Sunday, November 24, 2013

Bracing Ourselves

It's bitterly cold today, 23 degrees with a mean arctic wind whipping across the mountaintop. Hard to believe that we spent the entire day yesterday outside, putting up the greenhouse, prepping garlic beds, and pulling in a surprisingly large harvest for late November--several pounds of little leftover onions, leaf beets that are still going strong, and about 20 pounds of parsnips.

Back in October we brought in half our parsnips and left half in the ground, and when I dug them up yesterday they were monsters. Hopefully the cold weather has concentrated their flavor without the texture getting too fibrous. But if they've matured into that sweet, cinnamon goodness, then I don't mind cutting out a tough core one bit.

We also checked on the horseradish, and sure enough, the roots have been going crazy underground. Recently I've been on an Eastern European kick and eaten at a couple of Russian restaurants in New York and Washington, DC. Their savory infused vodkas knocked my socks off, with the horseradish infusion being my favorite. So we broke off a good-sized piece of root and I shaved it and put it in vodka this morning. In a few days we should have a bracing winter tonic. Some people swear that a shot of horseradish vodka with a spoonful of honey stirred into it will clear your sinuses and ward off an oncoming cold. A more genteel person might use this infusion for a spiced-up bloody mary. In the interest of science, I will try both and report back.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

We're so spoiled to be able to make meals almost
completely with goods we produce ourselves.
But we can do even better.
It's not all about fancy new greenhouses around here. At the same time, austerity measures are being implemented. Sometimes Mark and I get carried away by our enthusiasm for growing obscure and unusual vegetables. Often, there is a reason said varieties are obscure. We grew a row of fava bean plants this past year--plants that required purchasing seeds, planting, tending, watering, weeding, and harvesting--that yielded about 2 cups of beans after they were removed from their fleshy pods, blanched, and shelled again. As much as I love favas, that's not much of a return on our investment. Same goes for the black chickpeas--two peas inside every tiny pod means a lot of work, and the small, feathery plants required frequent weeding so they wouldn't get swallowed by thistles and garlic mustard. There's a reason these aren't perfectly suited to our climate or to the way we garden.

In 2014, we're looking for a little more bang for our buck. There's satisfaction in being economical and sustainable. I'll step into the chicken coop with kitchen scraps, spent grain from brewing beer, and whey leftover from making cheese, and I get to walk out with a pocket full of eggs, white and blue and brown, some so recently laid that they're still warm, all with richest golden yolks I've ever seen. It feels so rewarding, and I get one step further away from the stereotype of the wasteful American consumer. I feel like part of a primal network of people, animals, and the land.

We grew these hops for Man Skirt Brewing,
and we feed his spent grain to the chickens. Everybody wins!
Right now we see glimpses of it: growing some hops for the brewer who gives us his spent grain that we feed to the chickens, who give us eggs, some of which we give back to the brewer. Using day-old cream from our neighbor's farm stand to make butter, trading honey for vegetables from our farmer friends. Recently we've been going a little deeper into the system by helping to establish a local seed library, and launching LocalShare, a project that uses farmers' culls to feed people who don't have access to fresh, local produce.

We'll still be growing mostly heirloom varieties using biodynamic and permaculture practices, but there's nothing wrong with trying to save a bit of money and our own energy. So we'll be growing fewer varieties and bulking up on veggies that produce and store well--broccoli, potatoes, carrots, plum tomatoes, green beans. Veggies we can't get enough of, that aren't labor intensive, that won't go to waste. This is what we're working toward--closing the loop, eliminating waste, helping ourselves and others.

To that end, we're taking suggestions for what we should grow next year. What do you grow that's delicious, prolific, easy, and well suited to zone 6b? Because heaven forbid we should do anything that's easy.

LocalShare pepper cull from Caristi Farms--185 pounds total.
Most was distributed to food pantries, but we made
50 pounds into pickles and hot pepper jam.

Raising the Roof

We can't leave well enough alone. You probably know this about us. It seems like every year we embark on some big project. Last year it was the chickens, before that the bees. We made a pinky swear that we'd take it easy in 2014--no big projects. Well, it turns out we're untrustworthy, because this showed up at our house today:

Xmas came a little early this year. Yup, we're building a greenhouse. And in order to impose some kind of order on the garden, we're also putting down environmentally friendly landscape fabric to widen the paths and attempt to keep some of the weeds at bay. We have long wanted to extend our growing season and create an environment that's friendlier to our favorite heat-seeking plants like eggplant and peppers, as well as our potted kaffir lime, lemongrass, and baby fig trees. Plus a greenhouse will give us the space we do desperately need for starting seeds and storing garden tools. No more making potting mix in the dank basement or filling seed trays in the living room! We had talked about cold frames and a hoop house, but finally we just bit the bullet and got the most useful and versatile structure we could think of. After all, the greenhouse is just one layer of protection; incorporating cold frames and row covers inside the greenhouse extends the season even further.