October 2010

Your next mission, should you decide to accept it, is to come up with the most creative planting system you can find. It must be as close to free as possible and allow you to garden in a wasted space.

I belong to the sustainablecountry forum and was perusing their garden forum this morning. I found a thread for gardening where there is no space. It got my creative juices flowing as I often hear from family members that they can’t grow food as they have no space when they actually have a lot of space. It’s just full of things like inflatable pools, swing sets and boats, gazebos, play yards and lawn ornaments. The forum displayed such solutions as truck bed liners made into raised bed and hanging planters made from over-the-door shoe holders.

I grow some citrus in the house and a few herbs but not much else. I use the greenhouse for winter salad greens but I’m still intrigued. I am thinking about green beans. I have the light and a bush plant really doesn’t take up much space. So how about it. What’s the most creative planting idea you have?

 I’m going to pretend I’m talking to my sister. I would suggest she drill some holes in the bottom of that old boat that hasn’t seen water in years. Filled with soil and compost, she could grow enough beans for a year if she used some season extenders. That pool could be turned into a kind of greenhouse for lower light plants. The gazebo could hang tomatoes and peppers from the edges and an herb garden would be happy underneath. I’m thinking the swing set would support some squash and cucumber vines and she could plant grow grapes along the top piece. I would get rid of all the lawn art and put in hedges of raspberries and blueberries and plant dwarf fruit trees in the open spaces. The flower beds could be replaced with potatoes, carrots and onions and peas and beans should do nicely on the chain link fence that surrounds the play yard. The play yard itself would hold eight raised beds for beets, chard, kale, peppers, strawberries, asparagus, leeks and turnips.

Now for the garage. Right now it holds the overflow of junk from the house. The cars can’t be parked inside anyway so call it a day have a tag sale. With the space freed up and some money in her pocket she could now grow mushrooms and have a place for bulk storage of staples as well as to put in a counter for some food processing equipment. I would add some water barrels to the exterior and keep two fifty gallon containers in the garage too. She could even add window boxes.

 I forgot about the pool house! She needs a chicken coop and I’ll bet a few rabbit hutches would fit on the deck! The cool thing would be to connect with the neighbors. It’s a small, family friendly little subdivision with a lot of unemployment. Wouldn’t it be nice to form a neighborhood association and discuss using the open space for a couple of goats? Okay. I’m stretching a bit here but a girl can dream, can’t she?

I strayed a bit from my intention which was to talk about the creative use of scavenged planters but this was fun. My poor sister has no idea what I just did to her neat little suburban house. She’s home drinking coffee and watching Regis and Kelly and I have her milking goats and gathering eggs.


Bruce and I are looking at barn plans. Barn may be a misnomer as this will be a combo workshop, food preservation center and storage area for bee keeping supplies more than a home for animals and hay. The cider room will be separate from the barn. Not to say we won’t put the chicken coop and a stall for a feeder calf in, just that these thing are secondary to our increasing need for space.

My kitchen is large but not large enough for a dehydrator, water bath canner, pressure canner, large stock pots, not to mention wine making equipment and all of the smaller stuff like grain grinders, squeezo, apple peelers and the list goes on. I would also use some of the space for long- term food storage. My goal is to have a place I can work and also give classes in. Ideally, I could also rent it out to people who want to preserve food but have no space or equipment. I think if I barter rather accept money I may be able to circumnavigate some the rules about commercial kitchens. The insurance is my big problem. I need to be sure my home is not at risk if someone uses my space and equipment and then gets sick from the food. If the problem is too big then I’ll have to deep-six the business part of the plan and just give classes.

Bruce needs a workshop as he is getting into woodworking in a big way. He also needs some dedicated space for all of the beekeeping equipment and a place to process honey and work with wax. We have too sheds but they are overflowing with tools and such. It’s amazing how much stuff accumulates when one is growing food.

My house will be so much easier to manage with all of the big stuff  out-of-the-way. I keep most of it in the basement which means I have to wash it before each use not to mention that carting it up and down the stairs is a drag. I love the idea that I can “go to work” in a way by walking to the barn.

 We are still working out things like septic and water. I can’t afford a new septic system so I’ll need some kind of composting toilet and a grey water system. Heat is question too. We are leaning towards a wood system with a stupendous amount of insulation even though it means remembering to fire up the stove when we want to work. I won’t be using my space in the dead of winter much anyway. I have my eye on a wood cookstove that is perfect.

I swear we are having as much fun designing this space as we’ll have using it.

We got 7 gallons of cider pressed last night. It was downright balmy. We actually worked in tee shirts. Bruce’s sister stopped by on her way home to Boston and found us knee-deep in apples. She was laughing at us but I think she was impressed too. As usual, I got the comment about where she plans to come to sit out the apocalypse. I feel like the apocalypse has happened for a lot of people. I watched a segment on 60 Minutes about the long-term unemployed. How different would life have been for those if they had a small piece of paid for property and a way to grow some food? What if they had been able to rent out a room for some extra cash and had a community to rally around? I do not mean to criticise. They had no way of knowing how things were going to turn out but that’s the point, isn’t it? We never know. Having to depend on someone else’s preparations isn’t really a plan. Knowing how to make do is.

So yesterday, Bruce was at a barn raising and I wanted to make a pot of soup for the work crew. Hey, I thought! This is a great time to rotate some of the dehydrated food I bought years ago when I first started prepping. So I got out a bag of creamy potato soup mix, added it to the boiling water and in 15 minutes I had soup-sort of. I didn’t read the ingredients until after I had a bowl. Food starch, corn syrup and partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil where close to the top of the list followed by titanium dioxide, silicon dioxide and yellow dye #5. The list was really long and 80% of it didn’t read like food at all. Which is kind of crazy as potato soup is pretty much potatoes, milk, onions, celery and some spices. All are thing that are easily dried and store really well. Oh. I also paid nearly $6.00 for the mix and it only made 8 cups.

I plan to spend some time making more mixes for things like soup and quick breads and getting them packed into mason jars. I have been  inspired by the dehydrate2store videos. I keep the potatoes in my root cellar but they can be dried too and I think I’ll give that a shot after I finish with apples. That might take a while because as soon as I finish drying one gallon, I find that the previous one has vanished. My girls love dried apples and snack on them all day. I use them in oatmeal and Bruce likes them rehydrated in boiling water with some cinnamon and brown sugar and wheat germ topping. They have a shelf life of about 24 hours around here.

Gas prices are on the rise again and I’m sure propane prices will tag along. If I want the fuel I bought in April to last for the winter, I’ll need to be very careful with it. That means keeping the house very cool during the day and cold at night. I want to investigate a timer for the furnace. I don’t mind sleeping in 55 degree rooms but I would like the bathroom a bit warmer when I shower. If I get the thing to turn up at 4:30 AM, then go off at 8:00, we will be warm enough during the few hours we need it warmer and wear sweaters the rest of the time. I’m watching for those down comforters to go on sale. I may actually break down and shop for them on-line. I refuse to go to the mall if there is any way to avoid it.

I spent Saturday at a birthday party. My friend, Sara, turned 50 and about 40 of us turned up to help her build some lasagna beds for her rather rocky, thin soil. We layered rock minerals, cardboard and newspapers, compost and hay a good foot thick. Next year, she will be able to plant although it will take some time before it completely breaks down. The party was a blast and a whole lot more productive than manicures and martinis although those are fun too,

It’s one of those days. There are apples to harvest and press, turnips to pull, compost to get in the strawberry patch and  a tree order to mail out. Then there’s the tomatoes. When they were coming in by the bushels in August, I was chopping them up and putting them in the freezer. Now I need the freezer space as the pigs go to the butcher next week so today I have to make sauce and we are talking mountains of tomatoes. The good thing is that the water that rises to the top when you freeze and then thaw tomatoes can be poured off and it takes a lot less time and energy to boil down the sauce. I plan to add some dried onions and peppers and that will thicken the sauce too. And if all this weren’t enough, we had a pressing party yesterday and someone left us two gallons of cider. That should be a good thing but the cider is a bit bland. That happens when you use only one kind of apple rather than a blend. So rather than drink the cider, I was thinking I should make a cider jelly as the spices will jazz it up. I don’t need more jelly but I do want some for teacher gifts. My girls both have extensive IEP’s and lots of teachers and specialists and they like to give every one a gift for the holidays. I can make jam for under a dollar a jar. I could make it for a lot  less than that if I could figure out how to get my jars back.

So I am feeling a bit pressed for time. I think that inertia can move in when there is too much to do, then nothing gets done. What works for me is to take one task and finish it. The tomatoes can’t wait so that’s my task. When the last jar of sauce is cooling, then I will pull the turnips as I will need some outside time. I won’t worry about the jelly. That can wait for a rainy day as the cider will fit in the freezer. The compost is something the girls can do after school. It’s a simple matter of filling some buckets from one pile and hauling them to the strawberry patch then shoveling it around the plants. There. I feel better already.

For those following along with my preparedness step-by-step plan, today is good day to put in an order for sprouting seeds from your co-op. You did join the co-op, didn’t you? You can order one pound mylar bags of sprouting seeds for either cooking or salads. Get one of each. Do it again each month until you have six bags of each. Make sprouts once a week. They are great in salads and sandwiches and stir fries. Don’t buy a sprouting system. They’re a rip off. Get a mason jar and cut a piece of old screen to fit under a jar ring. Just soak the sprouts in some tepid water for an hour, then drain. Rinse them a couple of times a day for a few days and there’s your sprouts. They cost pennies to grow. I like to set mine in a sunny window for few hours before I eat them to green them up a bit. When you open one bag of seeds, order another. Your goal is to always have six bags stored in a cool, dry, dark space. They take up very little room. This is a big bang for your buck.

I love reading the comments to  my blog. I just wish I had the time to answer to email each of  you privately and discuss specific issues. As I can’t, at least not if I plan to get anything else done, I would suggest that you begin the process of forming a sustainability/relocalization/preparedness group to foster the kind of support that makes this life not just possible but much more enjoyable. You can start with a book club or a film series or attending a lecture or anything that will get the ball rolling with like-minded people. You might be surprised at how many people are concerned about the future and ready to join forces to share information and resources.

We had our compost delivered yesterday. Ten yards may sound like a lot and it is but we need another ten to completely cover our garden space. As we don’t raise a lot of livestock we don’t generate enough compost to meet our needs. The expense is big but you need to grow soil before you can grow anything else. Just as I wouldn’t scrimp on my children’s nutrition, I won’t skimp on my soil’s. So today I need to get the rest of the carrots, beets and turnips dug and in the root cellar so I can get those beds but to rest for the winter. After top-dressing with compost, we will plant a cover crop of buckwheat or clover. Maybe next year we will get some rain and have a great rather than fair harvest.

If you get some time, there is a good you tube video called the Wartime Kitchen and Garden you might enjoy. We have so much to learn from both wartime and depression era experiences. More and more, unemployment is hitting closer to home. I’m starting to get calls from friends and family asking for advice and information, calls from folks who could never have imagined that food security would be an issue for them.

I’m sore today. I spent Monday at my MIL’s house, getting it emptied out for the new owners. I came home with linens and dishes, pictures and cutlery. It’s funny what people want. Some went right for the more valuable antiques, others toward the family memorabilia. I was happy to get some excellent knives, a new set of flat wear and the pillows, sheets and quilts. We are making copies of the old photos so we can all have those. It was a hard day. Saying goodby to a house that holds so many memories is difficult.

Now we are putting together the upstairs to accommodate my son and his wife. The windows are nearly all in. Bruce is patching and painting the walls and I’m getting rid of some clutter to make room for their things. The amount going out is amazing.

I’m doing a family preparedness training tomorrow night. I hope to inspire and inform. I think getting ready for disruptions in fuel and food have never been more likely.

Welcome to my many new readers. One letter in particular got me thinking. I write a lot about gardening as though it’s a given that we all raise food when, obviously, not everyone does. Not growing food makes it even more important to support your local food shed by buying local food sold by local distributors because if the delivery system breaks down, you don’t have another safety net. It is even more important that you learn to preserve food in season so you are assured of a safe, dependable food supply. I realize those are just empty words without a plan for doing it so I have decided to come up with a week-by week, then month-by-month plan to address those folk who are just getting started and really need a roadmap.

Today: October is the month of root crops. Potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips and onions are all abundant and cheap right now. Check out farmer’s markets, farm stands and co-ops for the best prices on these vegetables in bulk. You will need a place to store them and know how to cook them, especially if your family is not familiar with the delights of beets. Storey has some great little booklets that will give the basics but a good purchase is Andrea Chessman’s “Recipes from the Root Cellar” . If you can’t afford it, get it from your library and copy the recipes you most want to try or go in on a copy with a friend. Each week, buy roots to eat and roots to store. Make a day of apple picking and bring home a few bushels of apples and pears. Late varieties store well in a cold, damp spot. Make some apple sauce and can a few batches. Get your partner and kids involved in the process. Dried beans are in season too and you need to eat them at least once a week. Bought in bulk, they are cheap and nutritious and make a beautiful statement grouped on a shelf in mason jars. Make two meals a week completely from local food. Commit to one breakfast a week that is made from scratch. Oatmeal with fruit and honey, granola or pancakes are all easy and inexpensive and can all be made with stored food.

Week one: Get a camp stove and some propane cylinders so you can cook dinner if the power goes out.

Week two: Get two hurricane lamps, lamp oil and a box of matches.

Week three: Make sure you have enough heavy clothing to keep warm if your heat went out.

Week four: Get a case of mason jars to begin you food preservation stash.

Thought you were done? Not a chance! You also  have to take one room a week and get it cleaned and organized. Sell the clutter if you can and put the money in a food storage/prepping box. Get one room at a time “ready”. The kitchen is a good place to start. Get rid of the fondu pot, the bread machine, the chocolate fountain, all of the those space hogs that you never use. Use the space and money to buy a water bath canner and some canning jars, a manual can opener and some bulk purchased oats.

Put out some feelers and have some people over to talk about the issues that you are worrying may become problems. Read a book together and discuss it or watch a documentary. Order some seed catalogs. I know. You have a black thumb but I’m not suggesting you grow a huge garden. I am just suggesting that you put in some berry bushes and maybe a fruit tree or two. Right now you are just looking and getting inspired. But if you like, you could dig up a tiny bit of yard and put some garlic in and maybe some parsnips. Both will grow over the winter and reward you with a crop next summer.

This is not about dropping a lot of money but about changing the way you live. Taken in small chunks it can be fun and provide your family with some good quality time together. The money that you normally spend on meals out or movies or expensive entertainment and the time that used to be wasted in front of the TV can be spent on other more productive activities. Green thumbs are created with practice and every journey starts in your imagination.

I have been asked to speak at Papyrus Books in North Adams this evening. Northern Berkshire Transition Town is sponsoring me. They want me to talk about the basics of getting started in preparedness. The timing is good as I’ve been thinking about this a lot as I’ve been going over my own organization and inventory. It’s really easy to get off track and these periodic updates are important for plugging any holes you find. Sharon Astyk has an excellent post at her site that’s generating a lot of buzz. She’s doing a real life redo, looking at how to upgrade her home  systems to make things run more smoothly, how to get her budget back on track and how to reduce her energy consumption. Can I just add that when Sharon thinks she’s using too much energy and not getting enough done, it can make a girl feel a bit incompetent. Still, it was a really good post and got me excited about making some changes.

I’m going to speak as I would (and have) to my own family. I will suggest that they take on one thing at a time. Have one week’s worth of food put away. This has to be food you can prepare without using any electricity. A small camp stove that uses a propane cylinder is a must-have. Then you can make oatmeal with dried fruit or just add water pancakes for breakfast, canned soup or mac and cheese for lunch and any number of casseroles for dinner. This is not how any of us should eat but I’m talking about the absolute basics for getting through a short-term emergency. Then work on two weeks and then three. Make sure you have water. A gallon a day per person for sure and think about water for flushing if that’s an issue. Think about keeping warm. Warm clothes and wool and down covers for the beds will get you through a bit of really cold weather. A couple of hurricane lamps, matches and lamp oil will g ive you some light. Don’t forget a can opener. Once these things are in place, it’s time to look at the bigger picture like alternative heating systems and stored food.

I can’t say often enough how important it is to begin with cleaning and organizing you house. Get rid of the clutter and you will find space and money you didn’t realize you had. I was in the home of a relative recently. She claimed she had no space and no extra money but you couldn’t move because of the toys. She could have had a tag sale and found some room to breath and her kids would have been better off.

Bruce and I are talking a lot about how to proceed from here. We are debating what animals we want to add, how to enlarge our garden and what trees and bushes to add. We are also making a decision about our heating system and investigating the plan to reopen our old well. The windows are in upstairs (beautiful!) and the space up there getting organized but we are still a work in progress. But that’s going to always be the case. I’ll never be “done” and I don’t want to be. The energy that comes from this work is what keeps me going. I’ll be interested to hear what you think about Sharon’s post.

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