“Recalculating the Cost of Living,” Emory Magazine, Spring 2012
Well, y’all, I did it! I installed a solar-powered rain barrel pump, my second wish on my wish list. It was surprisingly simple. Just plug in the battery, cut the hose to the proper length, connect a few wires, drop the hose and pump into the barrel, position the panel. Within two minutes I was pressing a button to see what would happen and I squirted myself with 13 psi of stinky rain barrel water. I laughed out loud with happy happy joy joy! What a wonderful way to celebrate Earth Day, don’t you think?
I have the solar panel anchored in the ground in a spot I think will get about 8 hours of sun in the morning through mid-afternoon, but I can move it if it doesn’t work. But here’s how it’s working now.
Now I start saving for beekeeping equipment. In the meantime, if you live near me, cover up your seedlings, because it’s supposed to get down in the thirties in the next few nights!
It isn’t like I don’t have enough to do, between a full-time job, a house, several gardens, ten chickens, a hyperactive Australian shepherd, a rather demanding and expressive calico cat, and a whole nother life as a musician. But I catch myself daydreaming about the same “I wants” over and over again. Some of them will come sooner and some in far-off futureland, but they all will become, at one point or another, part of my little claim in the homestead realm.
Honeybees: This one may come sooner than later. I’m still getting educated and will have to make some investments in equipment and bees, but I’d like to install a hive at my house, especially for the pollinators, and another one at my parents’ house up in the mountains where I grew up, so that I can have my sourwood honey. No, I haven’t discussed this with them. (Hi, Daddy! What do you think about some bees in the orchard?)
A solar-powered pump for my rain barrels: I love my 220 gallons of the wet, which I run into my garden via soaker hoses. But sometimes I’d like those hoses to flow with a little more oomph. And in my never-ending quest for energy independence, I want my oomph off the grid. Here’s the little gadget I long for. Look for it on a rain barrel near me before this growing season ends!
Angora Rabbits: You can hold them and snuggle them and comb and brush out their long, beautiful fur, which can then be spun into the softest yarn you’ve ever touched, which the can be knitted into the softest garments you have ever worn. Also, did you know that bunny poo can go straight from the bunny into the garden as an excellent fertilizer without risk of it being too “hot” for the vegetation? Bonus! I’m still doing my homework and research, and plus I probably should learn to spin.
Nigerian dwarf dairy goats: This one may be a longer-term project, like after I retire and therefore have plenty of time to care for and milk dairy goats every day. There are some definite challenges with goats, but then there is milk, cheese, more excellent poo, and general adorableness. They aren’t going to get scratched off my list any time soon.
What’s on your wish list?
Our hens are happy. They have lots of room to scratch and roam, a safe, comfortable, clean place to sleep at night, and an organic and very varied diet—especially right now, when they are getting lots of weeds and other goodies I have pulled from the garden. They also get regular affection, praise, and kitchen scraps from me.
Happy hens lay excellent eggs. And because our eggs have been especially beautiful and delicious this year, I’ve been putting them on just about everything. Here’s what I mean.
You may remember this one from before–our post-Italy minestrone.
This was back in the fall.
This was back in January, right after I brought home some smoked salmon from a work trip to Seattle.
And this was two weekends ago.
And this was just last week.
Put an egg on it!
The mild winter this year has meant a winter greens bonanza in my garden. Back in August I started kale, swiss chard, salad mixes, beets, arugula, and cilantro. Everything came up and thrived through the winter. The parsley just re-seeded itself.
I’m a big believer in late-summer plantings of cool season vegetables. Allowing them to winter over—to get a start in the early fall warmth and then kind of stop growing with colder weather and go into hibernation—brings them back with a vigor you don’t see in crops seeded in the spring. It’s something we southern gardeners can do more easily than the northern ones, and we should take full advantage. This year, the growing didn’t really stop, however. Everything just got hardier and more persistent through the cool weather.
Then as made that early turn into spring, things started to go a little crazy. Really, it started with the cilantro.
The parsley saw what was going on and decided to get in on the act.
I really have no idea what to do with that much parsley. And that’s just one of the many mounds that have volunteered.
I have been harvesting baby kale all winter long and eating it mostly fresh in smoothies, but the warm weather has instigated a sudden growth spurt.
I have been picking pounds and pounds of Swiss chard—I think my best crop ever. Here’s what I came inside with last Saturday.
And the salad greens.
The arugula thrived through the winter but bolted when the warm temps hit. The chickens, however, have chowed down on arugula blossoms, not to mention all the weeds I have been pulling up. It has made their egg yolks richly yellow, almost orange. We have all feasted on the greens of this season!
Longtime readers of this blog may recall my unfortunate run-in with a rat in my potting shed a couple of years ago. Ultimately, it was Rat: 1, Me: 0. The damn critter dug up and ate all my tender seedlings under the grow lights. I tried protecting what was left with duct-taped plastic covers, but the sauna that created was too much for them.
Until I can varmint-proof my potting shed (and I’m working on that!), I have had to move my seedling production center indoors. And this year, so far, so good, though I realized a little too late that the flats were too far away from the light, so my seedlings are a little leggy, but they will be ok. Here is my set-up.
I outfitted an old plastic parson’s bench that was in my attic (thank you, grandparents!) with heating mats and grow lights. Each flat goes on a mat, under a light. The flats stay covered with the clear plastic lids and the lights stay off and the mats on all the time until we achieve sproutage, at which point the covers come off and the lights and mats go onto a timer. On for 12 hours, off for 12 hours.
At that point, I also set up a small fan to blow a gentle breeze onto the seedlings. Air circulation helps them become hardy. No hothouse vegetables tolerated in my rough-and-tumble garden!
As the second set of leaves appears on the seedlings, I move them to the garden window in my kitchen, where they receive direct sunlight. An open window on nice days encourages them to get more comfortable with outdoor environments. And I constantly check the soil for moisture—too much leads to dampening off; too little turns them into microscopic twigs.
And as they mature, I move them into my Growcamp, my little greenhouse/covered garden. There they will harden off—that means they will gradually become accustomed to outdoor life—and hang out until all danger of frost has passed and they can go into the ground.
Here’s what’s in my flats this year, by the way:
- Three kinds of tomatoes
- Two kinds of sweet peppers
- Two kinds of hot peppers
- Three kinds of basil
- Two kinds of marigolds
- Two kinds of zinnias
- Pingtung Eggplant
Seeeeeeeedlings . . . whoah-oah-oah seeeeeeedlings . . .
The short answer is in Italy. Last month, my sweetie and I took eleven days to eat and drink our way across Tuscany and Umbria—a trip I have been fantasizing about for years. It wasn’t until a few months ago, however, that the stars finally aligned: timing, travel partner, finances.
One of the many lovely things about my sweetie is that he is as food-centric as I am, so the decision to fly into Rome and then immediately leave the city behind to find deliciousness in farms and villages was quick and easy.
So was the good eating itself. Our first stop was Orvieto, where we stopped into a small market shortly after we arrived and bought salami, bread, fruit, cheese, and wine, thinking that this would cover us for lunch for a few days. The proprietor smiled when we saw our purchases and poked a bit of gentle fun at the Americans: “Il cibo pronto, eh?” Ha. Yes, fast food—the only way to do it in the birthplace of Slow Food.
And so it began. Our pattern quickly became to grab a pastry and a caffe latte in the mornings, nom on our market goods throughout the day, and then either find or prepare a feast for dinner. That is where it became interesting. I found myself bringing my own habits from home to our routine in Italy: what could we find that would be fresh, in season, inexpensive, and absolutely delicious?
We began with lessons from the pros. The region is having its coldest winter in about three decades, and it had been snowing like crazy. Most of Orvieto was closed—either because it was the low season or because no one could get to work. Staggering a little from the combination of jetlag and icy cobblestones, we tromped around until we finally found an open place—Ristorante Piazza del Popolo. A gentleman seated us, took our order, poured our wine, went into the kitchen and prepared our food, and served it to us. We were the only guests in the restaurant, and Jostino, the owner/chef, was the only one working. The menu and the staff were limited due to the weather, but the meal was simple and perfect—I had a fennel and orange salad on greens, followed by a tagliatelle pasta with cinghiale, the local wild boar meat. The flavors were fresh and uncomplicated and light-handed. There was no garlic (a surprise to us—we thought garlic was the defining flavor of Italian food).
So we learned: find fresh, don’t overcomplicate, don’t worry about the garlic. And a couple of days later, in San Gimignano, we picked up pancetta, an onion, tomatoes, pasta. I had bought some fresh pecorino with black truffles in Pienza earlier in the day after reading somewhere that the pecorino of the region is creamier this time of year because the sheep are eating grass instead of hay. I stole a sprig of rosemary off a shrub on the side of the road during a walk (yes, still a forager!). We had a small apartment with a kitchen, so we put it all together – complete with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar stocked in the kitchen.
We had a few more blowout restaurant meals (especially worth noting was the incredible seafood feast we had in Bracciano with a friend of mine from college and her family), but we enjoyed our self-catering just as much. Apples, pears, more cheese, cinghiale prosciutto, fresh bread, spinach, mixed salad greens, more pasta, more wine. We would just dig out whatever we had — sometimes even just sitting in our tiny rental Fiat Panda, to stay warm — and picnic.
At some point during our indulgences, I remarked to my sweetie that the way we were eating on this trip was not all that different from the way we eat at home—fresh, local, seasonal, unprocessed. The main difference was the flavors we encountered by virtue of the locale. The cheese was fresher and creamier, truffles were much more plentiful and affordable, and cinghiale is certainly not easy to come by in Decatur.
But since we returned home we have taken a definite Tuscan and Umbrian turn in the kitchen. I found my old pasta maker, dusted it off, and put it into the sweetie’s hands, along with some all-purpose flour and a bunch of my girls’ eggs.
He figured it out and cranked out some fettuccine, which we combined with fresh kale from the garden and some local sausage I had in my freezer (nope, no garlic).
We walked up to the farmer’s market on the square, too, where I picked up some carrots and cabbage for a minestrone with barley and some aged pecorino with black truffles from Antico Mercante, purveyor of cheeses and cured meats from you-know-where. (I tried out my Italian on Franco. He didn’t seem terribly impressed.)
I used the rind of the cheese in the minestrone. Then I grilled a slice of homemade bread and poached an egg to go on top—just like the soup we had in a trattoria in Orvieto.