Eat The Raspberries

My oldest and his wife offered freshly harvested raspberries. My next oldest went over to pick them up and drop them here. Eight pints of beautiful berries!

Although I power through lot of vegetables, I almost never eat fruit. Sometimes a few blueberries, if we have plenty. But I put some of these raspberries in a bowl to enjoy. As I ate I wondered why I felt so strange about this luxury. Even guilty. Then I remembered why.

Fresh fruit is expensive. For years I’d stretch the budget to buy fruit in season for my children. If my kids wanted me to have some I’d tell them I already had some. (I did, one or two berries.) Even fruit we grew was a treasure to be shared between four kids. After all these years I developed an ingrained “save the fruit” thing. When this came up in a discussion with my wise friend Diane pointed out, “How great it is that your kids are bringing your gifts back to you.”

I went back and put a whole pint of raspberries in a lovely blue bowl, then savored each one. They were delicious.

Posted in eating, summer | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Yonder Basement Window Glows Strangely Pink

We have been starting seeds indoors for decades. There’s something enormously heartening about tucking tiny seeds into pots while March winds howl outside. In a few months those pale specks will result in glossy eggplants, huge squash, fiery peppers, and much more.

In our earliest years we started seeds in pots made of coiled newspaper alongside sunny windows. Now we’ve got a large planting table and start hundreds of seeds, sequencing to start heat-loving plants after we move early cool-tolerant seedlings like cabbage and broccoli out to harden off.

One year we had tremendous losses soon after germination, only to discover that peat pots we’d bought were themselves contaminated. Never again. We now stick to large reusable pots.

But the last few years we encountered a new problem. Seedlings that germinated well began to get leggy, their elongated stems indicating the plants weren’t getting enough light. We tried lowering the lights till they nearly touched the tops of the plants. We tried setting the timer to leave the lights on longer. Nothing seemed to help. Early this spring my husband discovered the problem. He read that grow lights, like our old full-spectrum bulbs, can actually wear out. They are just as bright, but don’t emit enough of the light plants need.

So he started the search for the best-reviewed new lights. He settled on very different-looking lights, compact and strangely colored. The basement glowed fuschia but the difference in our plants became obvious within a matter of days. They grew stronger and faster than we’d seen in years.

The grow lights he ordered have two settings I’ve never seen before. Bud or Bloom. “Huh,” I said, like the clueless person I can be. “What’s that about?”

“Pot,” he said. “Looks like most people who order these lights grow pot.”

We do grow herbs. Basil, cilantro, lemongrass, that sort of thing. But not THAT particular herb. I hope our neighbors, seeing the strange pink glow from our basement windows, don’t assume we’ve gone into a different sort of grow business…

Posted in gardening, seed starting | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Kindness In Trying Times

I have never felt more a member of my community than now, when none of us can get together. Last week I posted a question on our community Facebook page. I have a diagnosis that puts me in a risk group, meaning I should avoid going out to stores. I asked if there were any grocery stores delivering to our area after my own searches for Instacart offered no options. I was hoping to find an alternative more self-reliant than taking our marvelous offspring up on their offer to do our shopping. That day and for days afterwards I got responses, amazing responses, to my FB question. These included nearby churches with volunteers willing to do shopping for others. Even individual people messaged me with offers to do my shopping. I felt tearful with gratitude. I’m used to providing help, not receiving it. I turned everyone down with appreciation but was still overwhelmed by the unexpected kindness.

In this time of surreal, unexpected, and frankly terrifying upheaval due to Covid-19 my small community and surrounding area blooms with kindness. People are making and donating masks; finding new ways to support local businesses; checking in on neighbors; offering toys, games, books, and other items for free; writing encouraging messages in brightly colored chalk on sidewalks; offering free rooms for healthcare workers; and much more. When people ask for specific help they’re answered quickly, usually with many offers.

Crisis invariably brings out the best in people. The true core of humanity is cooperation. We could not have evolved to this time without the collaborative genius that brought about language, healing arts, shared care for the vulnerable, and creative space for true innovation. We are who we are because we pull together. We can get through this too.

 

Ways to help

Reach out to one another, particularly to those who live alone or have special needs. Ask not only how you might help them, but remember the reciprocal benefits of asking for their help. You might ask others for their advice or expertise on a situation you’re facing. Your older neighbor could have useful experience training a puppy or handling a grumpy teen.  Your great-aunt could likely tell you what to make for dinner out of the few items in your fridge or answer a question you’ve had about genealogy. Or ask if they mind a short visit on the phone to brighten your spirits!

Volunteer at a safe social distance through local houses of worship, organizations, and neighborhood groups.  Meals-on-Wheels is often looking for volunteers, and such drop-offs can be done quickly.

Thank essential workers: those who work in grocery stores, gas stations, nursing homes, and hospitals, food production, utilities, maintenance, police, fire, EMS, and everyone else who faces daily risks to keep our communities functioning.

Patronize local businesses and remember to tip generously.

Donate to local food banks.

Adopt or foster a shelter animal. Dogs and cats need homes now more than ever. And don’t forget to make plans for your own animals should you become sick.

Blood donations are critically needed. Find out where to donate by going to American Red Cross (Blood Drives)  or calling 800-733-2767

Make masks to donate or share with others. This is a tutorial for making a simple mask, with ties fashioned from knit fabric (even t-shirts).  This is a more in-depth tutorial with several options, all using a pipe cleaner to hold it more closely to the wearer’s nose. They aren’t recommended for healthcare workers, but community use.

Talk to others going through what you are. Quarantine Chat lets you talk to people anywhere in the world. (I’ve talked to people in Spain and Canada as well as many U.S. states so far.)

 

 

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Slushy Day To Play

Who wouldn’t want to stomp on iced-over puddles, feel that delicious crackle as you splash through to mud underneath?

Who wouldn’t want to pick up pieces of glass-like ice, feel them fall to smaller pieces in your hands, see if the shards will float or sink?

Who wouldn’t want to drag around the biggest stick you can, knowing you will need it to poke at some leaves or swish in the water?

Who wouldn’t want to run and yell and discover?

When your face is numb with cold, your boots filled with water, your mittens caked with dirt you can grumble all the way back to a warm house with the joy known only to kids who have played hard. That’s how you have fun.’

 

The world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.    `e.e. cummings

 

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Two-Ingredient GF Vegan Buckwheat Bread

Poetry led me back to bread.

I was in Youngstown last weekend for the amazing Lit Youngstown Festival. Being a hermit-y sort, I’ve never been to a literary festival before but went because an awesome thing happened. An excerpt from a poem of mine was stamped on a sidewalk along with the work of three other poets. It has been a season of surreal poetry honors for me.

Sidewalk Poets: Jeffrey Murphy, Laura Grace Weldon, Jeanne Bryner, David Lee Garrison

After the sidewalk dedications, I had no idea where my car was parked. A wonderful new writer friend, Cherise, said she’d walk me there. Turned out my car was at least a half hour away, which gave us time to talk about obscure movies, gardening, and the strange culinary explorations we’re on as people with health issues/food allergies. Cherise told me about a bread recipe she makes that has only two ingredients if one doesn’t count water — it’s simply buckwheat and salt.

A few years ago I ordered a 25 pound bag of organic buckwheat groats from our food co-op. Getting through it has been a challenge. Here and there I’ve ground it into flour or made puffed groats. My family is pretty tolerant of the many grains I toss into things (although teff nearly caused a revolt). But I gave up baked goods myself years ago. I can’t eat wheat and I’m allergic to many of the ingredients that go into gluten-free products (eggs, corn, psyllium husk, etc). Although I bake bread every week for my family, I just don’t eat bread/buns/wraps/chips.

But I thought I’d give Cherise’s recipe a try. If my angry beast of a body refused to tolerate the bread I could feed it to the chickens. But turned out amazing. The original recipe, from Nele Liivlaid’s site Nutriplanet, suggests the addition of oregano and sunflower seeds. Those aren’t necessary, but the second time I made the loaf I used sunflower seeds and sesame seeds. Excellent flavors when toasted!

 

Fermented Buckwheat Bread

ingredients

2 cups raw buckwheat groats*

1 ¼ cup filtered water (plus water to soak)

½ teaspoon salt

optional ingredients

3 tablespoons sunflower seeds

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

 

directions

Soak buckwheat groats in water for 6 to 8 hours. There may be some discoloration at the very top, that’s normal.

Dump the soaked grains into a colander, rinse a bit, then let drain 10 minutes or so to get out residual water. (The liquid after soaking is quite gooey.)

Put 1 1/4 cup water in blender and add drained buckwheat. Blend until smooth batter forms.

Pour the batter into glass, ceramic, or plastic bowl (not metal). Cover the bowl with a plate or cloth, then let it ferment in a warm place. If your kitchen is toasty warm, perfect. If your stove has a proofing drawer, excellent. The ideal temperature is 95°F. I cover my bowl tightly, then set it inside our dehydrator turned to 95°F (herb setting). Let rise at 95°F for 7 hours or so. If you don’t have a way to keep it that warm, you can ferment at room temperature for up to 22 hours. After fermenting you should see the batter has risen a bit and small bubbles have formed.

Now add salt and any other optional ingredients. Mix gently with a non-metal spoon. Do not over-mix, you want to keep the batter fluffy.

Pour batter into large loaf pan lined with parchment paper. (I use a large and mini-loaf size to avoid oven spillage.) Put the pan or pans back into your warm area to rise a bit more – an hour or two at 95°F really helps. (I have forgotten the parchment. The bread comes out of a greased pan pretty well.)

Put the pan or pans into the oven, then turn the heat to 350°F. Start timing once the oven reaches temperature. A tiny loaf pan takes about 35 to 40 minutes, a large loaf pan about 45 to 55 minutes. It’s done when firm on top and pulled away from the sides.

Remove bread from pan and place on cooling rack. Don’t slice until cool or nearly cool.

This bread is best toasted.

It freezes well. Slice, place waxed paper or parchment between slices for easy removal, place in freezer bag or freezer container.

Serving suggestions, toast and then add:

Hummus and tomatoes.

Nut butter and bananas.

Guacamole and black beans.

Roasted garlic and cheese, broil till cheese melts.

 

*This recipe only works with raw buckwheat groats. Not toasted (kasha). Not buckwheat flour.

 

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Mow Less, Save Nature

One year our school had an exchange student from Turkey. He was gifted in athletics and darkly handsome. As a blond klutz this meant I had nothing in common with him. But we ended up as science class lab partners, so we chatted regularly. I still remember something he said. He told me it was hard to see people in the U.S. squandering water, fertilizer, and fertile land on the inedible crop of grass when elsewhere in the world people suffered terribly to grow food. Why would anyone take pride in green fields that nourished no one?

I saw exactly what he meant everywhere I went. I also saw the way our elderly next-door neighbors let as much of their lawn as possible grow wild. Somehow they eluded zoning and only mowed their front yard along with a tiny patch near the back door. The rest was a glorious tangle of tall trees and undergrowth brimming with wildlife. It was a lively contrast to the flat monoculture all around us.

Every weekend meant the drone of lawnmowers and the smell of cut grass. I asked my father once if that smell meant the grass was bleeding. He didn’t take me too seriously. Turns out I wasn’t too far off. When plants are injured they release volatile organic compounds called green leaf volatiles which have different functions. Some of the compounds send out distress signals, some speed growth of new cells at the wound site, others act as antibiotics, a few stimulate defensive compounds at intact parts of the plant.

Turf grass in the U.S. overall covers an area larger than the state of Georgia. It is the largest irrigated “crop” in America, even more than corn, wheat, and fruit orchards combined. Americans use an estimated 10 times more fertilizer, per acre, on lawns than are used on food crops. (Fertilizer production as well as its run-off are serious environmental burdens too.)

According to a Penn State professor’s calculations,

Every weekend in the United States, fifty-four million Americans mow their lawns, which uses eight-hundred million gallons of gas per year [Springfels n.pag]. When broken down, that’s about 15 million gallons of gasoline to cut our yards and businesses alone. The eight-hundred million gallons of gas used each weekend is accompanied by the seventeen million gallons of gasoline we spill just filling up our tanks of gas each year, this amount is more than the amount of oil that was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.

Mowing less, or not at all, is a significant way to help when our planet’s pollinator and bird population are in serious decline. It’s not a radical step. Even state transportation departments are reducing or eliminating roadside mowing in favor of native grasses and wildflowers.

Mowing less frequently, such as every two weeks, helps to provide forage for bees and other pollinators. Mowing fewer overall areas provides even more flowers and seeds for vulnerable populations of bees, butterflies, and birds. And it can look amazing.

Here are some examples posted to the Twitter account of Scottish gardener Brian Cunningham.

In In many communities we may need to ease zoning or HOA rules. But it’s worth it. The reasons are wise, the outcome is beautiful.

On our property we have plenty of space devoted to trees and undergrowth, some former pasture planted in native wildflowers, but we still mow too much. I hope to change that soon.

Here are some wonderful organizations and books to help you find out more.

Wild Ones

We Are The Ark

Xerces Society

Posted in lawn, native plants | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Glorious Summer

Sunflower leaves, as they rustle in the breeze, sound like commuters in raincoats walking to work.

I am an ungainly peasant, bent over, yanking out roots of life’s green impulse. Even as the weeds go limp they send out the freshest breath. I apologize to them for my human-centric approach. I may be impressed by morning glory’s sneaky charm, but climbing up tomato stems and smothering beans is not allowed.

Strawberries keep trespassing where peppers and eggplants grow. Sunchokes stomp into the potato bed. Dill sprouts everywhere. The humidity is thick as oatmeal but I am grateful for all of it.  The harvest, heavier every day, reminds me how the weight of minutes lived also tips the scales toward the farther side.

I straighten up, making a little oooof noise as I do, and wave to the remaining weeds. “You, my friends, will live another day.”

Canning season has arrived. The kitchen holds two big bowls of ripe tomatoes waiting to be transformed into salsa.

Staggered planting of beans keep us from being overwhelmed (so far) by dozens of plants bearing at once.

Paper and straw laid down in the center of our giant sunchoke patch form a lovely Secret Place for small people.

Our bottle tree garden is easy to maintain because plantings are spaced far enough apart for us to mow between rows.

Even the cauldron plantings at the front of the house have refused to stop blooming.

 

Posted in summer, weeds | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

All About Perspective

Two years ago we had a 30′ x 72′ high tunnel built, with a wooden kickboard and heavy chicken wire where the sides roll up to keep it secure. My husband planted 54 grapevines in a range of carefully selected varieties. They grew rapidly in the temperate plant-friendly enclosure, safe from pests and predators. No spraying, no special treatments needed; just some water and attention. Last summer brought weeks of sweet harvest, but since it was our first yield it was only enough to share with friends and family while giving us plenty of juice and jelly to can.

The high tunnel was a big investment and we hoped it would start paying off this year. We had reasons to be optimistic with plants 6 to 9 feet tall, healthy and brimming with grapes. Well, I should say they WERE brimming with grapes.

Something got into the enclosure a few nights ago. My husband mowed between the rows Friday, checked the plants on Sunday. He went in on Wednesday to find the place devastated — plants bent, limbs broken, and nearly every ripe grape gone. Some enterprising creatures, probably raccoons, bent the chicken wire to gain access and gorged themselves a few nights in a row.

My husband wasn’t pleased, but he wasn’t all that upset either. He’s got some perspective.

~~~~~

A few weeks ago he was complaining of numbness in his fingers. He figured it was some version of carpal tunnel syndrome. It came and went, so he tried to avoid overworking that hand. But one afternoon the numbness traveled up his arm, even reached his mouth. I took him to our local small town hospital. All his tests came back normal showing no cardiac problems, no infection, until the imaging test of his brain. It showed a brain bleed, a stroke. Not long after he was on a helicopter, being life-flighted to the Cleveland Clinic.

My 45 minute drive to join him there was the longest drive of my life. Seeing him conscious and able to speak when I arrived was a blessed relief. He spent two days in neuro ICU where they determined he’d actually had not one but two small strokes. He’s home now, with no more impairment than some lingering numbness. Many specialist visits, tests, and medical bills later it seems he’s going to be absolutely fine.

This week he’s securing the high tunnel with welded wire fencing (1/2″ x 1″ openings) around the sides. It should protect the few grapes left. We’re already grateful.

 

 

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Livestock Bedding As Garden Soil

Everything I read about gardening, even in the more esoteric books I enjoy, warns about planting anything entirely in animal bedding. There are strict criteria about making sure such material is no longer “hot” and even then, it must be well-mixed into generous ratios of soil. But every year we noticed seeds sprout, grow, and mature in the piles of bedding and manure from our cow barn. Mostly squash and melon seeds — quite naturally those seeds were available after feeding cattle the leftover squash and melon from our gardens.

It got me thinking.

I’ve spent years of organic, hopefully regenerative gardening, only to watch my beautiful squash plants succumb to the bad influences of powdery mildew, cucumber beetles, vine borers, and squash beetles. I had no place left to plant them where these dangers weren’t already lurking in the soil. Even with large planting areas, there are only so many places to rotate crops, especially when it’s recommended to avoid planting anything in the Cucurbitaceae family in the same area for three years.

So in early June (quite late, due to heavy rainfall), I put only a few of the seeds I’d saved into a garden bed by the house. Here they are, small and beginning to suffer the ravages of squash beetles.

Most of these leaves are a handwidth or handwidth and a half across.

That same week, I thought of our large pile of bedding and manure from the chicken coop. (A new pile to us. The old piles are in the woods.) Some of the bedding had been there six months or more but some was relatively fresh. The pile was over three feet tall and about 12 to 14 feet in diameter. I had so many seeds saved from heirloom squash varieties that I thought it was worth planting some right in the bedding. I leveled the pile out a bit, made five or six hills, and put a few seeds in each hill. All winter squash — Boston Marrow squashGete Okosomin Squash, Cypriot Squash, maybe another variety I’ve forgotten.

Uninspiring pile of bedding and manure from chicken coop. Doesn’t look very promising does it?

I was pretty convinced this was a doomed experiment. The seeds had no access to actual soil, which was many feet below. The matter itself was loose and I was sure the seeds would wash away in the next rain. And the pile was hot! It felt ten degrees over my body temp at least. Plus it’s way out back, far from the house where watering and weeding are somewhat likely to happen.

The seeds emerged with wild enthusiasm, far quicker than the garden bed seeds. Within two weeks the chicken bedding plants were four times larger than the garden bed plants. They remain four times larger.

And there’s a significant difference in plant health.  The squash stems in my regular garden beds are brittle and weakened.

The squash stems in the livestock bedding are thick, supple, and healthy.

It’s hard to tell from a distance, but this is a huge mountain of eager squash plants with many emerging fruits.  Strangely, the chickens have left them alone and the only creatures interested in the flowers are pollinators.

Leaves are easily three and four of my handwidths across.

I’m not suggesting anyone plant anything they intend to eat raw in livestock bedding. But foods meant to be cooked are a different matter. I’d be interested to hear about plantings you’ve attempted in livestock bedding.

Late August update

a (1)

A few weeks later and we have dozens of giant winter squash. This picture doesn’t offer much perspective as the plants die back to reveal their fruits, but the squash are between 3 and 5. 5 feet long already. Oh, and volunteer potato plants also popped up in this fertile mess. I still have to get in there to dig them up. Amazing!

 

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Appreciating Diversity: Eggs, Orange Juice, One Another

A few eggs from the day’s gathering here on Bit of Earth Farm.

The same flock of chickens, even the same breed, lays fascinatingly diverse eggs. But chances are you’ve never seen them.

In part, that’s because hens in a commercial operation don’t live out their natural lifespan, so the rippled, dimpled, and bumpy-shelled eggs they’re more likely to lay as they get older don’t happen. And in part because non-standard eggs never make it to the grocery store carton — tossed out or relegated to “egg product” uses.

I put the most interesting eggs in our cartons with joy, sure the people who buy them will be delighted. I’m startled when people say they don’t want “odd” eggs, some even ask if they’re okay to use, as if an unusual shell implies the contents are flawed.

Food that is standardized in appearance and flavor is very new to our species. But now, even so-called single ingredient products like orange juice consistently taste the same.

Manufacturers strip oxygen from freshly squeezed orange juice so they can easily store it for a year or more before bottling. Problem is, removing the oxygen also removes the flavor. So they’ve formulated “flavor packs” to add to the juice to make it taste fresh and, well, orange-y. That’s why your brand of orange juice always tastes the same. The ingredients added? The citrus industry says it’s “orange aroma, orange oil from the peel, and pulp.”  Technically this can include chemically similar ingredients like ethyl butyrate. Consistent taste is one way corporations seek your brand loyalty (Tropicana is owned by PepsiCo, Minute Maid and Simply Orange are owned by Coca-Cola.)

Unvarying sameness is in direct opposition to the way food naturally tastes, although the word “natural” is so over-used by advertisers that it’s essentially meaningless. For all the years we raised cows, we grew to understand that milk tastes different depending on what cows ate as they grazed and the season itself. We could tell, day to day, if our cow had a hankering for a particular weed in the pasture. We could tell what spring milk tasted like in contrast to summer, fall, or winter milk. Everything we made from it — cheese, yogurt, kefir, butter —tasted of that season as well.

I can’t help but wonder if the standardization of commercial food, in taste and appearance, contributes to our cultural obsession with surface appeal. Appearance is perceived as much more desirable than substance, or at least more Instagrammable.

And I can’t help but wonder if our cultural discomfort with diversity stems in part from a corporatized food culture that prizes sameness of taste and experience in everything from packaged foods to restaurant franchises.

The egg that’s mottled, bumpy, or rippled is as nourishing as any other egg. When we see it at a farmer’s market or at a roadside stand, it’s also likely to have come from a hen living an uncaged, non-standardized existence.

We’re nourished in far deeper ways when we welcome diversity in people.

Posted in chickens, optimism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments