Picking and preserving local produce

Over the past month, I’ve been a on a major (at least for me) food preservation kick. I’ve made and canned two kinds of jam, made peach ice cream (to. die. for.), dehydrated strawberries and apples, made and froze batches of salsa and spaghetti sauce, as well as blanched and froze several pounds of green beans. The majority of that was done with local food that I either grew myself, picked myself or bought at a local farm. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been very rewarding and fun (and, I admit it, a little bit addictive). 😉

You can read more about my latest forays into picking, eating and preserving local fruits and veggies over at 5 Minutes for Going Green today and find out where you can go near you to do the same!

I CAN do it : Learning how to preserve foods

I’ve been wanting to learn how to can food for at least a couple of years now. I’ve done the freezing thing with veggies, soups, casseroles and spaghetti sauce, but I feel like my options are limited with freezing and it’s time to branch out. Oh, what I would give for a jar of delicious strawberry jam, made fresh at home, which is where, of course, canning comes in.

Mason jarsAbout two years ago some of my friends organized a “learn how to can” get together. We made grape jelly and each got to take a jar of it home. (Yum!) It was fun, but I really didn’t pay that close attention to the whole canning process (sorry, Nicole and Julie), and thus haven’t attempted it on my own yet knowing I still need to learn more about it.

I’d actually hoped I might get a one-on-one canning tutorial from my mom during our vacation to MI, but the blueberry farm that we hoped to visit didn’t open until the day we flew back home. Bugger.

A few months ago I started saving Mason jars from our spaghetti sauce, as well as jars from jam and other foods determined that this would be the year I would start canning. I have accumulated a pretty good collection of jars, but I still haven’t canned a thing. However, all of that is going to change this weekend!

strawberries.jpgWhile the organic strawberries I have growing in my little garden are great, or so I’m led to believe (my kids gobble them up just as soon as I pick them), I only had four plants to start out with this year and they aren’t nearly prolific enough yet. So when my friend Melissa said she and her family were planning on going to Berry Patch Farms to pick organic strawberries this weekend and wanted to know if anyone wanted to join them, I was chomping at the bit. I had hoped to visit that farm earlier in the season, but then a bad hail storm apparently wiped out their early crop. So now the plans have been made. The kids, Jody and I will be picking a slew of strawberries and I’m bound and determined to make them into jam. Lots of jam. (Oh, and they have raspberries and peaches too. Whee!)

Today or tomorrow I’m heading over to Ace Hardware where my canning goddess friend assures me they will have “everything I need” to get started. 🙂 Then, in preparation, I’ll be reading my new Ball Blue Book and about making jam.

I’m so excited! I hope the strawberry patch is full and ready for us Saturday morning (oh, and that I can get myself and my family out of the house at a decent time – that will be the real trick!). I’ll be sure to report back how the experience goes.

Have you done any canning? What are your favorite things to can? Have any tips for a newbie like me?

Guest post: Learning from Experience: Tips for New Organic Gardners

While I’m on vacation until Aug. 9 , I’m featuring several guest bloggers. Today’s post is from Meryl who blogs at My Bit of Earth.

My grandfather was an avid gardener. He grew tomatoes, beans, peas, corn–he even had a small orchard from which he would pick fruit for my grandmother’s fabulous pies. He gardened for 70+ years, all within 100 miles of where I live today, making any advice he could have given me invaluable as it would have been both well-tested and specific to my climate.

Unfortunately, my grandfather died years before I caught the gardening bug, so I’ve had to learn the hard way–experience.

I am now in my fourth year as an organic gardener–mostly veggies, but some flowers too. I have a 10×10 plot in my local community garden, as well as a mostly-container garden at my house. Here are seven bits of wisdom my experiences have taught me.

1. If it’s worth planting, it’s worth writing down.

Keep a paper journal, start a blog, do what you must, but make a record of your garden. At minimum, it should include the specific variety of what you plant, when you planted it, any problems you had, and how your harvest went. Pictures are a nice bonus.

Review your record before you plan your garden each year. Not only will it help you to remember the name of that fabulous tomato you planted last year, it will keep you from making the same mistakes over and over again. For example, because I wrote down when I planted “Ideal Market” beans last year, I now know that if I plant them in April they’ll just get eaten by bugs and I’ll have to plant anew. But if plant them in May, I should avoid the boom of bean-eating bugs and get a good crop.

2. Buy (at least) one good book.

I love the internet as much as the next person, but I’m convinced that it’s still worthwhile to have one great gardening reference book to help narrow down your searches when you have a problem. This year my Brussels sprouts were being attacked by red bugs, and I couldn’t figure out what the bugs were by searching online. (“Red bugs” isn’t much to go on!) So I looked up Brussels sprouts in my book, and found that they are commonly attacked by Harlequin bugs when the weather gets warm. Sure enough, when I did an image search for “Harlequin bugs” the results looked just like the bugs I had in my garden.

The specific book you buy will depend on what you’re growing, but look for something like an encyclopedia. Something that lists good practices for the crops you want to grow, as well as what to do when things go wrong. For vegetable gardening, my trusty book of choice is Rodale’s Vegetable Garden Problem Solver.

3. Make friends.

It’s always so nice to learn that someone I know is also a gardener! Partly because I know I won’t bore them with discussions of cabbages and coneflowers, but also because other gardeners–especially if they’ve been gardening for a long time in your specific area–are a wonderful mine of knowledge.

In the community garden where I have a plot, there’s one lady who’s been there for years and, as such, is an absolute treasure. A few weeks ago, when I was having the aforementioned trouble with my Brussels sprouts, she told me to sprinkle them with cayenne pepper. I followed her advice, and a day later my bugs were gone.

4. Visit your garden often, and while you’re there….

Because one of my gardens is not at my house, I don’t always get to it every day. But I’m there every other day, at least. While I think this is necessary for all gardeners to some degree, if you want to garden organically it’s essential.

When you don’t allow yourself to drop a chemical bomb on every pest that comes along, you have to catch little problems before they become big problems. Last year, I started noticing little bronze eggs on my pumpkin leaves in mid-July. I didn’t get on top of it as quickly as I should have, and before I knew it my whole crop was decimated by squash bugs. If I had picked the eggs off the first time I saw them, it would have been a minor blip on my road to Halloween jack’o’lanterns and pumpkin soup.

While you’re doing your walk-through, take five minutes and pull as many weeds as you can. Like pests of the insect variety, weeds will creep up on you until all of a sudden getting rid of them without chemicals is overwhelming. Catch weeds when they’re small and scratch them out with a hoe before they start to take over.

5. Raise your soil right, feed it well, tuck it in.

When I initially started container gardening at my house, I thought of it as kind of a temporary thing until I had space to plant a proper “in-the-ground” garden. After a few years though, I’m convinced that raised beds are the way to go.

In my neck of the woods the problem is clay, but, whatever deficiencies your soil may have, it’s easier to fix them if you raise everything off the ground a bit. Even just logs or landscaping timbers pushed together in a square–which is exactly the set up in my community garden plot–helps make digging, mixing in compost, and planting much easier.

When you go to fill that raised bed, think compost, compost, compost. My city does a free compost give away every year, and I always take advantage of it. Get as much as you can, and mix it in well with your existing soil. If you want your plants to feed you, you must feed them, and they crave compost!

Lastly, cover your soil. You can use pretty mulch if you want, but this year I experimented with newspapers and straw. I put down about six layers of newspaper (black and white only), sprayed it with water, and spread one or two inches of straw over the top. When I went to plant my veggies I just used a shovel to poke a hole through the paper. It’s kept the weeds down, let water in, and whatever is left of it next Spring can easily be tilled into my soil.

6. Keep things in perspective.

There will be setbacks, there will be loses. If you’re committed to going organic, you should realize that sometimes a problem is going to get away from you. You’re going to see visions of your entire crop being ruined, and you’re going to be sooo tempted to resort to a chemical spray. When this happens, step back and regain your perspective.

Yes, yes, I know. You worked hard for that plant, whatever it is. You dug and toiled in the hot sun–perhaps were even devoured by mosquitoes as you regularly watered.

But, if you’re a small scale gardener, is it really worth it? Do you really need that eggplant that’s probably half-chewed on by bugs anyway? Or can you accept that nothing is a failure if you enjoyed the learning process, put down the nasty spray, and pick up your eggplant at the farmer’s market this week instead?

Good for you, that’s what I thought.

7. Grow what you love, but love what you can grow.

If you can be perfectly satisfied with a garden of tomatoes and peppers, go for it. If you’re intrigued by exotic varieties of garlic, plant yourself some. If you just can’t stand life without that pretty kind of rose that’s named after you, figure out what it needs to thrive and make it happen. To me there is no point in having a garden if you don’t grow the things you absolutely love.

With all that being said, however, over the past few years I’ve found the plants I truly love are the ones that don’t need much fuss, and are happy in the climate and space that I have to give them. I’ve killed four beautiful rose bushes to date, and none have made me as happy as the beautiful ‘Diablo’ cosmos that are popping up almost unbidden all over my garden right now. Like clockwork, every year I decide to try a pretty flowering hanging basket. After the last one didn’t live a week–the darned things need a crazy amount of water–I bought a sturdy fern that looks better at week four than most of the flowers did on day two. The ugliest thriving flower looks better than the prettiest dead one–work with what you’ve got!

I hope my experiences are helpful to you–best of luck in your garden!

Meryl Carver-Allmond writes about gardening, photography, crafty stuff, dogs, and whatever else happens to tickle her fancy on any given day at My Bit of Earth.

Guest post: Gradually Going Local

While I’m on vacation until Aug. 9, I’m featuring several guest bloggers. This guest post is from Ami who blogs at Writing: My Life.

I first heard about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) several years ago in a magazine article. I immediately loved the idea of paying a local farmer in exchange for a weekly share in whatever he or she produced. What better way to really know where your food is coming from? Unfortunately, by the time I’d learned about CSA the deadlines to sign up with any of the local farms had passed. I planned to check into it again the next spring, but kept letting those deadlines pass me by.

The desire to start eating more locally kept building, though, as memories of homegrown tomatoes and carrots straight from the garden came back to me. Then, in the spring of last year, I read a book that changed my perspective on food tremendously. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle reacquainted me with the natural order of food. It reminded me that eating a tomato in January (unless it comes from a jar you put up in August) is not natural. It made me take a second look at my banana-eating habits. And it taught me that local eating can be healthy, good for the environment and really flavorful, too.

After reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I started running into articles on local eating and Community Supported Agriculture everywhere, and I began thinking much more consciously about where my food was coming from. Yet again, I was too late to join a CSA for the year, but I shopped mainly at the farmer’s market that spring, summer and fall. I spent my weekends prepping and cooking fresh produce. I did some freezing and drying to preserve a bit of what I brought home. I even tried growing my own tomatoes, which unfortunately succumbed to the beaks of the pigeons and blackbirds before I could enjoy them. I also did a little local-eating experiment, and I learned a lot about how difficult our current food system and lifestyles can make eating locally.

The difficulty didn’t discourage me, though. I did my best, and this year, I was a little more prepared. I joined that CSA and was at the farmer’s market on opening weekend ready to eat with the seasons again. I got a newer refrigerator, with a freezer that could hold more produce for the winter months. I joined the One Local Summer Challenge, with the goal of eating at least one completely local meal each week. I planted an herb garden in my tiny backyard.

One day I hope to have a garden to tend with berries, squash, peppers, juicy tomatoes and more. But for now, I support my local farmers and try to keep my eating as local as possible. Sure, my behavior hasn’t completely changed. I still spend money at the grocery store and I haven’t started canning and root cellaring yet. And eating local certainly isn’t the easiest eating option. But I feel good knowing that my money is supporting local agriculture. I’m happier knowing the farmer that grows my vegetables at the CSA. I see him regularly when I pick up my share and he sends us a farm and harvest update every week. Even the farmers at the market are open about their growing practices and I’ve come to know several of them by name. These days, I know where my food is grown and I trust that it’s being done with conscious concern for the land and the people who will consume it. Of all the benefits of eating local, I think that’s the best one.

Ami is a technical and freelance writer trying to live a healthier and greener life—and some days she succeeds. Read more about her local eating escapades at Writing: My Life.

Guest post: The World You Want is at the End of Your Fork

While I’m on vacation until Aug. 9, I’m featuring several guest bloggers. Today’s guest post is from Tiffany who writes at the Natural Family Living Guide.

The World You Want is at the End of Your Fork

Most people spend a lot of time thinking about food. They think about meals they need to plan for their families, food they need to add to their grocery list, new restaurants they need to try, and the carb and calories counts of the foods they love. They have a lot of opinions about their food and what they like and dislike. But many are still not thinking about food in a meaningful way. They are not thinking about where their food comes from, how it gets to them, under what circumstances, and at what cost. There are social, environmental, and ethical considerations that often go unnoticed. The food you eat is important and it does have an impact on the world around you.

One particular quote that seems to sum it all up is taken from John Kinsman, a Wisconsin organic dairy farmer, who said “Every time you spend money on food you are voting for the world you want.”

So what can you do to make your dining experiences more ethical and sustainable? I have a few ideas about that.

Eat Organic – It is a sustainable method of food production and helps to ensure that our farmlands will be rich and productive for future generations. Most times when you hear any mention of organic food it is in relation to healthful eating and chemical exposure. It is usually a health related issue. This issue is actually much deeper than that. Organic agriculture is a strict form of sustainable agriculture; a way of producing food products without harming the land. Its main goal is to work the land without preventing future generations from being able to use it as well. Organic farmers try to conserve water and preserve the soil. They also sell locally many times helping to conserve energy and fossil fuels. Organics are a health issue AND an environmental one.

Eat Local – Eating local is better for air quality and pollution. Let’s face it…if your food has to travel thousands of miles to you then the planet is being needlessly polluted. Estimates on how long the average food travels from pasture to plate range from 1200 to 2500 miles. A lot of energy is expended freezing, refrigerating, and trucking that food around. Eating locally grown food means less fossil fuel burned in preparation and transport. Also, Supporting local farmers, especially organic farmers, means supporting sustainable agriculture.

Eat Less Meat – You don’t have to go vegetarian if you don’t want to, but it does help the environment to reduce meat consumption. We feed more than 70 percent of the grains and cereals we grow to farmed animals. Our taste for meat is also taking a toll on our supply of fuel and other nonrenewable resources: about one-third of the raw materials used in America each year is consumed by the farmed animal industry. In my opinion the problem is not that we eat meat or animal products but the volume to which we consume them and the way we go about producing those foods. A good book that discusses this is Full Moon Feast which talks about eating according to the phases of the moon and eating the way we did hundreds of years ago.

Eat Whole Foods – Eating foods that have not been processed and packaged helps the environment by reducing the amount of garbage going into landfills. Shop the outer section of the grocery store to avoid the processed foods.

Garden – Eliminate the middle man all together and grow your own food…organically of course. It is one of the most rewarding things you can do.

Try It Out! Tips for Sustainable Eating:

  • Try your hand at organic gardening. If you have no space for an actual in-ground garden then try to do container gardening. There is nothing like homegrown food!
  • When planning your weekly menus try to see if you can incorporate at least 2-3 meatless meals a week. Reducing your meat consumption is a great leap towards greener living.
  • Don’t just change what you eat: change how you package and store your food to. Reusablebags has a great selection of reusable food storage containers such as bento lunchboxes, wrap-n-mats, grocery totes and stainless steel water bottles.

So pick up your fork and join the revolution of people who want to change food and farming, creating better health and a better world.

You can read more from Tiffany at her blog, the Natural Family Living Guide, where she writes about green family living, parenting, natural health, safe children’s products, and homeschooling. Subscribe to her blog here.

A very, very crunchy weekend

As if throwing my very first zero-waste party tomorrow (Ava’s 4th birthday party which I plan to blog about it in detail another time) wasn’t enough, Golden Showers Garden PartyI’ve also decided to participate in Crunchy Chicken’s latest challenge. You know what one I’m talking about? No? It involves um, ah, errrr, basically watering your garden with diluted urine. Yep, you read that right. Apparently it’s really good for the plants. Something about the nitrogen. Free organic fertilizer. You can’t beat that, right? I figured I couldn’t very well call myself crunchy if I couldn’t participate in this. (The urine has to be diluted – 1 part urine to 10 parts water.)

I joked that I could ask all of the party guests to pee in a bucket and I’d haul it back to my house (gives a whole new meaning to “zero-waste”, huh?), but um, NO. I’m NOT going there. ;oP So if you are coming to the party, don’t worry. I’m NOT going to ask you for your urine. LOL You can keep your pee for your own garden. 😉

Are you up for the challenge? You know you want to. 😉 (I can picture several of you squirming in your seats right now at the very thought.) Well, if urine you’re in, there’s still time to sign up over at Crunchy Chicken’s place. And let me know urine you’re in too by leaving a comment here. I’d like to know I’ll be in good company. 🙂

Little things

It’s my first year growing a garden on my own. You can call me a dork, but it’s the little things that excite me. 🙂

Little things like…
Green beans sprouting:
Bean plant sprouting 6/11/08
Zucchini sprouting:
Zucchini sprouting 6/11/08
And the first red tomato of the season:
First red tomato of the season 6/11/08

I just created a new category “gardening” as I suspect I’ll have more to say on this topic in the future. I’m enjoying the experience so far. 🙂

Why Bother?

This evening as Jody and Ava were out running an errand for me, I attempted to cook dinner while balancing a miserable Julian (due to his four canine teeth coming in at the same time) on my hip. After much fussing (on Julian’s part, not mine), I took a break from cooking, sat down on the couch, flipped on the TV and, hoping to make the poor boy feel a bit better, nursed him.

In skipping through the channels it became clear to me why I rarely watch TV (with the exception of The Office, LOST and occasionally Oprah). There was nothing on. I stopped on the local public access channel long enough to hear someone talking about global warming. My interest was piqued so I lingered.

veg-garden.jpgIt turns out it was a woman reading Michael Pollan‘s recent New York Times article “Why Bother?” For those of you unfamiliar with Pollan, he is the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – neither of which I have read yet, but I’ve heard great things about both.

“Why Bother?” is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I’m nowhere near the point of throwing in the towel with regard to the things I do to help the environment, but after reading an article like Enjoy life while you can’ – Climate science maverick James Lovelock believes catastrophe is inevitable, carbon offsetting is a joke and ethical living a scam and watching a YouTube video (which has since been taken down) about Monsanto, you might start to get a little jaded and wonder if all of your efforts are in vain. At least that’s where I’ve been at.

Pollan’s article “Why Bother?” was exactly what I needed to hear (and then read in full on the web since I missed the first half of it on TV) to help lift me out of my funk and I highly recommend you read the whole thing. Here’s just a bit of it.

If you do bother, you will set an example for other people. If enough other people bother, each one influencing yet another in a chain reaction of behavioral change, markets for all manner of green products and alternative technologies will prosper and expand. Consciousness will be raised, perhaps even changed: new moral imperatives and new taboos might take root in the culture. Driving an S.U.V. or eating a 24-ounce steak or illuminating your McMansion like an airport runway at night might come to be regarded as outrages to human conscience. Not having things might become cooler than having them. And those who did change the way they live would acquire the moral standing to demand changes in behavior from others — from other people, other corporations, even other countries.

Pollan goes on to suggest “find one thing to do in your life that doesn’t involve spending or voting, that may or may not virally rock the world but is real and particular (as well as symbolic) and that, come what may, will offer its own rewards. Maybe you decide to give up meat, an act that would reduce your carbon footprint by as much as a quarter. Or … for one day a week, abstain completely from economic activity: no shopping, no driving, no electronics.”

He also discusses how doing something as basic as planting a garden to grow even a little of your own food could make a big difference. This is another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As the price of food goes higher and higher and we worry more and more about where our food comes from, organic vs. conventional (pesticide-laden), genetically-modified organisms, carbon emissions and climate change, it makes sense to me to try to grow some of our own food.

Pollan says, “It’s estimated that the way we feed ourselves (or rather, allow ourselves to be fed) accounts for about a fifth of the greenhouse gas for which each of us is responsible.” Yikes.

I don’t have a lot of experience in gardening, but I did help my mom in our family garden as a child and, three years ago, some friends and I had our own plot in a community garden. As I embark on growing my own garden for the first time this year, I’m thankful for my friends like Julie of Chez Artz and Green Artz, Melissa at Nature Deva, Heather at A Mama’s Blog, and Woman With A Hatchet, who all have more gardening experience than me (and will hopefully help me out if I need it – hint, hint). I’m planting a small garden not only for the food it will provide to me and my family and to reduce our carbon footprint, but for the experience it will provide us all. Someday in the hopefully not too distant future (like next few years) once we move into a different house with a larger (and sunnier) yard, I’d love to have a much bigger garden. I’d like to know that if push came to shove and we needed to grow some of our own food, that I could do it. I am concerned that that day might not be too far off and Pollan agrees. “If the experts are right, if both oil and time are running out, these (growing our own food) are skills and habits of mind we’re all very soon going to need.”

But Pollan doesn’t end his article on a downer. Rather he is hopeful and his message is uplifting.

The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.

So, why bother? Because the future of humankind depends on it. Even if by some stroke of luck climate change doesn’t affect us during our lifetime (wishful thinking), I would hate to leave this huge burden and mess for our children to clean up. After all, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.” – Native American Proverb

I think Pollan answers the question of “why bother?” best when he says,

Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.

Here, here. That is why I will keep on bothering. And I hope you will too.

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