Monthly Archives: March 2010

Spring Garden Omnibus

Winter has finally given up on us, it would seem. The garden is coming out from hiding and has lots of news to share. Here’s an omnibus of what’s been happening lately.

The sugar snap peas are up. The thinnings were delicious in a stir-fry with broccoli, carrots, tofu, and a spicy peanut sauce with cilantro and chives.

I moved my seedlings indoors and away from the rat who has taken up residence in the potting shed, and I started over for the third time. Here’s hoping.

It’s been a grand winter for broccoli. I’ve begun taking out last fall’s plants and today planted new ones. The cilantro also wintered over magnificently, and I’ve been reaping the rewards almost daily.

Another overwintered showoff — the salad greens. Spectacular.

The strawberries I planted last spring are looking strong, and today I noticed the first two blossoms. Last year I pinched off every bloom in order to have stronger plants in the long run. I’m not good at delayed garden gratification, but good-n-plenty strawberries are worth it.

The Swiss chard I planted a few months ago is doing well. You can see the carrots right behind it that went in about the same time.

Other recent developments: Last weekend I seeded more chard, beets, radishes, and arugula directly into the ground. Today I put out some kale seedlings I bought from the Oakhurst Community Garden plant sale. And in the next few days (just as soon as I purchase some bean inoculant), I’m going to plant a new-to-me heirloom shelling bean variety I’m excited about: Indian woman yellow, it’s called.

Most thrilling of all, last weekend and this weekend, I buried seventeen asparagus crowns. I’m planning to devote a whole post soon to asparagus (I know — geek!), so I’ll save my thunder for now.

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Urban Farm Feminism

Recently an essay in the New York Times Magazine introduced me to a new word. Evidently, if you are a highly educated woman who left the workforce to be a stay-at-home mom, and you keep chickens and grow a garden, you are a “femivore.”

The writer, Peggy Orenstein, is responding to a new book, Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture by Shannon Hayes, who suggests that the still-blooming interest in sustainable living has provided, as Orenstein puts it, “an unexpected out from the feminist predicament, a way for women to embrace homemaking without becoming Betty Draper.” Hayes’s book, she writes, is “a manifesto for ‘tomato-canning feminists.’” Then Orenstein snarks, “Apparently it is no longer enough to know the name of the farm your eggs came from; now you need to know the name of the actual bird.”

It’s not her sarcasm that troubles me. It’s her cynicism. Orenstein almost — but not quite — uses the word “precious” to describe the endeavors of living more simply and sustainably. Ultimately she warns that the chicken coop can become like the gilded cage — just as much a trap. If the femivores are doing all the work and their husbands aren’t carrying their share (Hayes seems to think they do, while Orenstein sounds skeptical), there goes all our hard-earned freedom.

Hmm.

I am a tomato-canning feminist. But I’m not married, I don’t have children, and I have a busy professional career doing things I enjoy. Which, I suppose, knocks me out of the “femivore” category. But I keep chickens, grow a garden, preserve my produce, knit, make my own laundry detergent, and bake my own bread because I love doing those things, I love good food, and I’m as much an environmentalist and a cheapskate as I am a tomato-canning feminist. I don’t think Hayes is questioning your feminist cred if you don’t do them. I would still be a feminist even if I didn’t can tomatoes.

I can’t speak for stay-at-home moms (in my neighborhood, I like to think of them as the Powermoms, and trust me — they are awe-inspiring), but none of it feels like a trap to me. It feels like freedom. Empowerment, even. Mastering skills, lessening your environmental impact, and achieving greater self-sufficiency have that effect on some people.

And it’s an act of renunciation of a certain sort of consumer culture, as Hayes advocates. That, to me, also feels like freedom and power. While Orenstein implies — but again, doesn’t quite say — that my pursuits make me a kind of agrarian dilettante who “dabble[s] in backyard farming,” until the City of Decatur makes it legal for me to keep a herd of goats in my backyard, it’s what I can do, and it’s what I want to do. I’m grateful that I am able.

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Urban Homesteader, Baby Killer

It’s astonishing to me that something can be at once so strong yet so frail. Life stirs, cracks open a hard shell by sheer force of will, extends one reach downward into dense earth and another reach upward through layers of matter sometimes a hundred times as thick as its own self. It’s heroic, really. It also gives you a false sense of security.

I started a flat of seeds three weeks ago. Mixed my seed starter with some water, filled the cells with all that rich organic stuff, then carefully dropped a few seeds into each cell: chard, kale, salad greens, marigolds, zinnias. I covered them with the clear plastic topper, placed the flat on top of a warming mat (it was still about 20 degrees out), and positioned it carefully under a grow lamp set on a timer out in my garden shed, next to the chicken coop. The seeds did their heroic superstrength thing, and within a week and a half I had a flat full of tiny green seedlings craning their necks toward the light. Tah-daaaaah!

Ah, but. Here comes the frail part. Once they hit the surface, they are suddenly vulnerable. I think I must have a hungry varmint living in my garden shed, because a couple of days after the seedlings made their grand debut,  the plastic topper had been shoved awry, the soil had been dug through and tossed around, the seedlings munched to nothing.

So I started over, this time adding as second flat with tomatoes, peppers, and basil. And I taped the plastic tops down securely on the flats with a few pieces of duct tape. Ha-ha, varmints! Go munch some kudzu, why don’t you?

The duct tape seemed to have worked, but then we had a warm spell over the weekend—too warm for my seedlings, alas. Especially with the warming mats that I forgot to unplug. And under those plastic tops, it got downright wet and tropical in there. A regular rainforest.

But kale and chard don’t grow in the rainforest. They like a little heat and moisture to get them started, then cool them off and keep the air circulating, thank you very much. Otherwise, you get what I got, which is called “dampening off.” That warm, wet world incubated all manner of pathogens that attacked those vulnerable sprouts, and they just bowed their heads and keeled over. That’s right. I killed my babies.

Time to start over again. This time, less water and more air, and I’ll have to figure out a way to give them these things and still keep the varmints out. I believe I have some net left over from the Squirrel Proof Net Tent that might do the trick.

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When Chickens Sympose

I have to admit that when Oakhurst Community Garden director Stephanie Van Parys first uttered the words “Chicken Symposium” to me a few months ago, the image that popped into my brain was a gathering of chickens wearing little togas across their breasts and wreaths of laurel around their combs, sitting around an elegant Hellenic room reclined on pillows and sofas and wildly gesticulating with their wings, beaks open in passionate debate.

This is what a liberal arts education does for you (thank you, Professor Behan of intro philosophy). At least I keep myself amused.

Baby chicks for the raffle

I was even more amused when I arrived at the Decatur Recreation Center the morning of  February 6 to discover that, in fact, the chickens were right there in the mix. There were two bins of four-day-old chicks, plus Linda Hamilton’s array of fancy breeds (silkies, silver-laced wyandottes, and a few adorable little bantams that I wanted to steal!). And believe me, all of them had plenty to say.

Cute and cuddly bantam

Linda and her lovely ladies

And so did the speakers. It was a strong line-up. Jonathan Watts-Hull (who, I am proud to say, got his start after taking the first Chicks in the City class we ever offered and was our “star pupil”) led a session on “chicken chores,” Linda (who once took the class because she just wanted to meet some other folks interested in chickens) talked about breed selection, Andy “The Chicken Whisperer” Schneider was there to teach on illnesses and diseases, Veronique Perrot (also a class alumna) talked about how her chickens work for her in her garden. Greg Haney was there to talk about coop design. And I taught a session I called “Chicks Rule,” which was a crash course introduction to keeping chickens.

Taking questions, flapping wings

After two parallel tracks in the morning, we all gathered for some Q&A from the 50 or so folks who had signed up for the half-day symposium, eager to launch their flockkeeping careers. As you can see (below, center), I gesticulated wildly with my wings, beak open. And then the big excitement: a dozen folks went home with baby chicks to get them started!

So the first ever Chicken Symposium went off without a hitch, but with plenty of cackles, skwawks (hey! a palindrome!), and peeps. Can’t wait to hear what they have to say next year.

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