Monday, 28 February 2011

Blithe Tomato

by Francesca @ Fuoriborgo

In response to a number of requests, I'll be posting one final updated version of the List of International Seed Catalogs in a couple of weeks. If you have more suggestions, please leave them in the comments here.

Picture 15

In winter time, when I don't garden, I like to read about gardening. I especially enjoy books written by gardeners who describe and muse about their life as growers. Blithe Tomato by Mike Madison is the most recent such book I've read. It's a wonderful collection of short, essay-like chapters in which the author, who lives in the Sacramento Valley, shares his views and insights on his life as a small farmer, his rural community, and the farmers' markets in the Sacramento Valley.

Madison's experience as a grower in a land so far away from me was very interesting to read: under clear California skies, he sun-dries small Italian paste tomatoes, Principe Borghese, in just a few days, whereas my experiments with sun-drying Pepolino date tomatoes here in Northern Italy resulted in a tray of shriveled tomatoe halves covered in gray mold. His soil is very fertile, but he has his share of problems, too. His area is plagued by gophers, a ubiquitous burrowing rodent that I'd never heard of, and whose damage to his crops and orchards made my loud complaints about our deer and wild boars sound rather wimpy: at least my garden-gobbling pests are large, above-ground creatures that you can't miss!

Woven throughout the book are the author's thought-provoking observations, which go well beyond his work and community, and touch on his personal philosophy. For instance, he discusses trends in fruit and vegetable breeding, and the fact that the most popular varieties of certain crops, most notably corn, but also carrots, apples, beets and grapes, are hybrids containing the sh-2 supersweet gene, which boosts their sugar content, resulting in level of sweetness that drowns out the vegetable's or fruit's original flavor. Does our society really need food that's been artificially or genetically or even naturally sweetened (think of the sugar that often is added to canned vegetables)?

But what struck me most was the chapter where Madison talks about methods of tilling soil in organic farming. Around this time of year, as gardening season approaches, I always suffer from a bad case of rototiller envy, directed at all those farmers out there in their fields with their rototillers and tractors and weed-busters and other mechanical devices, effortlessly ploughing, turning, aerating, fertilizing, and otherwise manipulating their soil, while the only things I have to work my vegetable garden are a few simple hand tools, my two hands, and my back (and these days, not a particularly good back, either...).

I'm a good enough gardener, but I've always tried to make my garden as biodynamic as possible. So I was amused, and encouraged, to see Mike Madison write this:

I've always been skeptical of those organic farmers who are so insufferably self-righteous about not using synthetic chemicals but who drive up and down the place in a tractor spewing carcinogenic diesel smoke all over their crops.
(Blithe Tomato, Mike Madison, p. 94)

Organic gardening starts with the soil, in ways that go beyond the type of manure or fertilizer we use. Madison's words eased my end-of-winter rototiller envy. Though it didn't help my back pain much.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Jack of all trades, master of (at least) one?

Aurora @ Island Dreaming

We had a good collection of very elderly non-fiction books in our home library when I was growing up, mostly gleaned for pennies from charity shops and library sales. Some were encyclopedias, some were old school text books, some were beautifully bound introductions aimed at the 'working man'. My favourite was a learning library comprising of five leather bound books dating from the 1940s. If you worked through all six books, you would have acquired a good working knowledge of six different languages, maths, chemistry, physics, biology, political theory, world history, geography, economics, literature, drama, art and several branches of engineering. Each section had a fairly distinguished bibliography in the event you needed to learn more. There is no modern equivalent of this work and I doubt that there ever will be again.

Our choices are often presented as either/or when it comes to learning. You can be a good all rounder but excel at nothing, or you can be  a world expert with no interests or real knowledge outside of your chosen field. Some people are written off at school age alltogether, as if they are inherently incapable of learning. Polymaths are a rare thing these days and in popular culture anyone who uses their spare time to study a subject in depth or even passionately pursue a hobby is regarded as something of an eccentric. Since I embarked on a more frugal sustainable lifestyle, I have had to learn many new skills. I can now do more for myself than perhaps even I realise; and I have had great fun experimenting. But I have no real indepth expertise in anything; and I am beginning to feel dissatisfied.

Expertise is useful. I have no interest in becoming a master baker, but it is handy to have an expert to consult when my amateur efforts go awry - someone who knows where I went wrong and how to solve it. I would like to return the service in some small way. As I have simplified my life, I have uncovered a need to discover an underlying passion that I can devote myself to fully, as a hobby or as a career. My partner's is his job - he is training as a mental health nurse and he is passionate about all things related to it. At the same time he is obsessed with cars and is also developing his beer making and bread baking skills with gusto. I am quite frankly envious of his passion.

This year I hope to uncover at least one thing that captures my attention to the point of obsession. The only way to do that of course it to continue to read and experiment widely, perhaps more widely than I have in even in recent years. If there is something that captivates you - whether that be composting, fruit growing, car mechanics, astronomy, languages or music, then find the time to devote to it and share it with others. The internet has opened up the opportunities for self study in most fields - though it pays to be discerning - and there are online communities devoted to every subject you could wish to immerse yourself in. There is distinct pleasure to be had in being an amateur, there is yet another pleasure to be found in knowing a subject inside out and becoming masterful - and (at least I hope that) there is no reason that you can't experience both in a lifetime.

Friday, 25 February 2011

One Hundred Simple, Green or Frugal Ways To Make A Difference Part I

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

I've been thinking a lot lately about giving back, largely because I ran a little charity program over the holidays where I asked readers of my blog to donate something warm {could be something they made or something they purchased} to a special program I had recently volunteered with {ChinaKidz}, which cared for palliative care & special needs orphans in China. The results were simply incredible, with each child receiving parcel after parcel of warm clothes. If you're interested in viewing the photos they can be viewed here. Many of my readers from my own blog & this co-op wrote to me afterwards and shared that they often find it very hard to find simple or frugal ways to help people in need and participating in this project really was a simple & frugal way for them to give back, but now they need other ideas.

So I thought today I'd begin a new series about the many many ways you can give back and/or support a worthy cause which fit in with our simple, frugal and green lifestyle and choices. And the truth is, I certainly don't have all the answers, so I'd love if readers contributed some ideas too!

One Hundred Simple, Green & Frugal Ways To Give Back: Part One

1. Knit a scarf, hat or a pair of gloves for the homeless
2. Volunteer to teach ESL to newcomers to your country
3. Host international students for the holidays
4. If you have chickens, see if a women's shelter or homeless centre will accept egg donations
5. Teach a knitting class to people with special needs or experiencing hardship {many women's shelters are keen to find volunteer knitting teachers!}
6. Donate your no-longer-needed items to charity shops
7. Take your old books and magazines to shelters, recreation centres or medical clinics
8. Volunteer to paint a shelter
9. Become a block parent
10. Volunteer in your local school - many schools are desperate for people to read with children
11. Make some soup or baked goods for someone who is isolated or sick.
12. Help someone plant their first vegetable garden {many people don't know where to begin with seeds and find it a tad scary!}
13. Buy someone a compost bin!
14. Sponsor a child in the developing world.
15. Host a bake sale and give the proceeds to your favourite charity.
16. Collect blankets from your friends, religious organization or work & take them to a homeless shelter
17. Volunteer to be a Big Brother or Big Sister
18. Volunteer with your local Child Protective Services, they often look for safe adults to become mentors for children in care.
19. Host an alternative baby shower - ask everyone to bring something to donate to shelters or low-income families
20. Donate breast milk to a legal/certified milk bank in your country
21. Send something to a child in an orphanage
22. Volunteer to clean someones house for them
23. Make up a green cleaning hamper and give it to someone (with instructions) who would like to try green cleaning
24. If you have a car, offer to take others with you when you go grocery shopping!
25. Donate some food to food banks in your community!

Now I'd love to hear your suggestions, please feel free to share them in the comments!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

The Sweetest Time

Here at Chiot's Run the first warmup in the spring signals the start of sugaring season. Early last week we had a day that warmed above freezing so we went out and put taps in all of our maple trees (about 25 taps total). Our predictions were correct and the sap started flowing in some of the trees immediately.
A Little Valentine's SweetnessA Little Valentine's Sweetness
Tapping your maple trees is a wonderful way to get back outside in the spring weather. The season starts before you can do much of anything else in the garden. It really helps cure my cabin fever. Many people think that you can only tap sugar maples, but that is not the case. Most types of maples can be tapped. You'll get a little less syrup as the sap has a little less sugar in it. None of our trees are sugar maples, and our final syrup is fantastic! Of course you have to live in an area with the right climate and you have to have days above freezing and nights below freezing.
A Little Valentine's Sweetness
If you're interested in sugaring your maples I'd recommend it. It's really not that difficult, basically you collect sap from maple trees, boil it down, finish to a certain temperature, strain and enjoy. I'd highly recommend getting a book like Backyard Sugarin' to read through before you begin. I'd also highly recomend reading the book Sugartime: The Hidden Pleasures of Making Maple Syrup, it only the how to of making maple syrup, but some history and an explanation of the beauty of the process. OSU has a great article about hobby maple syrup production that is very in depth if you want to get started right away and don't want to get a book (and it's FREE).
A Little Valentine's Sweetness
You can purchase supplies at on-line, if you don't need tons of supplies Tap My Trees is a great place. I go my local Lehman's store to purchase what I need, you may also be able to find a local store if you check around. There are a bunch of places on-line so search around, I'm guessing if you live in an area where you can tap your trees you'll be able to find supplies locally.
Finishing Off Maple Syrup
We already collected 25 gallons of sap, then the weather turned cold and the sap stopped flowing. It will start again when it warms and we'll keep collecting sap until the trees bud out. Last year we were able to get over a gallon of syrup from our 10-15 trees, hopefully this year we'll get more if the season is longer!

Do you or have you considered tapping your maple trees?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Quick Garden Checklist

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Our weather this time of year can be this one day.

But the next day it may be look like this.

When we get sunny dry days, even though it is too early yet for planting much in the way of garden, it's a good time to get some of the other things on our garden list done.

Garden Checklist for February in my area:

Divide or move plants like rhubarb, horseradish, hops, and caneberries.

Collect scion wood for grafting such as apples and pears.

Prune grape vines and take cuttings if you want to increase your plants.

Take a quick walk around all your garden areas and remove any junk such as boards, pots, plastic mulch. Basically look for things that slugs can be hiding under. By removing these items before planting you will be exposing the slugs and their eggs that have overwintered with all that protection. Hopefully a frost or two and/or birds will help set them back. If you keep a flock of chickens or ducks this would be a good time to turn them loose in the garden area.

Double check your seeds and order new if needed. If you're finding you had poor germination results last year, it may be a time to revisit your seed storage methods. While freezing is optimum, a dark, cool and dry place works very well, and has served gardeners for years before freezers were ever invented. Many times seed catalogs list seed life in the growing information box - check that out before you stock up on seeds. Territorial Seeds is a catalog that comes to mind.

If you haven't already, order potatoes, onions, and bareroot fruit trees, and berries.

Purchase amendments that you will need when the weather breaks so you can get started right away.

Inspect garden tools and equipment for needed repairs.

Sit back and enjoy your quiet time, once spring has sprung there will be no respite.

Happy Gardening!