life as we make it

Farmer Fantasy…February Failure
February 22, 2010, 9:59 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In 2003, I bought a crackerbox house set on a large plot of blackberry, knotweed, and poison hemlock.  Six years of digging, hacking, and cursing have earned me a yard, foot by laborious foot.  Urbanite terraces, log stairs and railroad tie retaining walls now terraform our steep, uneven slope into a cascade of beds in various stages of cultivation.   I was garden gazing with friends by bonfire light on an August night last summer, when the work all at once paid off.  Wrought in battle and toil, the gardens were suddenly spilling over with things that I had planted….ON PURPOSE!

Long shall Pacific Northwest gardeners remember the summer of 2009.  Early and sustained heat ripened summer squashes in June, and an Indian summer pushed them through October.  Enormous tomato plants kept producing, struggling mightily to validate their continued existence by ripening one fruit a day for week after frigid week into early November.  No kidding. And Zinnias!  Zinnias! Maybe we can’t eat them, but walking the path lined with these bright beauties, bending the tough scratchy stems toward me to peek at the sleeping bees folded in the center, could sustain me for days.  Page, my neighbor and the only other person I know who can get drunk on flowers, helps me to overcome my practical workaholic nature and justify botanical pleasure pursuits, reminding me that flowers are food for the soul.  Forget chicken soup.  Give me dahlias the size of baby heads.   And artichoke, the vegetable lotus.  Oh, artichoke, you are delicious steamed and dipped in garlic butter and lemon juice.  But how can I take you in your tender vegetable youth when you mature into such a divine neon twilight purple blossom, sheltering intoxicated bumblebees in your musky sweet scented bristles.  By August, the yard was a jungle , and I was spending hours a day wading through flowers to harvest  beans, raspberries, squash, tomatoes, cukes, strawberries, collards, herbs by the armload, stopping only to sigh blissfully and bask in the sun.

I can pack away formidable quantities of vegetable matter, but as a nursing mother I require some richer accompaniments.  Every few weeks I found myself at the grocery store with a cart full of yogurt, milk, cream, feta, mozzarella, butter and maybe a steak and some good olive oil.  Literally.  That was it.  For breakfast it was steamed green beans with butter.  For lunch it was cukes and feta.  For dinner it was an entire serving bowl of caprese with the aforementioned steak.  Our small parcel of heavily cultivated land cannot accomodate a cow or goat, so I sought a way to satisfy my dairy predilection without going to market.  A kind and industrious family down the street fastidiously keeps a small herd of goats and occasionally a baby sheep or two.  One drizzly day in September, I suited up my boys and trekked down the street to visit our little “petting zoo.”  I was admiring the immaculate enclosures, sturdy fences, verdant grazing yard, organized outbuildings (How do they DO that?  Where are the piles?  The rusty tools?  What, no “barnyard” smell? Not one errant pile of goatshit?!)  while Jack was busy littering the grounds, poking anything that would fit through the chain link.  Shari, the headmistress of this goat utopia, stepped out of the house and in her always gracious manner updated us on the status of all the living things in her domain.  Turns out one of the nannies was giving so much milk they were just freezing most of it.  Then it hit me.  I left with a gallon of sweet fresh goat milk and an agreement to trade milk for veggies, as she just can’t seem to grow much.  A permaculturist’s dream! 

I planted my fall garden with fantasies of near-total self-sustainance for the coming year.  I’d begin raising rabbits for meat once again in the spring, feeding them all my dandelions, borage, blackberries, and lemon balm.  We’d  live off our stored squashes and potatoes, frozen peas and dried favas, fermented krauts and pickled beets, applesauce and persimmon butter.  Yes, I’ll buy olive and coconut oil, coffee and chocolate, nuts, flour and sugar for some holiday baking–but that’s right and proper use of the global economy, to augment a healthy local diet with delicacies and unique comestibles that can only come from exotic climates.  Oh, rapture! 

Fast forward to January.  My friend Krista, a sustainable agriculture professor back east, called to put me in touch with a colleague and friend of hers who’d be attending a writer’s retreat not far from my house.  Perhaps he’d want to come by to check out the view, take a garden tour, talk a little about the local sustainable food scene………Yeah, sure.  Phone to ear, I stared out the front window at the patch of slug-infested collards that was all that remained of my winter garden aspirations.  Gritty bitter spring weeds, scabby ground apples, marginal mushrooms all make it onto my menu.  I’m not picky, but these collards look disgusting and hardly deserve to be burning nitrogen.  I’d rip them out  if they weren’t the only visible sign of life.   The kale failed to grow as fast as the slugs could eat it this fall and, as far as I can tell under the sodden maple and oak leaf litter, no longer exists.  Mizuna, my favorite early spring green, has apparently flown under the radar because it’s baby leaves are too frilly and insubstantial to look like food even to parasites.  The raccoons got our nearly retired laying flock a couple months ago when it got really cold, and the new chicks aren’t laying yet, so……..”He might not be that impressed,” I told her.  We commiserated on the practical difficulties of growing year-round, even in this vaunted Pacific-Northwest gardener’s paradise.  Next year….slug bait.   

So it’s January and I’m buying most of my groceries at the…..gasp!……store.  There’s a full month before peas and early greens can go in the ground and a good deal longer before anything’s yielding.  The dandelion greens, nettles, and mushrooms of March seem far away indeed.  I suppose I could mend fences, sharpen tools, and organize the shed like a good little farmer, but……I’d rather just fly south and hit the beach until it stops raining.

Staring out the window at the dreary gardenscape, I can hardly recall those endless hot sunny weeks.  It seems absurd that I actually looked forward to a cloudy day so that I could skip a watering, leave the veggies unpicked, go to the bins, start a blog.  But those days came soon enough, and now there is nothing but time to ponder.   Already in my mind, legions of verdant comestibles are forming orderly rows off the backporch, mixed long-season secession beds downhill, scenic yet edible flower snacks in strategic pathside locations.  But as the 2009 garden gangbuster season proved, it’s not just how much you grow, but how well you plan and preserve.  So in 2010 I will…..

*Preserve:                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Freeze what I don’t eat……right now.   The chickens ate really well last growing season.  And while I don’t begrudge them some chlorophyl, perhaps chicken fodder is not the highest and best use of my home grown produce.  Green beans that have hung out in the fridge for three days will remain there to wilt while I’ll continue to pluck them fresh off the vine for lunch everyday.  Zucchinis turn seedy and husky on the counter while I sautee fresh tender babies with basil for breakfast.  So this year, what I don’t eat will go immediately into a freezer bag at the very least.  But to very the winter offerings and keep the freezer from overflowing, I’ll set up the dehydrator–and some screens for sundrying on those scorcher August afternoons.  I’ll keep those gallon jars clean and a special spot on top of the kitchen cabinet clear for ongoing fermentation experiments.  Herbs, you will be tied and dried.  By whatever method and in whatever quantity, I shall preserve!  Frozen raspberries still make jam, and tomorrow is another harvest.

*Work smarter not harder:                                                                                                                                                                                         Slugs have the right to exist–outside of my cruciferous crops.  And this year I will thwart their advances with beer, copper, slug bait….whatever it takes, instead of lamenting over their shredded, slimy leavings after the fact.  I will put in the time and effort up front to make watering simple and routine.   Wells around thirsty veggies, smart plant groupings, soaker hoses and sprinkler timers put in place before vegetation cuts off access.  Mulch the maturing garden.  Straw, grass clippings, newspaper and cardboard….keep the water in and the weeds out once seedlings are thinned and thriving.  In short, it’s time to work the garden instead of letting it work me.

*Barter:                                                                                                                                                                                                              Abundance surrounds me, and I needn’t produce everything myself.  Those extra collards and kale could go in the freezer OR they could go to the goat lady down the street in exchange for milk.  And perhaps I don’t even need to grow zukes.  Five people on my block would gladly trade their surplus summer squash for tomatoes.  Good relationships turn eggs into bread.  Cut flowers into restaurant meals.   I’ve got a jug of homebrew, a  jar of kraut, a rototiller, a chipper, a well-appointed tool shed.  Let’s make a deal!        

These are optimistic resolutions that assume a thriving, productive season.  It’s a La Nina year, so I might not need to worry about what to do with my surplus.  But for now, in the depths of January, all I have is frozen green beans and fantasy.


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