Saturday, March 23, 2013

Save seeds—and have a garden like no one else

I loved this mammoth, pure yellow sunflower.
I have been busy attempting to fulfill one of my lifetime horticultural goals: saving and propagating my own seeds. The process is incredibly simple, and incredibly rewarding. First, I notice what plants thrive exceptionally well in my garden. Then, I cut off some mature flower heads—or let vegetables grow to seed maturity (i.e., past the point at which they would be delicious to eat). I hang flower heads upside down to let the seed dry; I rescue seeds from (almost rotting) vegetables, rinse clean, and place on a paper towel to dry. I keep seeds in a cool, dry place (no worries there—the back kitchen is roughly about forty degrees all winter) until spring planting time.

Sunflower heads drying in the back kitchen all winter-- kept company by some oregano.
            Saving—and replanting—our own seeds has myriad benefits. First of all, we can purposefully select the plant varieties that grow particularly well for us. By saving and replanting seeds from that same variety, we’re guaranteeing a successful crop. Secondly, seeds we harvested ourselves are wonderfully free of pesticides, chemicals, or other possible soil and plant contaminants. Thirdly, those plants that were successful have most likely built immunities to local bugs or pests—otherwise they wouldn’t have done so well—and so will be even less likely to be affected by said threats in the future. Fourth and last, let’s not forget that seed saving is FREE. For the amount of money I know I have spent on seed in the spring, with no guaranteed result, I’m pretty excited about that last part.

            Additionally, I find that seed saving really individualizes my garden. Plant success isn’t necessarily a regional or zonal rule—for example, many plants that do well in my local friends’ gardens do not do well in mine. Why? Well, many of those other gardens are in a more urban area; they are thus more sheltered, sustain warmer temperatures, and benefit from almost unlimited municipal water.  Or, they are in areas with different soil makeups and consistencies. On the other hand, I have great success with plants that do not seem to do well anywhere else. When we seed save, our gardens become unique: a visit to a friend’s garden becomes a trip to the exotic, and vice-versa. 

            At a farmers’ market in Rutland, Vermont last fall, I met a vendor who said she had been part of a local seed saving community for years.  The members of the community keep careful track of their plants, preserve and label them meticulously, and meet to discuss the plants’ merits. Then, they swap or buy as deemed appropriate. I was really inspired by that. What a wonderful—and attainable—local goal. 
I will have fields of sunflowers this spring! (At market prices, by the way, this is probably about $50 worth of seed.... well worth the work.)

Friday, February 8, 2013

Getting Creative-- Part I

Getting Creative—Part I

In February, the wood pile seems to dimish as quickly as the canned food store. At this point in the winter, I find that we are out of my tomato basil sauce; we only have a few cans of rosemary garlic salsa left and only one can of green dill salsa; a few pickled ginger jars remain with a whole lot of sambal oelek (perhaps we don’t like hot food quite as much as I thought). In the freezer, we have plenty of venison and burger (we don’t’ eat much meat), but my stores of beans, peas, zucchini, summer squash, blackberries, strawberries, and asparagus are almost gone.

On the other hand, I still have plenty of corn, and enough fruit jam and bread to get us through zombie apocalypse…

I’m learning from this.

As I plan my garden for next year, I’m applying the lessons from this winter to future production and planning. Rather then haphazardly canning what I have (and being triumphant in having done so successfully) as in previous years, I’m taking stock of what my family eats and when. Moreover, I’m recording what preserves well and what does not.

Lesson #1: My Frankenstein produce:

Hoping to save on weight and space, I dehydrated and dry oven canned potatoes, spinach, and squash—soup fixings, I thought. This has worked okay in a crockpot with chicken broth to reanimate the dehydrated vegetables. Not sure I would repeat this process, however—not optimal.

Dehydrated fruit, on the other hand—I dehydrated and froze bananas and apples—works really well in hot breakfasts, like oatmeal or pancakes, However, reanimated bananas are actually really gross on their own. I will not do that again.

Lesson #2: Next year’s planting:

It just makes sense to gear the garden to what my family likes. This year, there will be tons of peas, spinach, and beans—they haven’t grown well in the big garden so my husband has built me planters near our house that can be closely monitored and replanted every thirty days—tomatoes as usual, more broccoli, and squash that will survive the winter intact (like Jarradale Pumpkins and Hubbard Squash). I have discontinued planning more exotic vegetables, like kohlrabi, which simply didn’t grow well in our plot and which, additionally, don’t preserve well.  Our asparagus—I planted three varieties: Martha Washington, Purple Passion and Green Giant—will produce this year, as it is their third year of growth, and should provide plenty of produce for the freezer. I began saving seeds last year from my favorite heirloom tomato strains and will start then next month.
In short, I have decided to focus on the possible: I will do well what I can do well.

I have already placed my orders for the spring (more on that later), but for now, the task at hand is creatively using what I have:

-Puff pastry becomes a pot pie shell for venison, apples, cumin,  and celery or beans;
-Corn chowder is easy with a frozen fish or two simmered down in olive oil and cumin, some hot sauce (sambal oelek?),  sautéed mushrooms and a carmelized onion or two;
-Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches—peach jam, kiwi jam, sweet jalapeno jam, hot mango jam, or plum jam with very sharp cheddar on my own whole wheat oatmeal bread; summer strawberry jam or elderberry with all-natural peanut butter. Food of champions.

If my goal is truly to make it through the winter on our produce alone, I obviously need to gear my thoughts towards our family consumption. With that in mind, I’ve begun plans for next year’s garden, a beehive, more orchard trees, mushrooms, and a farmers’ market circuit—more to follow.