Friday, January 21, 2011

Taking stock

I have been wrestling with a tricky question: what, exactly, is the point of my vegetable garden?

There is an obvious answer: to grow vegetables. But it feels more complicated than that to me. Should I...
  • grow vegetables that are expensive to buy or difficult to find in stores? (such as heirloom tomatoes or purple potatoes)
  • grow vegetables that are good for me to eat? (such as kale)
  • grow vegetables that I like to eat? (such as anything except kale)
  • grow vegetables that will keep well? (such as winter squash and dried beans)
  • grow vegetables year round? (such as salad greens in the winter)
  • grow as many vegetables as I can, or just as many as I want?
  • grow vegetables in order to prepare for some kind of disaster, or simply to enrich my life now?
The last question is probably why this all feels so complicated to me. I have written before about the murky overlap between self-sufficiency and survivalism. I am one of those people who worries about disasters, so part of me wants to grow and squirrel away as many dried beans and potatoes as possible. But I also don't want to live in fear - I worry too much already about too many things.

The book The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe has been mentioned on a few blogs I read, and the title struck a chord. I bought the book, read it, and believe that it has given me a way to find my footing in that murky overlap. I won't go into all the details, but the most important message for me is that gardens need to survive all kinds of problems from major crises (like earthquakes here on the West Coast, which could make food self-sufficiency important in the short term, and climate change, which will change the conditions under which our gardens grow) to minor crises (like an arthritis flare-up that can put me out of commission for a few weeks, causing my garden to have to fend for itself). The best kind of garden is one that can accommodate a variety of changing conditions - a resilient garden. And the best kind of gardener is one who learns the skills she may need to manage both kinds of crises during less demanding times, like right now.

Take dried beans, for example. I dabbled with them my first year, and harvested about a pound. They took a fair amount of effort to grow and harvest, and a whole lot of work to convert them into a pot of baked beans (boy, do I need a pressure cooker...). The payoff didn't seem worth the investment of time and labour, especially since I can buy relatively inexpensive organic dried beans at the grocery store. So last year I didn't bother with dried beans.

But I thought about it a lot through the growing season. Dried beans are practical, because they have a great nutritional punch, and they don't require freezing or canning for preservation. It didn't feel entirely right, not growing them. After reading The Resilient Gardener, my thinking has resolved itself: it may not be a sound investment of my time and effort in the short-term to grow dried beans, but it's a skill I would like to have if I need to count on it some day. So this year half my bean bed will be devoted to Vermont Cranberry and Kenearly Yellow Eye beans for a dried bean harvest.

The same could be said of seed saving. Spending a few dollars on seeds every spring isn't such a bad thing, compared with the work it takes to save your own, but that's another skill I would like to have in case I ever need it. Carol Deppe gives good instructions for properly fertilizing squash plants, to ensure the seeds you get actually produce the right kind of squash the following year instead of some weird hybrid, so I'm going to give that a try.

Speaking of squash, Carol Deppe is very big on squash as a nutritious source of food that stores well. So I am making squash a big priority when it comes to allocating bed space: the 34-foot-long bed of artichokes is going to be emptied to make room for squash. Lots and lots of squash: Sweet Meat, Burgess buttercup, Spaghetti, Waltham butternut, Honey Bear acorn, Sugarloaf delicata and Sunshine kabocha. We like squash anyway, and could always eat more of it, so I am comfortable focusing on growing squash to provide food for ourselves year round without feeling like I'm obsessing over disaster scenarios.

Speaking of food year round, I haven't had a good track record when it comes to keeping the garden producing through the winter. The best I've been able to manage so far is to make sure I have rutabagas, leeks, beets and carrots in the ground when the cold weather hits. They last well through the winter - until they're eaten, that is. I've given half-hearted attempts at sturdy greens, like chard, mizuna and other Chinese greens, but my interest seems to flag about the time the water freezes in the outdoor hoses, making watering the plants in the greenhouse a real pain. I had the same problem my first year watering under the poly tunnels. Thinking about this, I've decided to try to do a better job with chard but stop bothering (at least for now) with salad greens. I just don't feel like eating salads in the winter; I want warm comfort food instead. Growing chard through the winter in the greenhouse will mean carting water from the house for watering, but once each week should do it. I can manage that.

It feels like I'm walking a bit of a thin line between taking pleasure in being even slightly self-sufficient when it comes to food, and obsessing over it because I'm worried about a catastrophe of one kind or another. I know I worry too much about lots of things, but Carol Deppe is helping me take a bigger, calmer, more practical view. Thanks, Carol.


Paula said...

Okay sister- you're going to have to learn to grow and like kale. I'll admit it's off-putting at first, but it's the easiest thing to grow and as long as you leave the bottom leaves for the slugs, they generally leave the upper leaves alone. You can cut and come again all season. I usually sow once every sixth months or so and have kale year 'round. It handles cold weather like a champ and actually gets sweeter with frost.

Here's how you make it good- I'll leave out the pasta since I know you don't handle glutens well, but my favorite way to eat it is with pasta: (and this should be enough for the two of you) fry up three diced slices of bacon and throw in a couple pinches of red pepper flakes. When the bacon is nearly done, throw in a couple of cloves of garlic, either sliced thinly or minced, whatever you want to do. Once they turn golden throw in a ladleful of water (I use hot pasta water) and medium bowlful of chopped kale. Cover with a lid and simmer over medium until the kale is cooked and the water has dissipated. Toss with some olive oil and fresh grated romano and serve, as a side dish in this case.

You can have it with one of those chickens you have lurking in the freezer.

Have you tried parsnips yet? They're a great root vegetable, and I had wonderful luck with them this year. I didn't weigh them but they were giants, and they took up maybe two square feet out of my planter box. They were a great return on the investment. Cobham Improved Marrow is supposed to be good in heavy soil- I was just lucky that was the variety I bought to sow. They didn't get any pests either. Easy.

I'm glad you liked the Deppe; she makes some compelling arguments. And I'm with you on the food hoarding thing.

But you really do need to eat those chickens....and try kale my way.

Paula said...

I meant to tell you that's a lovely cabbage, by the way...

jeanives said...

I love how you know yourself so well; you get an A++ on meta-cognition. Kale for us is raw, chopped finely, given a good (but not slimy) coating of olive oil, salt, dried cranberries, and either sliced almonds or pine nuts see my post on kale salad because I know you ignored it.

Negerigeletschtempoit said...

What an interesting post. And Paula's comment also. You both got me thinking.

We also plant and think about the changes in the world, and the possibility of needing what we harvest in case of a catastrophe or some sort. We can, dehidrate and store. And eat our own good produce throughout the year.

I will check on this book you mention. It seems to be very good.

Toni aka irishlas said...

Hubsters and I have been discussing this same issue and have come to the conclusion that although it may be fun growing new varieties, etc., we are better off growing things that can be processed or stored - i.e. canned, frozen, or cellared. So, although we may not have the most exciting garden, it will be practical and feed us.
I do want to try my hand again with dried beans. I've had poor success with them. I also need to get on board with learning to garden in winter. Now, if I only had a little more time I may actually be able to accomplish something!

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