The New Home Economics


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The Coming Famine

Here’s another book to add to my list: The Coming Famine, by Julian Cribb.  Mark Bittman reviewed it for the NY Times today.  Basically, Cribb contends that we’ve reached peak food production (along with peak oil), and warns that our food system could collapse without major changes.  From the review (emphasis mine):

He proposes subsidizing small farms for their stewardship of the earth, and paying them fairer prices for production; taxing food to reflect its true costs to the environment; regulating practices that counter sustainability and rewarding those that promote it; and educating the public about the true costs of food. “An entire year of primary schooling” should be devoted to the importance of growing and eating food, he suggests.

An entire year of home ec.  Yes.  Read the whole review here.  My library doesn’t have this book in their catalog yet, but I’ll be watching for it.

Update, 8/26/2010: Apparently this topic is really gaining steam.  Here’s a review of another book about essentially the same thingEmpires of Food by Evan D.G. Fraser looks at the food systems of empires that failed, such as the Roman empire, and draws parallels with today.  So much reading to do…

Update, 8/27/2010: Gaining steam, speeding up:  The Atlantic Monthly’s round-up of stories related to this topic.

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The New Normal

Various economists are referring to this extremely slow “recovery” as The New Normal.  Economy aside, I can’t think of a better phrase to describe our crazy summer of working, volunteering, gardening, and now a frenetic preserving and preparing for our next new normal.  We have exactly one week left before Adam goes back to work full-time, for the first time since the kids were born.  Starting August 30, we will have two full-time working adults and two full-time-in-daycare kids.  To say I’m nervous is an understatement.  I’ve been channeling some of that into preparing for winter as if we are about to be snowed in for 9 full months.  (I wish!)

This weekend, we canned 50 lbs of tomatoes.  After squirreling the kids away at Grandma’s on Friday afternoon, Adam came home and prepared a fortifying dinner for us:

Homemade liver & barley sausage, great-Grandpa Miller’s Great-Grandma Elwell’s secret recipe, with homemade ketchup, kraut, and new potatoes.  And Surly Furious.  Doesn’t get much more local or delicious than that.  Next, we set up:

Lots of boiling water is involved in this canning business.  Good thing it was 90 degrees and really humid.

When the steam cleared a little after 5 p.m. on Saturday, we counted our results:

32 pints of tomatoes
6 pints of spaghetti/pizza sauce
4 pints of ketchup

I didn’t spend that entire 24 hours canning, don’t worry: I took 8 hours off for sleeping.  And I was on my own all day Saturday which slowed down the process a bit.  Adam got the trim painted on the house while I canned.

Let’s move on to a garden update.  I’ve not been taking the best care of this blog or the garden, so it’s changed quite a bit since I last took pictures of each plant grouping in June:

Here are the parsnips (and garlic) in mid-June.  Here they are now:

Every year, parsnips look so shabby and pathetic for so long, that I always wonder if they will ever take off.  We took the garlic out in late July and that seemed to really kick-start the parsnips, and the green tops are now absolutely huge.  We’ll see how the actual parsnips look; we have at least a month to wait (I hope).  Parsnip harvest begins with the first freeze.

My banana peppers in mid-June:

They didn’t look all that impressive.  I also had two cauliflowers in there, neither of which turned out very well.  I think the weather got too hot for them.  Here’s the banana pepper jungle today:

(Also, notice the encroaching cucumbers on the fence.)  Each banana pepper plant has turned into a huge, sprawling bush, so laden with fruit that their branches end up dragging on the ground when we don’t keep up with the picking.  Seriously.  I never thought that 11 pepper plants would be too many.  But there, I said it.

Here are my cabbages in mid-June:

(And my thumb, apparently?!)  I thinned these out two times after this picture was taken, and also harvested 4 cabbages.  This patch was supposed to be cabbage and celeriac, but the celeriac never sprouted as far as I can tell.  You can see the tiny cucumber seedlings in the bottom left corner.  Here’s how the same patch looks today:

(Again, encroaching cukes)  The tiny cucumber cage is directly to the left of this frame.  I planted about 7-8 plants, and have been training them up onto the rabbit-proof fence fortress that surrounds the garden.

Finally, the green beans, which shot up astoundingly fast in June:

And the green beans today, which are just about done:

What kind of yield am I getting from my wee urban farm?  I never thought you’d ask.  We organized our basement freezer today, and here’s what we found:

11 quarts raspberries: we’ve already used 3, and ate a LOT fresh.  This is about double what we got last year.
8 quarts green beans (also ate many fresh)
5 batches of pesto

So that’s the frozen stuff, and the canned tomatoes were listed at the top.  What about the fermented stuff?  Behold, I present to you… another personal failure:

We planned on building a root cellar this year.  It makes SO much sense.  It’s a huge walk-in refrigerator that requires no electricity.  Two weeks ago when our main kitchen refrigerator was overflowing with fermented foods, we finally realized it just wasn’t going to happen.  We found a small secondhand refrigerator, which we installed in the basement.  New ferments added daily.  The final tally is going to be so ridiculous that I can’t venture a guess right now.  Here’s a clue: we’ve ditched quart-size jars in favor of half-gallons.  And we keep buying more half-gallon jars.  Today we started a gallon each of banana peppers, pickles and sauerkraut:

A root cellar has been downgraded to the “someday” list.  We just have bigger priorities right now.  Here’s one:

There’s my little guy, making his very first batch of kraut.


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No-mow grass

A few weeks ago, I took a mid-summer Master Gardener refresher course at the Minnesota Landscape ArboretumBob Mugaas, the awesome turf-grass guy from the U of M, gave a presentation about new no-mow landscape grasses that the university is developing.  Some are already available commercially.

The implications of this are incredible.  Imagine not having to mow your lawn.  Imagine all the oil and emissions that could be saved if people mowed their lawns only 2-3 times a summer at the most.  For us, our yard is so small, and we use a reel-type mower, so it wouldn’t be a huge savings in time or money.  But if I had a huge suburban yard, I’d be all over this.

The main no- and low-mow turfgrasses that are available commercially today are fine fescues, such as red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue.  These can look a little floppy — because of their finer grain they don’t stand straight up like ye olde Kentucky bluegrass.  So adjust your expectations, yo.

Here’s an article from Extension with much more information as well as resources on where you can order low- and no-mow grass seed mixes.  Alas, I think you’d most likely not be able to find sod, because this is all still too new.

The Sustainable Urban Landscape Information Series also has some good information about maintaining a healthy lawn and when to plant, etc.  A couple notes, whether you have a low-maintenance lawn or whether you mow every week:

1) The best time to seed and the best time to fertilize are both in the early fall.
2) When watering, think deep & infrequent during the spring and fall, and more frequently but not so deeply in the summer.  This is because the root systems of grass plants typically die back quite a bit during hot, dry weather, but grow deeper during cool weather.
3) Setting your mower an inch or two higher will result in cooler, happier root systems and healthier grass.  If you are trying to achieve a putting green for a yard, your mower is set WAY too low.


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An inexpensive trellis

Here’s something we meant to do in April but didn’t get around to until this week.  We’ve been trying to come up with a relatively inexpensive trellis system for our garden.  Part of the impetus was the grape plant that I received as a birthday present — after looking like it was going to die it suddenly shot up to almost 4 feet tall in just a couple weeks.  So here’s our trellis (click pictures to enlarge):

Adam pounded it into the ground about 6 inches.

It’s framed with 2 inch x 2 inch x 8 feet pieces of cedar and some welded wire fencing (like this), stapled to the frame.  The fencing cost $50, but it’s a 50 foot roll and we only used about 6.5 feet of it.  The cedar posts were $6 each.  So the cost of this trellis was around $30.  We picked up enough materials to make 3 or 4 of them.

Since the trellis is only sunk into the ground about 6 inches, it’s made sturdier by attaching it to the house with 6-inch heavy-duty decking screws, covered by a tiny piece of copper tube for aesthetics.

A final detail shot.  I plan to add one or two more of these late this fall or early next spring.


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Cabbage!

I am super excited about the first cabbage I’ve ever harvested from my own garden.  There’s just something cool about watching such a substantial vegetable develop from a tiny seed.  And then eating it.

A pretty good-sized head of cabbage, and it tasted delicious.  We made cole slaw with it.  We’ll have plenty for making sauerkraut later in the season.  Glory of Enkhuizen, indeed.