growing local

If you live in the northeast as I do, inspiration is a must. I can look out my window and see great mounds of dirty snow and the kids still trudge off to school in parkas, boots, hats and mittens. The calendar may say spring but my yard says no way. So, I have been looking for things to get me motivated and I found it in a couple of places. First, I stuck a stick down deep in my garden and found that the ground is soft down as much as six inches. That means I will will be pulling parsnips and carrots next week. Then I pulled some of the mulch off my herb bed and found green growing stuff. I will have to get out my herb book to identify everything but it sure looked pretty. My next stop was at our hives. The bees were busy as, well, bees and looking healthy. My final stop was at the bookstore. I was just looking as I had some time before picking a kid up at driver’s ed and what did I find but Carleen Madigan’s new book, The Backyard Homestead. Carla is a friend of mine, an editor at Storey, my publishing house, and a neighbor. This is one of those “gotta have it books”. It reminds me of a scaled down version of Carla Emery’s book, An Encyclopedia Of Country Living. Carla’s book was my first homesteading book. It looks like it has been through two wars. The spine is duct-taped together and the pages all dog-eared. When I found out Carla had died, I wept. I never met her but I felt like I knew her.

A new generation of backyard homesteaders will still want Carla’s book but I hope they find a place for Carleen’s too. The illustrations show these fabulous, tidy layouts for yards of different sizes. I love those pictures. Of course, they bear no resemblance to the reality of a small scale homestead. Chickens and rabbits, gardens and tools, honey and canning stuff are not neat things. The creativity required to grow and nurture food stuff is messy by nature. I would not trust too neat a farmer. But the idea of that perfection feeds my soul.

I got the tomatoes started last night. I have 72 starts going. Now I just have to keep the cat out of them. I got the broccoli, cabbage, leeks, and lots of peppers going to. I am worse than a woman expecting her first baby when it comes to my seeds. I will be checking them constantly, waiting for the first green shoot that signals life. The carrots and beets will get started today. The rest of the seeds sit there, little packs of possibility.

I made one other purchase at the book store. A kind reader suggested I read Dies The Fire by S.M. Stirling. I know I crab about all of us spending too much money but as a writer, I depend on people plunking down hard cash so I can make a living doing what I love so I do but books when I can. I love the book. We are going away for the weekend (no post until Monday) and Dies The Fire is going with me. It’s crazy but I love post-apocalyptic fiction.


We are nearly ready for our first harvest of greens. Our greenhouse is small but we get quite a bit of food from it. Like everything else, there’s a learning curve. We are learning the intracacies of insulating it, planting schedules, appropriate plants and timing as well as insect control (aphids love the asian greens) and fertilizing. A greenhouse may be a good place to put your income tax refund. We are looking to put any extra cash into tangibles like food sources and energy efficiency. I hope we get enough of a thaw to pull some of the carrots and parsnips we left in the ground last fall.

Bruce is going skiing today and I plan to spend the day getting my early seeds planted. We have been so diligent about eating up the stuff in the cellar. I now have a list of what I ran short on and what I am giving away because I put up more than we ate. That list will help with my garden plan.

I put an ad in our little paper looking for greenhouse frames. I see a lot of them cluttering up backyards. If I could find a frame for free, I could reskin it for not to much and come up with more winter food space. I am wondering if I could keep it warmer if I raised rabbits or chickens inside. I fear that when inflation hits, it will impact food prices hard. The more I can raise, the better I eat and the more I have to share.

I made chicken and dumplings last night. It was so good. I can make dumplings in my sleep. They are one of those things that everybody loves. I am going to make more tonight, add some sugar and cook them on top of some stewed peaches. I plan to put together a bunch of my favorite recipes for my girls. I do so much by memory and feel but a hard copy is needed if I’m out of commission.


2 cups flour

4teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons butter

You can whiz all this in a food processor but then you have to wash it. I think it takes less time to use a hand-held pastry cutter.

Add a cup of cold milk and mix lightly with a fork. Cook in barely simmering liquid for about 20 minutes. Keep the pot covered the whole time so the dumpling steams.I stick a skewer in mine. When the skewer come out clean, the dumpling is done.

Sharon Astyk has one of the best blogs on the internet and I never miss it. She has mentioned me a couple of times (thank you! thank you ! thank you!) but this past week she spoke of me as one of the woman Peak Oil writers. I had this surreal moment of wondering which Kathy Harrison she was referring to. I think of woman like Sharon and Carolyn Baker as being in an entirely different league than the one I play the game for. I am going to make a really uncomfortable confession here. There are lot of really deep and original thinkers out there and I certainly never started out thinking I would be one of them. Rawles at survivalblog knows more than I ever will about most aspects of preparedness. Go to Sharon at Casaubon’s Book if you want to know about peak oil and agriculture. Head over to Life After The Oil Crash with Matt Savanar for the blow by blow of peak oil/economic collapse. Ole Remus at the  Woodpile report, George Ure at Urban Survival, the list goes on of people who get this stuff. A lot of it is so complicated that you need multiple Phd’s in geology, biology, agriculture, and economics to even begin to understand the intricacies.  Orlov, Kunstler and Harrison? I don’t think so.

Here’s the truth of who I really am. I am a mother, wife, sister, daughter, aunt, cousin and niece. I am a neighbor, friend, student and teacher. I love a lot of people and I don’t want to see anybody I care about (or even somebody I don’t really like) go hungry. I love the little corner of the planet I live on with a fierce and abiding passion.  I am sometimes moved to weeping by the way the light sits on my front steps at 4:00 on a summer, evening.  The crunch of January snow under my feet while I walk to the back field to watch a full moon rise is such a pure, clear, rich sound.  Every blade of grass belongs to me the way my children belong to me. Not through ownership but stewardship.

When I first began reading the folks I just listed, the ones who knew their stuff, it occurred to me that something serious was afoot, that it was going to change things I didn’t want changed and I needed to pay attention.

It worries me a bit to think that anyone out there thinks of me as an activist. I hope the only choice isn’t between activist and uninformed. I want this movement to belong to everybody with a stake in this planet.

Bruce and I took the kids for long walk this afternoon. We came home, famished and aware that the dinner fairy had failed to stop by again. Not to worry. I had dinner on the table in a 1/2 hour. As usual, I evaluated it based on what we had grown or foraged, what we had purchased in bulk and stored, and determined what substitutes could be made should the trucks stop running. Here’s the menu.

Chicken and carrots in gravy, biscuits, canned peaches and rice pudding.  I canned the chicken last summer. It is energy intensive to can meat but once you have it, you have it. I have lost a freezer full of meat before and it’s terrible. Canned chicken only needs to be heated up. I canned the carrots too. I use cold storage for carrots usually but it is a good idea to have some canned ones for the nights you are in a hurry. I store corn starch to thicken the gravy but I could use flour if I didn’t have it. I grow and store lots of herbs. The salt and pepper are stored. I would miss salt so I store a lot. The biscuits required flour, butter, baking powder salt and milk. I would make sour dough biscuits if I didn’t have baking powder. We used to grow wheat in Massachusetts. I assume we could again. The peaches were from a neighbor’s orchard. I canned quarts and quarts last summer.

When I wrote about loving my people and my place, I should have added food. I adore good food, lovingly prepared and shared with my family and friends. Peak oil hits me, as it ultimately will everyone,right where I live. Maybe this is where all activists are born-from the heart and the soul of who we are. If so, then I am honored to be in such good company. Thanks again, Sharon.

I have to laugh. Every news station is running stories on the new frugality. I have seen segments on gardening, barter, coupon shopping, buying used clothing, you name it, it’s being covered. One would think that the idea of living within one’s means is a totally new concept.

Years ago, I used to subscribe to the Tightwad Gazette, a 4 page newsletter devoted to tightwaddery. Maybe it’s a rural thing. Everyone I know thinks of getting something for nothing as a lifestyle choice. I know one or two people who have always spent like there was no tomorrow ( there was and it’s today) but we felt sorry for those poor souls, the way we would if we learned that he was bit simple. To bad but these things happen.

One thing I have noticed is that there is still an emphasis on getting essentially the same lifestyle (food, clothing, car) as before but not spending as much money. They are still not getting it. We can’t have the same lifestyle. We will need to eat differently, more locally, fewer calories, less meat, dress differently, practical, warm, durable, live in different houses, smaller, more efficient, closer to where we work, drive differently, shared autos, fewer miles, drive until the car becomes so old it is almost car vapor. That old life is over for most of us. The new frugality is the new reality. It is not a phase or a fad or a hobby. Get used to it.

One of the more enduring pictures of the depression is that of bread lines. I fear that we are beginning to see a different incantation of modern day bread lines. Food stamps applications have soared and what are food stamps but invisible soup kitchens and bread lines. Private donors are handing out food in places like Elkhart where unemployment has reached 20%. My husband volunteers at our food pantry where donations are down but usage is up. The demand for subsidized lunches and breakfast at my daughter’s high school has surged to the point that they can no longer afford to offer a hot breakfast and have switched to a selection of cold, presweetened cereals and milk.

We all need to think about food security, not in the abstract, isn’t it awful what is happening in other places and to other people, but in the sense of personal security. What will you do if food becomes too expensive for your budget?

I looked over several years of checkbook ledgers last night, pulling out what I spent for food. The numbers are difficult to figure as, at times, I have had a houseful of teenage boys to feed and other times when it has been just me, Bruce and the three girls. Still. I think I have a pretty good idea of where my food money has gone and why we seem to be eating a lot better for a lot less money today.

I rarely go grocery shopping any more and I almost never shop for the ingredients for a meal.  Rather, I shop to restock my pantry. One week, I will put in a co-op order for dried fruit and nuts and maybe a fifty pound sack of grain. Another week, I might buy a bulk order of chicken. I take a trip to a big box store 6 times a year and get things like sugar and case lots of the fruits that I can’t get locally. I hit a buy one get two free sale to restock my juice supply. If I didn’t get to the market for a month, I might have to pick up local milk or cheese and maybe a bit of fresh produce at the the general store here in town but I could manage quite well  even if I couldn’t get there as I have a large supply of dried milk and all the supplies for making cheese. My goal is to use at least 2 jars of something I preserved last summer every day. Last night, we ate a ham and scalloped potato casserole. The potatoes and onions were from our garden and the ham was local. The milk was local and the salt from storage. We also had canned applesauce (ours) and bread and butter pickles (ours). I made canned green beans which no one likes but they ate them because they could smell the rhubarb/blueberry crisp in the oven.

Not everyone has the space to grow as much as we do but I think we shortchange our ability to grow something. There is a terrific web site called path to freedom you should check out if you think you can’t grow food in you back yard.

Put out the word that you are interested in growing and foraging more food. I got 50 pounds of peaches last year from a woman who was swamped with them just through word of mouth. We are still eating those peaches and will have them until the new crop comes in. If the crop fails, I have cases of canned peaches in storage to hold me over until the next harvest.

Food has been rationed by price for many years. If you had money, you could afford fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and good bread. Poor people ate peanut butter, white pasta, and kool-aid. I see food rationing by price as something that will get a lot worse. Prepare for that time by figuring how and where to grow food. Learn how to preserve it and cook it. Plan to enjoy it during the lean times that are already here.

I am on an unfortunate number of mailing lists for garden related supplies. I usually peruse the catalogs I receive daily before passing them on or sending them to recycle heaven. Usually, I am flabbergasted by the incredible array of stuff I have no interest in owning but today, hidden in the middle of of pages of glitzy, expensive non-essentials, I found a gem of an idea.

We were cursed with a tomato blight last year. The hope to eradicate it from one’s garden is to be diligent about not planting tomatoes in affected soil for three years. We have a new garden plot coming on line this summer. It has spent the last two years sitting under a couple of old carpets, percolating. We do no work we can avoid around here and by covering a patch of grass and weeds for a long period of time, we know we will pull off the mulch and find rich, black soil that will required minimal tilling before being ready for seed or cutting. We planned to put in another 50 raspberry plants in the space but needing a space for tomatoes was going to change things. So what I found was this system (read expensive and over-engineered) for growing tomatoes upside down in a fabric cylinder. The thing cost nearly $20.00 before shipping and handling and you have to add your own soil and seedlings which makes for some mighty expensive tomatoes. So here’s my plan.

I am going to ask Bruce to set up a place for me to hang a dozen bags. Of course, I have no intention buying them. I see no reason I can’t stitch them up from some old burlap sacks. It solves the blight problem and the space problem. I can’t see why it won’t work. The tomatoes grow down so they are easy to reach and I can throw the whole thing in the compost pile in the fall. I will let you all know how it works out.

The numbers we hear from the federal government may say recession but don’t tell that to my nephew, the Phoenix based architect with a big mortgage and no work. I have recently heard from a number of friends and family members asking for advice about surviving the coming hard times. These are teachers, managers, salespeople and chefs. These are not the faces we are used seeing in line at the food pantry.

When I write and speak about being self-sufficient in a crisis, most often people are thinking about a time-limited crisis and certainly, everyone should be prepared for those dramatic events. But this crisis is here and now. What is necessary for many is not time-limited survival but rather long-term changes in the way we live. The building in dry, overbuilt Phoenix is not coming back. The jobs lost are not coming back. The easy future we envisioned for our retirement is not coming back.

My daughter in Florida call me last night. Her husband, a sales rep used to a good salary, has seen his work dry up in the past several months. She is considering putting her toddler in childcare and returning to work. She wanted advice on how to best do this. She did not like what I had to say. What she needs is not to attempt to recreate a life that is not sustainable. She needs to create a new life that works in a changed world.  The 5 bedroom house in the gated community with three pools and a golf course has to go. The association has huge fees and does not allow vegetable gardens or clothes lines. The dinners out, the cable, the two cars and the gym membership all have to go. The expensive playgroup, new clothes and monthly professional photos all have to go. This family needs to trade down to smaller and simpler. They need to walk more. They need to raise some food. They need to join a co-op. They need to eat more locally. They need to learn the difference between need and want, luxury and necessity, surface and sutbsance. To try to get back what is permantly lost is a recipe for grief and disappointment. I am going to send my daughter a recipe for something else. Rice and beans. It’s not quick but in this new life we will have more time than money. It’s not fancy but in this new life we will learn that fancy is overrated. The ingredients can be purchased in bulk from your co-op or grown in your backyard garden.

Soak a 1 pound bag of red beans in plenty of water. The next morning, drain the beans. Save the water to water your plants. Cover the beans with fresh water and bring to a boil. Add a ham hock, some chopped celery, a chopped onion, a bay leaf and some pepper. Reduce the heat and simmer until the beans are done and the sauce is thick. Remove the ham hock and the bay leaf.  While the beans simmer, cook 1 cup of rice in two cups water. When the rice is done add about a cup of diced tomatoes with the juice. You can add other spices at this point. One of the best things about rice and beans is how forgiving it is. You can add cumin or red pepper. If you have leftover ham or sausage, add that too. I like my beans mixed with my rice. Some people like the beans served like a gravy. It occurs to me that I don’t have an actual recipe. I kind of throw things in and hope it taste good. It usually does. If it doesn’t, we eat it anyway. It’s never terrible. If you are Latino, you probably have a family recipe that is a lot better. If so, send it to me. I guess the point here is that all meals are not gormet. Some are just good and filling and inexpensive. Good enough.

Next Page »