Change sells the beans by the packet, so I ordered some (big mistake — one of my perennial complaints about Seeds of Change is that they are so chintzy with their quantities, yet what a price tag! I barely got enough to plant a row and a half. I should have ordered a pound of them from Rancho Gordo).

But it’s been a fun first foray into drying beans. I harvested about a pint of the beans, most of which I will save and plant again next year, in hopes of increasing my quantities. That’s another cool thing about heirlooms — saving those seeds! To harvest drying beans, you wait until the pods have turned brown on the vine. then you shuck them and stick the shucked and already-dry beans into the freezer for a few hours to kill any lingering fungus, then you just store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. Easy!

In the meantime, my blue lakes and nickel Frenches have been coming in. Some I have cooked and eaten fresh (here is my favorite recipe), and I spent several hours yesterday canning beans. You need a pressure canner for beans. Because beans are a low-acid food, the high temperatures achieved in a pressure canner are required to kill the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, which thrives in a low-acid environment and causes the deadly botulism. My pressure canner belonged to my mother, who got it from my paternal grandmother, who got it from her next-door neighbor right here in Decatur decades ago. My canner has come full circle.

I followed the directions in the Ball Blue Book of Home Canning (the basic instructions haven’t changed since my grandmother’s 1932 edition). After a five-minute boil of the five pints of beans, I packed them into the hot, sterilized jars and covered them with the water from the boiled beans, leaving about an inch of head space. Then I sealed them inside the canner, turned up the heat to get a flow of steam going through the valve for about ten minutes. Then I closed the valve to raise the pressure to ten pounds (that’s 240 degrees). Then using the heat on my stove to control the pressure level, I processed the beans for 20 minutes at a steady 10 pounds.

And aren’t they pretty? I added in a handful of yellow wax snap beans I received through my CSA, and I love the contrasting effect in the jars — like a little sprinkle of confetti. Months from now, when the days are short and I am longing for summer, I’ll open a jar of these and cook them long and low with a little hunk of peppered bacon I keep in the freezer. Or maybe I’ll toss the jar into the slow cooker with some tomatoes, potatoes, onions, chicken stock, a cube of frozen pesto, and whatever else I might have in the fridge or pantry at the moment for a batch of vegetable soup.

Please pass the cornbread!

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Filed under Feasting, Gardening, Putting Up