Friday, March 23, 2012

Managing March Madness

March Madness is a real phenomenon.  After being cooped up all winter, creatures (including humans) start going a little stir crazy. The goats get crabby and start head butting each other with more than usual intensity. The dog decides it is time to run the cats out of town. I start wanting to dig up every available patch of earth and throw seeds in it.

I have learned the hard way that madness is not the best way to plant the garden. First of all, in the normal March the soil temperature is too low, and even the seeds of the most cold-hardy plants don’t germinate well. The second problem is that I tend to plant more than I can reasonably care for, so come July I have a weedy, poorly performing mess. Furthermore, as I move more in the direction of live storage, I need to do more planting in the mid summer so that the vegetables are ready to harvest in the fall rather than summer.

This year March has been unusually warm. The vegetation is out several weeks in advance. Nature seems to have an urgency about getting a head start on the life cycle. The temptation to March madness is extremely strong, but still madness. A warm March can be followed by a cold April so even if the seeds germinate it still isn’t safe to plant anything except very cold hardy seeds such as radishes, spinach and onions. Furthermore there is still the temptation to over plant things.

In order to combat my temptation to March madness, I have decided to take a more contemplative approach to gardening this year. I recently read the expression that the best fertilizer is the foot steps of the gardener so I have decided that every morning I will take a stroll through the garden before I start working on things. Taking this stroll has allowed me to see that the plants that wintered over need some attention. The garlic and Egyptian onions that have come up from bulbs planted in the fall needed weeded. So did the collards that will be going to seed this year. I am also digging and planting things (seeds that say to plant as soon as soil can be worked on the seed package can be safely planted, but observe the frost free dates for anything else), but hopefully in a more reflective manner than I would be without that morning stroll.

It still remains to be seen if my newly formed habit of taking a daily stroll through the garden will bear results in a neater, more productive garden, but it has already born fruit in a few peaceful, happy gardening hours.

Wishing you a happy, productive garden season for 2012.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Beauty So Great

A cold grey morning...
Frost covers the ground.
Dark shapes of leafless trees
stand out sharply against the dull mist.

Beauty so great
has no need to shout,
but silently invites the soul
to stillness and peace.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Time to Plan the Garden

When the snow comes down and there is finally a chance to rest from all the outdoor chores, the avid gardener inevitably turns to seed catalogues and gardening books and dreams about next year’s load of heavy labor. It might be a form of insanity, but then again it might be a healthy instinct—now is the time to plan out the garden, go through seed inventories, and get those seeds ordered. Time to plant will be on us before we know it, and planning the garden ahead saves time and energy in spring and summer.

The first thing to do when planning a garden is to determine what your overall goal for gardening actually is. If you just want to add some flavor and nutrition to your table, your planning task is easier than if you want to start moving in the direction of food independence. But either way, here are some things to keep in mind while you are planning.

Grow what you like to eat. Don’t grow beets and turnips just because they are good storage crops if you are not going to eat them. But at the same time, be a little adventurous. Just because you didn’t like something as a kid doesn’t mean you won’t like it now, especially if you find new ways of cooking things. I try to plant a new thing every year. Last year I planted okra for the first time, and it was a great success. Some of my traditional plants like squash and cabbage did very poorly, but the okra thrived and added a welcome change to my dinner plate.

Make sure that what you grow is suited to your climate and soil type. Some plants have a long growing season and can’t reach maturity in northern climates. Others prefer cool weather and need to be planted in spring or fall in climates where the summer is hot.  There can also be considerable variety within a species of when you can expect a crop to mature. Seed catalogues usually list the number of days to maturity for the varieties they offer. Pay attention to the number of days and make sure that your growing season is long enough for a particular variety. You should also take into consideration what diseases affect your area. Your local county extension office can be of great service in all of these matters.

If your goal is to raise a substantial portion of your own food and put it by for the winter, then planning becomes more complicated. Here is something to consider. How will you preserve it? Freezing, canning, drying, and live storage are the major options. Some vegetables do better with one method rather than another. Corn out of the freezer is delicious, dried corn makes a nice chewy snack, but canned corn is cooked for a long time under pressure which changes the flavor and uses much fuel. Tomatoes, on the other hand, do not undergo a significant flavor change in the canning process, and they are good out of the freezer. The live storage time of both corn and tomatoes is limited. Root crops, such as potatoes and turnips, as well as cabbage, will keep a long time in storage is kept in a cool damp place where it will not freeze. Some root crops such as parsnips and Jerusalem artichokes can be stored in the ground all winter. (I love them. It is such fun to go out to the garden in the middle of February and find food!)

Now is time to go to the library and do some reading. One book that I use extensively in planning my garden is “Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruit & Vegetables” by Mike and Nancy Bubel. I first discovered it at my local library, but decided I needed my own copy for constant reference. It is a good idea to read up on other garden related topics such and soil improvement, pest control, and canning also. There is little time for reading in the summer and fall when the pests and harvest are upon you. And there is nothing worse than being in the middle of a canning project and discovering you don't have the right equipment!

Finally, don’t be overly ambitious. If you plant more than you can care for, your results will be disappointing. I haven’t learned to follow my own advice on this point yet! Just beware!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Simply Catholic in a Hostile World

I have always hated election years in spite of a life long interest in political philosophy. During election year the rhetoric flies and the mud flies; much of the rhetoric and the mud is only tangentially related to important issues. There are important issues, and we need to discuss them in a civil way. Election years, however, seem to be the occasion for emotions to rise to fever pitch and for reason to go out the window.

I am not immune to the temptation to respond to political issues with emotional outbursts. I fear that my current anger at modern culture occasioned in part by the Obama administration’s ruling that religious employers will be required to pay for contraception, sterilization, etc. regardless of issues of conscience is threatening to make me want to give in to rhetorical mudslinging and venting. My anger is even greater at the so called compromise the administration put forward on Friday. But my fear of not speaking out at a critical moment in history is even greater, so I resolve to start mixing in comments in government along with gardens and goats. My thoughts go to the Prophet Amos who said, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son,; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” (Amos 7:14-15). I am feeling uncomfortable!

Before I start venturing into issues that are political hot buttons, I want to clarify some of my starting points. Particularly, I want to clarify my starting points for non Catholic readers because there are so many misconceptions about Catholics, Catholic doctrine, and the Catholic view of the political order.

I believe in God; I believe God is infinitely good and beautiful. I believe that human beings were created in His image and likeness. His image may be marred by sin but it is still there in every human being. We must never loose sight of this, ever. When we do loose sight of it, as we will in the heat of the moment, we must repent.

Nevertheless, there are objective standards of morality, and I believe that we only reach our full human potential if we try to live in conformity to those standards. For some reason, it is always the Church’s teaching on sexuality that gets the most vocal attention. Unfortunately, that attention is rarely in the form of intelligent discussion of the issues; and it rarely recognizes that the root of Catholic teaching on morality is that human dignity requires us to view sexuality in terms of the whole human person, and that human dignity requires that we never treat a person, including our own selves simply as an object of sensual gratification.

But sexuality is not the only subject that the Church teaches on, and it isn’t the only one that will make you politically unpopular, often with the very people that agree with the Church on sexual issues. Two such issues that are important to me are the environment and Middle Eastern peace. The Church’s position on these issues is also rooted in human dignity, as well as recognition that God is creator of all goods and meant these good for all persons. We must be good stewards to safe guard resources for future generations. We must look at issues surrounding Middle Eastern peace in view of the dignity of all persons regardless of race or religion.

Now these are all difficult issues, and many different political solutions can be debated and supported by people of good will in relationship to these issues. This is why you rarely hear the bishops coming out with such force on an issue as we have seen them do in regard to the HHS Mandate. Contrary to an old myth about Catholics that is still very much around, we don’t take political marching orders from the pope. I invite all who may disagree with me, whether on my first principles or my conclusions based on them to voice your position. I only ask that you keep in mind human dignity and forgive any human frailty.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Food in Due Season—Salad from the Root Cellar

I never would have thought of eating beets raw, but a visitor from New Zealand made this salad for us. It is now a favorite. It is worth a try even if you don’t like cooked beets. Raw beets are light and sweet; they don’t have the heavy, earthy flavor of cooked beets.

I was happy to find that the last of the fresh beets from the root cellar were still crisp and sweet enough to make this beet and apple salad.

1 raw grated beet root
2 raw grated apples
Chopped onion to taste
Mix and sprinkle lemon juice (about a tablespoon) on top. Chill for several hours. Serve with vinaigrette. I make it out of apple cider vinegar (homemade if I have it), sunflower oil, in one to one proportions and salt and pepper to taste.

“The eyes of all look to thee, and thou givest them their food in due season” (Psalm 145 [144]:15).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A New Beginning

I was never much one for making New Year’s resolutions. It seems that whenever I do make them, I forget what I was doing and go back to old ways before January is over. It seems like a much more practical thing to make a new moon resolution, or better yet a new week resolution.

Nevertheless, New Year’s is a good time to reflect on the past year and review what went wrong and what right, and to see what might be the way to move forward into the future. It is a time for new beginnings.

2011 saw many little successes. The garden didn’t do great, but we still have plenty food for the winter. We started moving away from so much canning towards live storage and winter gardening. Although the fall vegetable crop did not do well, we got inexpensive cabbages from the Amish to make sauerkraut and to store for fresh eating, and someone gave us turnips which will keep a good while in cold storage. New Year’s Day saw me scavenging in the garden for the last of the Brussels sprouts before winter gets here in for force. The greenhouse is doing well. We have chard, collard greens, and lettuce growing there. In the New Year we will continue further down the path to more live storage as a path to greater simplicity. Not only does live storage save on fossil fuels used in canning, it also spreads the work out over the whole year. It does take more planning though.

We figured out the right number of goats to milk in 2011. Our four Nubians produce a good amount of milk for fresh drinking and making cheese, but not the over-abundance we had the previous year with five milk goats. But we found out the hard way that it is simpler to keep a buck than to find someone with a buck that is available when you need it. So next year we will be in the market for a new buck.

I finally started to find a way to balance writing and homesteading in 2011. It isn’t easy; it requires scheduling and self discipline. And little things like the flu and time changes still throw me off. This is definitely an area for me to work on improving next year.

Overall, the lesson in simplicity that 2011 taught me was that simplicity and planning/scheduling go hand and hand. It might not seem that way at first. But in fact a plan or a schedule frees the mind from dwelling on all of the complexities that are involved in little everyday decisions to reflect on other things, like the poetry of everyday life—a swaying flower, the sound of the wind, the laughter of a friend.

My New Year’s wish for you is to find the ever greater peace of mind that comes with simplicity.