Gardening Harvesting Homesteading

Life lessons, taught by tomatoes.

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The tomatoes have been generous this year. We harvested a slew of cherries, including sungolds, sweet millions, and a bounty from one sturdy volunteer in the compost pile. It reminded me that it was one of our favorites last year—a teeny, lemon-colored bunching yellow. We also got a basketful of bigger Brandywines and green zebras. (Apparently I was too busy eating them to take any pictures.)
 
We picked every tomato that showed any promise at all before hurricane Irene blew through. That was a good thing: Most gangly branches were stressed—and several snapped from the wind and falling pine boughs during the storm. Most of the bigger fruiting plants went south after that. There were a lot of them.

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Still, I'd picked A LOT of tomatoes. The shallow bowls full of fruits in every stage of ripening stared at me. I felt guilt when I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) deal with them. So, my family held an intervention. This year’s garden was big, to be sure. It included the usual frustrations of woodchucks and bed construction and whole zones of heavy clay. But what I realized, through some prodding, is that manageable = enjoyable.
 
We decided to limit ourselves next year to only the things we know we grow well and are easy to gather—and process. I realize that too many tomatoes makes me feel bad; I can’t keep up with the pruning, the staking or the harvest. And the smell of rotting tomatoes makes my hair stand on end. So I plan to plant fewer of the winners. For us, that amounts to 10. (I totally neglected many of the 32 we grew this year, hanging out near the stakes, below.) I’ll be able to really prepare for and nurture them, and I know they’ll be healthier and more productive for it.

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I even have a plan for next season that I can start right now. I read in Barbara Pleasant’s amazingly useful book, Easy Garden Projects to Make, Build, and Grow that one of the simplest, low-maintenance ways to fertilize and prepare your tomato bed is as easy as this:

  • Remove the plants that were growing in the bed where your tomatoes will be next year. (By crop rotation mandate, they shouldn’t return to the same bed, if you can help it.) Turn the soil by hand and mix in an inch or two of compost, old leaves, grass clippings or other soil amendments.
  • Find yourself some hairy vetch seeds, sprinkle some there as a cover crop, and walk away. This perennial legume will take hold, outpace annual weeds in the spring, and fix nitrogen in the bed that your plants can use later.
  • A week or two before you plan to put out your tomatoes, cut down the vetch with a sickle or shears. Leave the tops of the plants lying right there to break down and slowly release nitrogen back into the soil.
  • Cut 12-inch holes right into the vetch bed (leave the roots in place everywhere else), and plant your tomato transplants in the holes. Mulch right around the seedlings with old hay, straw or eelgrass (my aim for next year). That’s it.

 
My mind was pretty much made up. But I was utterly convinced after reading about this strategy's surprising benefits at the Rodale Institute, near Kutztown, Pennsylvania (home to the 30-year-old Farming Systems Trial). It's the longest-running U.S. study comparing organic versus conventional farming techniques, and researchers there have dabbled in several cover-crop combinations as alternatives to black-plastic mulch for growing food. They found that a fall-planted rye or rye-vetch mulch not only choked out weeds, it mulched the soil (no straw necessary), and it boosted yields.

Plants that sustain themselves? Um, that makes perfect sense to me. I’m off to rip out spent plants and turn over soggy soil. (It's been raining for days here.) While I'm at it, I'll try to remember what these fruits of my labor have taught me: Do less, better.

Gardening Homesteading Kids

A wild and beautiful visitor

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I was making pancakes, Michael was tidying up, and the boys were organizing toys, when Owen announced how sad it was that a bright red bird had flown into the window and fallen down into the garden. You could see his flaming red feathers as he laid there, looking all but dead.

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Michael gently picked him up and brought him inside. We all stared in awe at this bold little songbird—a Scarlet Tanager. He'd flown here from South America, we learned. And his chip-churr song, which we also tracked down, is a lilting and a true sign of spring, Owen thought. We made him a little nest so he could rest. He closed his eyes often, a sign that he was tired, Caleb thought. We all thought he might have hurt a wing, or banged his head, before he fell.

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But before long, he flapped out of his box and around the kitchen before perching himself on a stack of cereal bowls. He was restored. And we set him free.

Cooking Food and Drink Foraging Harvesting Homesteading Kids Preserves and canning

And so it flows…

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The snow is finally subsiding here, and I’m reappearing after a long respite. Such a busy and wonderful Winter has melted into a sweet Spring. Why? Well, because the balance of life seems to be finally tipping in the direction of ease. So much of the past couple of years has seemed, well, uphill. Between little ones, big projects and small budgets, it sometimes felt like I could never get ANYTHING done. I won’t count my chickens yet (although we’ve ordered eight new chicks, due in early May). But I will count my blessings.

This, my friends, is one of them.

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I have been dreaming of tapping our own maple trees to boil clear, drippy sap into golden, earthy maple syrup—for years. Visits to sugar houses, where hobbyists and seasoned families fire up their evaporators and serve sugar on snow, got me hooked. But the short sugaring season snuck up on me every March—until this year, when I finally got geared up in time. I felt giddy as we left Slattery’s Maple Supply with a stack of used sap buckets and taps, and I listened to them rattle around in the way back on the bumpy backroads home.

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The boys and I spent the next afternoon drilling and tapping 10 maples, to start. We soon figured out how to do it, drilling a slightly uphill hole into each with a 7/16 inch drill bit. And we picked trees that were close to the house and big enough to share some of their sap with us.

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The boys hung the buckets and threaded the covers over the taps to keep out rain and debris. Fruit flies seem to find their way in, anyway, but we filtered them out later.

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As soon as we hung the last bucket, we heard it: on cue, the bright “plink”…”plink” … “plink” told us the sap was running. (The cold nights and warming days of late March get trees pumping.) I was so grateful. The fact is, so many  homesteading projects require well-planned effort and exacting efficiency. But everything about this was so uncomplicated that I could just concentrate on the fun.

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A day or so later, we hauled a huge lobster pot out of the basement, built a fire in the belly of an old grill beneath it, and we started boiling. Between the spring sunshine warming our backs, a fire warming our hands, and the smell of woodsmoke mixed with moist, sweet maple in the air, Owen said what we were all thinking… “This is just plain pleasant, isn’t it?”

We cleaned up gardens while it boiled. We fed the fire as it boiled. We ate supper outside as it boiled. We fetched more cool sap from waiting maples as it boiled. And, at the end of our first sugaring season, we’d made just about three quarts of gorgeous, golden, maple syrup to pour over everything. Without even tasting it, I feel all warm and happy inside. Spring is sweet. Muddy, but sweet.

Gardening Harvesting Kids

How ’bout these melons?

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Proud garden moment: Ambrosia melons. Two of them. It took months of care and tending to produce these beauties, in soil that had just become a garden this June. We planted them late. And we crossed our fingers.

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They looked so beautiful that little hands couldn’t help but feel them all day long (we were waiting for a quorum before slicing them open). I kept picturing them rolling off the counter and exploding their beautiful juiciness all over the kitchen floor. Then we’d have to lick the floor.

So we petted them, carefully.

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When we finally sliced them, we gasped at their beauty.

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And we ate them—sooo melony and floral, mildly sweet, and almost a bit savory. As it turned out, the juice dripped from our chins onto the table—and then onto the floor.

We licked the table.

Cooking Food and Drink Gardening Harvesting

A simple garden meal

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garden fresh (and simple) nicoise

We spent a long afternoon last week at our friend's farm, where we dug potatoes and left for home with a bagful of loot. I ogled over his tractor and acres of flat ground. The boys, meantime, ran through soft dirt in bare feet, feeling for tubers with their toes.

Among them were these Peruvian purple beauties. They are not only gorgeous outside (who knew, until we washed them?!), but luscious inside—perfect for a steaming in a seaside clambake. Perhaps it's because of my Irish roots, or maybe just because something so humble can be so nimble, but I love potatoes. The fact that these look like moody Easter eggs makes them all the more wondrous.

Onto the point: The meal we made from these simple ingredients is one of my favorites of all time. Truth be told, I'm a simple cook. But I love great food. So I'm at my happiest when we can stroll the the garden, pick (and nibble) beans and herbs, grab a plump head of our garlic, pile up day-old potatoes, and march inside. I know a great meal is coming, with little toil from me.

This recipe is one I call warm potato salad or Poor Girl's Nicoise, based loosely on one by my Australian muse, Donna Hay. It is wonderfully inexpensive, filling and soul-warming, all at once. It's on heavy rotation here because it's great when you've got the garden goods and when your pantry feels bare.

  • Warm, cooked potatoes, sliced thickly
  • Green beans, trimmed and blanched
  • A few herbs like parsley, summer savory or oregano
  • A can of tuna (I didn't have any on hand on this day, but I usually do. Of course, fresh tuna would be divine.

For the genius vinaigrette:

  • 4 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 Tablespoons cider or white wine vinegar
  • 2 Tablespoons seeded mustard (if you don't have any—and I often don't—I just use dijon and toss in  a spoonful of mustard seeds; they are the key to its interesting texture)

Stack several slices of potato in a wide bowl (I choose a bowl over a plate, any day). Scoop chunks of tuna—about half a can per person—onto the pile. Then, lay a handful of green beans and herbs on top. In a separate, little bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar and mustard, and a bit of salt and pepper. Generously drizzle the vinaigrette over each.

Now, dig in. And tell me if it isn't the most surprisingly yummy meal you've eaten—maybe ever.

Cooking Foraging Gardening Harvesting Kids Preserves and canning

Surrounded by blackberries.

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For all of our growing pains this growing season—bigger gardens mean a lot less energy for tending the ones you already have—I'm always grateful for the blackberries. They were here when we came. We've lent a bit of care and weeding, a bit of seaweed and pruning here and there. But otherwise, even in hot, dry summers like this one (when they ripened a full two weeks earlier than in years' past), we handle them simply. We call it benign neglect.

The result: the richest, sweetest and plumpest berries we can remember eating from these rugged hills. And now that our little ones are getting bigger (and eating more berries), the harvesting goes faster than ever. Caleb is four, and eats at least as much as he picks. But he also picks. And every plump berry helps when you're collecting as much as you can for your family's supply of homemade jam, a crisp or two, and berries to grace your vanilla ice cream whenever you want them.

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In past seasons, we'd pick berries whenever we could swing it. It's a big job, for which you have to cover yourself in long pants and heavy shirts to thwart thorns—in the heat of August. But I read recently that Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, my small-holding, sustainable food-rearing muse from River Cottage in Dorset, England, swears that the best flavor comes from picking at the end of a hot, dry day.  (He then puts up jam immediately thereafter.)

We've had plenty hot, dry days in these parts. This just meant feeding the troops early and heading out in the evening. We picked well into twilight. It was magic.

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So were the berries—all 12 pounds of them (from this harvest). We always get two, or more. And you can see from these loaded canes that we have plenty coming on later.

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After putting up our jam, following the beautifully simple recipe from the Smith & Hawken Gardener's Community Cookbook. It uses no pectin, as blackberries are especially high in natural pectin. Just a mix of ripe and slightly underripe berries. And plenty of sugar. Gentle, patient boiling. Then, suddenly, the next best thing since warm, home-baked bread.

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The next flush of berries went into a quick crisp, which I adapted from our friend, Winnie's, otherworldly rhubarb crisp. (Recipe coming soon.) It's berries, sugar and a thick topping of oats, brown sugar, and a bit of flour. (The boys and I could, well, did, eat handfuls of the stuff.) Are you seeing a pattern here?

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I love the spoils of summer. I hope you're enjoying them, too.

Books Chickens Homesteading Tools

Buying, selling and broody hens

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I've been weighing for a while now a decision I have not taken lightly. (Yes, I tend to over think things.) I like bucking consumer culture. I admire others who do, too. But I have been inspired lately by my friend, Jules, who founded the site Daily Grommet as a way to support what she calls "citizen commerce." We are going to spend money; we should make what we do spend, count.

In that spirit, I'm pleased to say that I will begin reviewing books and tools and even sharing good deals from suppliers of goods I really dig.

The fact is that as much as we strive to make do with what we have and enjoy what we can make (eggs, check; honey, check; vegetables and fruit, check; some of our clothes, check), there is plenty I will never do myself. And there's plenty more to learn. Good tools help make big jobs much faster, more efficient, and, most of all, fun.

Naturally, I'll only write about gear and suppliers I love—and I think you would, too. And if you buy something I recommend and link to here, I get a teeny, tiny cut of the sale. Every little bit helps. So thank you.

I already run a handful of advertisements, but I'll dive deeper with an outfit called
OpenSky. These friendly folks will help me run my Project Homestead Store, featuring some of my favorite things (cue Julie Andrews). The doors will open here early next month, so stay tuned!

As I wade into these uncharted waters, it seemed fitting to first recommend a book that I can't live without. I keep it on my desk and smile whenever I (or the boys) open it.
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It is Minnie Rose Lovgreen's Recipe for Raising Chickens, and it is the most charming little book I've seen—maybe ever. Minnie Rose was supposed to sail across the Atlantic on the Titanic, but she got restless and hopped on another boat. She made it, and moved to Bainbridge Island, Washington, in the 1920s. For the next three decades, she and her husband, Leo, raised a family and chickens on their thriving dairy farm.

Minnie Rose's old friend and neighbor, Nancy Rekow, taped Minnie Rose's stories some 35 years ago and hand-lettered her advice on 36 pages. (It has just been reprinted.) Most are neatly written text. But a few feature wonderful illustrations by another neighbor, Elizabeth Hutchison Zwick, like this one.

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The observations are so folksy and commonsensical, you feel like you're hearing advice straight from your chicken-loving Nana (she doesn't miss much)—all while she's filling the hens' pail of oyster shells. Simple truth No. 1: "The main thing is to keep them happy." Minnie Rose herself wrote …

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I love Mrs. Lovgreen. She makes me love my chickens even more than I already do.

Gardening Homesteading

The tractor man cometh.

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Meet Andy.

Andy is the "tractor man" of my dreams. He has helped friends carve out, rototill and maintain farms, fields and gardens of all sizes. I've heard how fast he works, and how many things he can do in no time. For more than a year now, I've had a grand plan in mind for our hillside permaculture garden. And Andy has been the lynch pin for realizing it.

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We were finally ready for him. One wonderful morning last week, he pulled in and hopped onto his friendly Kubota. The boys instantly recalled Mary Anne, the steam shovel of their storybook imaginations. Owen was happy to offer directions: Head over the bridge, to where Mama is waiting. With color-coded sketches for you to follow.

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The garden above where Andy cut a comfortable path was a swath of land I cleared myself, over several weeks, last spring. It was backbreaking. And slow. Once I knew how good the soil beneath the encroaching Japanese honeysuckle was—and how much sunlight bathed it all—I couldn't wait to open up the rest of the hill. (See the color of that soil? My beloved arugula bed is just above it.)

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Andy's tractor dug twice as much in half a day as it took me a whole season to clear, weed, and till. To say I was giddy would be an understatement.

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It may look like unconventional farmland, and I suppose it is. But I was inspired to reclaim this sunny hillside for growing food by an Austrian permaculture pioneer/loveable kook named Sepp Holzer. He grows apricots and peaches, tomatoes and lemons—all on his high Alpine forest farm, at an altitude of between 3,300 and 4,900 feet above sea level. (We're at sea level.)

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Holzer's theory of expending fossil fuels once to carve a productive annual and perennial garden into of bright hillside (and mild microclimate), made perfect sense to me. Access is key. That's why I love my terrace path so much.

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Of course, I'm not the only one who loved Andy. I think the boys would invite him to move in, if he'd stay.

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Wouldn't you, if the earth-moving amusement park came to you? It did for all of us, in a way. The boys took several spinning bucket rides. And I've planted tomatoes on the top of the new path, where they'll bake in the heat radiating off the new hillside. Pumpkins, beans and melons are ready to tumble down the lower hillside. I'm so elated that something I've dreamt about for so long exceeded my expectations. Now comes the work of soil improvement, replanting, and patience.

I can't wait.

Community Cooking Food and Drink Kids Travel

Picnics are magic.

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A dreamy early evening picnic on an island off the coast of Maine last weekend
reminded me how simple perfection can be. Here's what I learned…

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First, let your youngest captains steer the ship. (And name your boat Little Buttercup.)

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Take turns—and take your time. 

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Make yourselves comfortable.

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Collect ample firewood.

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Light your campfire in a sheltered spot, with a view. Use driftwood for tables. Grill hot dogs wrapped in bacon (no kidding). Let others explore tide pools.

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Celebrate a sweet birthday with a nod to tradition. (Yes, those are wedding rings around the candles).

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Take time for yourself.

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The Golden Rule applies: Roast marshmallows for others as you would roast them for yourself—charred, to molten perfection. Then share them freely with those you love.

Homesteading Honeybees

Honeybees, welcome home.

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They came a week ago—all 10,000 of them—in a screened box. Their queen was hiding in plain sight, inside a small screened box of her own. Michael poured our new honeybees into their new top bar beehive on Sunday. And by Thursday, they had eaten through the candy plug to release her, and get to work.

And I mean work. Their family is only one-sixth the size they will be. Yet in four days, they'd built four bars' worth of virgin beeswax honeycomb. When we checked in on them, they were clinging to the comb they had built in a catenary curve, and moving over and under each other with ease. There's nothing frantic or frightening about it: Michael and our great beekeeping friend, Winnie, naturally wore mesh hoods when they opened the hive. But the boys and I can open the hive's back window anytime (with no protection at all) and take a peek ourselves.

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Bringing home a colony of honeybees is hard to describe in the way bringing home a baby is. We have been planning for the arrival of these delicate little ones for months. But they are not cuddly and sweet and completely dependent on you. (And they don't grow up and help you tend to projects you all love.) They're the opposite, in many ways. From the get-go, they know where they live. They're already collecting plenty of nectar. They're making their own home.

Yet watching an intelligent, cooperative community thrive, when it can live as nature intended, is kind of awesome. These acrobats hover around blooming honeysuckle and again right outside their one-inch wide front door—telling the others where the good eats are. Honeybees each have their role, and they work together to keep the colony healthy. They're so good at it all that their sweet honey feeds us, too.

Truth is, they give me hope: Another living connection to all that grows in the ground reminds me that life is good. And bees are great.