Roots and Fruits

So, for the past couple of years we've just kind of been growing random things without an overall plan; we've tried out new plants and bought things on a whim and stuck plants in the ground any old place without a whole lot of planning. This is more my fault than David's -- but we've both agreed after this year that this is high on the list of skills we need to work on next growing season.

Part of the reason for this is that we're pushing our luck on the tomatoes and peppers at this point -- we've had them in the same place for a couple of years now, and that's just asking for trouble. Another issue is that we suck at succession planting, so our harvest comes in all at once. Yet another hurdle is that there are some fairly basic things we've just not taken the time to learn how to grow properly -- like spinach and lettuce -- so things that could be an ongoing harvest have been overlooked in favor of things like tomatoes, and tomatoes are so much work that anything else that needs to be processed at the same time stands a chance of going bad while it waits for me to get around to it. And we should eat more spinach anyway, especially since I love it raw. So next year is going to be Back to Basics Year.

This doesn't mean I'm not going to plant anything new. It does mean I'm going to reign in my tendency to purchase fifty tomato plants, though. Next year we're going to focus on growing things we eat and that store well with minimum effort, like potatoes, carrots, and onions. We're also going to work on picking up some of those basics we've not paid enough attention to, like greens. And we're going to try our hand at a few new staples: beans are a given now that we've discovered what a joy it is to harvest them dry instead of trying to consume pounds and pounds of green beans, which we're indifferent to at best; the amaranth did well enough this year that I really want to give quinoa another go next year; and we've discovered that it is possible to successfully grow sweet potatoes in our climate, as the Amish who supply them to our co-op do so. We'll still grow a few tomatoes and a lot of peppers (the bells in particular are very cost-effective!), but since we end up buying most of the tomatoes for our big processing batches anyway, we'll take a year or two off the intensive growing to reduce the risk of disease.

The other thing we're going to do is pay more attention to our fruits. We've planted a frankly astonishing quantity of fruit on our small lot over the past three years, and we're finally starting to get harvests worth mentioning. This year we added a number of things, including two tart cherry trees and three grapevines, so next year should be even better. But at some point we need to take the time to do things like renovate the strawberry bed and learn to prune back our bramble-berries and the plum tree, so it might as well be next year. And I need to take the time to really clear out the persistent weeds sprouting around our fruiting trees and shrubs so they don't have to spend so much energy competing.

There's a laundry list of other things we've been "meaning to get around to" that will make our garden more productive, but which have been procrastinated in favor of shinier, more exciting things like planting my herb garden or getting the chicken coop started: we desperately need to clean up the yard waste "compost pile" (which is really more of a sod graveyard), rake up the mulch around the raised beds and put in thick cardboard to beat back seven or eight trillion of the quackgrass plants, take out hundreds of pounds of extra dirt back by the alley to start new raised beds, and deal with the mess that is our post-giant-stump boulevard, once and for all.

I feel like up until now, what I've been doing is building the bones of a great garden -- pulling out sod, planning a layout, getting a start on where things are going to eventually go, and just trying to keep it from being too hideously ugly. But at some point you have enough bones and you need to work on covering them over, or else all you have is a skeleton, a half-accomplished idea, and it's frustrating to always look out the window and see something that feels more like "incomplete project start" than "well-balanced work-in-progress."

Even so, it's going to be tough to resist the siren call of the Baker Creek Heirlooms catalog!


Food Swap!

Okay, so we've gone a little nuts over this Food Swap thing.

I should backtrack and explain a little. In early September I found out about something called a "food swap," which is basically an event during which a bunch of food nerds swap homemade or homegrown foods. I love barter, and thought this was a brilliant idea, but figured it was probably one of those things going on in New York or Seattle or somewhere like that, and was surprised to find out that one of the more successful ones is going on monthly, right here in Minneapolis. We seemed to be too late to get in for the September event that was happening three days after I found out about it, but at the last minute (Friday afternoon for a Saturday event!) some tickets opened up and we were able to go.

I think we did pretty well for having so little notice -- I raided my Leaning Tower of Jam in the pantry (that's a whole other post -- the Jam Tower consists entirely of flats of half-pint jars of jam I've made since June, and it is now, while sitting on the floor, actually taller than I am!) and David whipped up some of his tasty garlic-havarti rolls; we grabbed some jars of salsa and took off for the swap.

I was too busy during the event last month to get pictures, but the whole thing is very well-organized, and takes place in a lovely space provided by Open Arms. Basically everyone comes in and sets up their wares, and then everyone wanders around for a half-hour or so, checking out what the others have brought, chatting, and enjoying samples. Each item has a little info slip in front of it with its description, ingredients, and so on, and at the bottom are lines for folks who want to "bid" on that item to do so. So, for example, if you saw some wonderful olive tapenade (which I did, and which, alas, I did not get), you'd write down your name and what you're willing to trade for it (say, strawberry jam). While you're doing that, other people are checking out your stuff and writing their bids on your strawberry jam's info sheet. (Amounts are not as much a concern as you'd think -- David observed that a half-pint seemed to have become the standard unit of "currency" for a trade almost by default, but people weren't really crazy about sticking to that.) At the end of the bidding time, you go back and check out your offers and the swapping begins.

The amount of variety is pretty incredible -- there were jams and jellies, spice mixes, a wide variety of baked goods from the basics to the artisan, chocolates, chutneys, fridge pickles and relishes, canned goods, homemade dog treats, salted caramel sauce, fresh herbs, and other things I've probably forgotten. The presentation blew me away -- we'd skimped on that due to the short notice, but others did not, and it was as much a feast for the eyes as the appetite. We found plenty to trade for, and while we didn't get everything we wanted (such as the aforementioned tapenade and the amazing caramel sauce), we did get a lot of great stuff to diversify our pantry and munch on for the rest of the week.

So, not to give it all away, but this month we're anticipating bringing more of David's fresh-from-the-oven rolls, his killer homemade caramelized onion hummus, more jam, of course (for which I have more samples this time, since I've had more notice), and some of my flavored vinegars, infused with my homegrown herbs. If the hens get off their lazy fluffy butts and start laying soon, we'll have home-raised eggs for future swaps. I've made a number of things specifically for the swap -- which is where the "gone a little nuts" part comes in -- and tried some things I'd not have ordinarily tried (like the Spiced Ginger-Carrot Jelly I made the other night while I was pressure-canning pints of carrots), but I'm not normally all that adventurous in the kitchen, so maybe that's a good thing.

Next month's swap is coming up fast, so hopefully I will remember to get pictures this time and post a recap. ^_^


Gardening Mistakes Made This Year

I'm inspired by The Crunchy Chicken this morning to recap some of this year's garden bloopers, not in the spirit of self-recrimination so much as in the spirit of not making the same mistakes over and over again. So here are this year's "oopses:"

1. Planting the wrong things. Every spring I experience a bout of temporary insanity and plant cabbage. This is stupid for two reasons: first, I could get enough cabbage to make a kiddie pool full of sauer kraut for less than ten bucks at the farmer's market, come September. Second, my yard was apparently build on an ancient cabbage burial ground full of angry cruciferous spirits, so I've never had a cabbage actually make it to maturity and remain edible. Also, I should really give up on growing watermelons from seed in Minnesota. It's mid-September and the only way I'm using watermelons is if I can them whole in light syrup...in a quart jar. Some things were just never meant to be.

2. Getting lazy about weeding from early July through late August. When I need a saw to take down the lambsquarters, it's been too long. #1 and #2 may be related -- next year I think I'll just stir-fry the quackgrass roots and have a side salad of lambsquarter and wood sorrel and skip planting crops altogether. If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em. Well, except for the deadly nightshade.

3. Not getting seedlings in the ground -- this was largely due to our extremely late spring this year, but it did emphasize for me the importance of having cold frames, mini-hoophouses, or row covers to protect plants so I can get them in the ground on schedule. Now that Jackie Clay has moved to Minnesota and demonstrated all this year the benefits of growing things like peppers in a hoophouse in this climate, I'm sold on the idea. It's just a matter of getting the materials together and actually building them.

4. Forgetting that tomatoes aren't timid little shrubby or viney things; they're vegetative monstrosities capable of dismantling steel cages with their bare stems. I don't need tomato cages; I need a high security tomato lockdown facility with reinforced concrete supports, electrified perimeter fencing, and a moat. That's not to keep the garden pests out -- that's to keep the tomatoes in.