How to Make Raised Garden Beds Easily and On the Cheap

I pour myself more sludge (strong coffee) as I write, the world encompassed in white, me not trying not to fall under SAD (seasonal affective disorder), knowing in a few weeks I will be planting those first seeds.

I told you that I was going to move the garden to the backyard because zoning had come by last fall and given me a warning post-garden to clean up my front yard into fancy neighborhood status.  I thought it would be easier to grow grass and flowers in the front yard and fence off a 25×25 designated garden in the back yard.  Enter large puppy, large expense for fencing, and here I am back in the front yard.

The weeds last year were incredible.  I have never seen lamb’s quarters ten feet tall!  I have never experienced mallow whose roots may actually tickle the top of Australia.  I was humbled.  This year I know we will still have weeds (they are medicine and food, but they do like to take over the world some…) but this year I will be a little better prepared.  Even though my crops did great in their sandy, never-been-gardened spaces I did want to amend the soil.  Did I mention on the cheap?  Because I never have as much extra money for gardening as I think I will!

This first-of-several beds coming this spring is a combination of everything I have learned over the years.  It is part Hugelkultur, part Permaculture, part straw bale gardening, part raised bed, part ingenious way to use what I have on hand.

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First I laid down sheets of cardboard.  Cardboard will break down within one season but it will help immensely in keeping weeds down.  I sure wish I hadn’t sent all that cardboard to recycling!  I would have layered on a few extra sheets of cardboard if I had it.

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I thought of large stones.  I thought of cinder blocks.  I thought of 2x4s.  I checked the bank account, and went into the back yard to see what I could find!  I have large limbs from the dying Elm tree that were ready for firewood.  We have lots of wood right now and these are so beautiful with the bark still on them.  They were easy to place in an 18×4 rectangle (with the help of my husband) to create a frame.

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Then two to three inch slabs of straw went on top of that.  The straw will suppress more weeds, will create an airy environment for the seedlings, will break down and become mulch and amendments, and helps fill the space so I didn’t have to buy so much garden soil.

Next went on pails of finished compost.  It never fails to amaze me that a banana peel in six months becomes dirt.  That scraps, and straw, and grass clippings, and chicken straw, and everything I put out there turns into rich, dark compost.  I won’t have enough for all the beds I am planning on putting in but I can purchase mushroom compost pretty cheap once I run out of my own.  It is only for this year.  From here on out my own compost will act as fertilizer in spring and fall sprinkled on the beds.  I won’t need quite as much.

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Then went on five bags of organic gardening soil.  I wanted to get it spread on the new bed now because it will have a few weeks to settle into the straw.  I want to make sure I don’t lose seeds in the settling soil!  We will know in a few weeks if I need more soil.

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The tiny trees I planted are in the tomato cages.  They will be watered regularly by being in the garden bed.  Once they grow nice and tall in as many years and begin to shade the patch, the patch can move.  Gardening is as much about flexibility as it is growing food.  Nature will work with you.  The main idea is to improve the soil and to create as many perennials so that each year we have more and more food and we are helping the soil regain health.

Done!  Now, the straw will try to sprout but the grasses easily pull out.  If a weed makes it through eight inches of cardboard, straw, and soil, it, too, will be easy to pull out.  At the end of the season I will pour some leaves, straw from the chicken coop, etc on top, and blend it in come spring.

*Side note- the empty soil bags will be set around perennial herbs and bushes with straw or wood chips placed over.  Weeds will not get through them!

Grab another cup of coffee, Folks, and hang in there.  We are almost back in the garden…

 

To Grow and Forage One’s Own Food

home 4Soon.  Soon now the dark greens of earth will peek through the moistened soil and seek the sun.  Dandelions will unexpectedly be dancing through the grasses.  The mulberries, black and velvet, will stain my fingers as I gather them.  Perhaps the squirrels will leave some walnuts for me.  And this is the year for the plum tree to fruit.

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To forage for food gives a great satisfaction to the spirit but to forage amongst one’s own gardens and land is spectacular.  I can already taste the cleansing lamb’s quarters, the tangy purslane, the scrumptious dandelions interspersed with sweet butter lettuce fresh from the garden.  Just dressed with good olive oil and sea salt, the tastes of spring come forth and fill my body with nutrients after winter’s rest.  Soon.  Soon now.

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I am reading a beautiful book called, “A Year in the Village of Eternity” by Tracey Lawson.  It takes place in Italy, in the village of Campodimele, one of the Blue Zones, where the most active and healthy elders live.

Cibo genuino. Real Food.  Roba nostra.  Our own things.  I let the many Italian words roll off my tongue and take their lessons.  Real food.  Our own things.  Grow an orto, a garden.  In this village they forage or grow nearly everything they consume.  Is it possible?  Last year on our own little third of an acre in town, in soil fit for a driveway, we grew all of our own produce for the summer.  Our first season here with little time or money.  Now we have eggs from our chickens.  We have planted many fruit and nut trees (if I can just keep the puppy from thinking they are sticks to play with!), we are recognizing more and more wild foods, and are growing many more vegetables this year in better soil.  Contadino.  Farmer or gardener who produces their own food.

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I cannot wait to feel the soil in my fingers.  Soon.  Soon.  The season comes earlier where we live now and in three short weeks I will be folding spring crops into the cool ground.  What preserves shall we do this year?  I imagine lilac and lavender jam, stewed tomatoes, crisp fire roasted corn.  We are enjoying our larder these winter months.

To live like this is to be ready at all times, for what you seek or what you want to “put up” may not be there tomorrow.  Herbs must be harvested when ready.  Fruit may be eaten by birds at dawn.  Piles of corn need shucking.  Ah, but I enjoy the work.  I love our evening walks after dinner in the sunlight.  I love the sound of water covering plants and the crisp sound of the pea pod being opened.  Ogni cosa ha il sua momento.  Everything has its moment.

For now I have winter preserving to do so that it is done once the busy season starts.  In my cucina this week dozens and dozens of jars of beans will be put up.  Vegetable broth too.  I still have beans from the garden to shell.  I will check on my vinegars and my kombucha.  I have been resting and a tad neglectful.  But now as each day falls closer to spring, I awaken, don my apron, and get to work.  In campagna, c’ e sempre da fare! In the countryside (or city as the case may be) there is always something to do!

 

 

The Farm Sanctuary

20171019_132845I can’t find anything written about it but word from the farmgirls in town is that we can now have two goats or sheep and up to twelve chickens.  Being such a farming community I was surprised that the town was so behind Colorado Springs and Denver when it came to legalizing farm animals in town.

Now this new news may not mean anything to our immediate future.  First and foremost we must pay off our debt.  I have a pretty lofty goal of paying off everything but the house this year.  Fifty grand is not easy to come by but I am determined to scrape and save and send farewell payments to our student loans.  Debt is most certainly a jailor and it is keeping us from our dreams.

And that dream might just be a farm sanctuary.  Years ago, huddled in the cold basement of a friend’s house who was letting us live there until we could get back on our feet, we drew out an elaborate plan one cool autumn night.  A farm.  The only thing we have ever wanted.  Rented farms were fun and disastrous.  Not having money made it difficult as well.  We imagined and created a farm that was a non-profit.  Something folks could get behind.  Our family-run farm would be complete with large vegetable, herb, and perennial gardens.  There would be a building to teach classes like homesteading arts, gardening, art, writing, cooking, herbalism, and preserving.  A place to serve meals and a place to house interns.   A general store would sell preserves and tinctures and produce.

The animals we accumulated on our past farms were never to eat.  At the end we had twenty-four chickens, two sheep for wool and entertainment, two goats for milking, and four ducks for eggs and laughs.  This time around we wouldn’t have the milking goats.  Cashew milk tastes pretty good.  But there are plenty of little boy goats that may need rescuing.  A wethered (neutered) goat is just like a puppy.  I eat the eggs of my beautiful chickens because, honest to god, they don’t care.  Eggs from the store-even organic, free range- come from horrid, cruel environments.  But my hens are named, snuggled, and live out their whole life with me.

If the animals are in a safe, happy environment and people can come to a farm and have a great vegan meal and play with farm animals and see the souls, personalities, and life behind each individual, that could make a profound difference.  To show folks that one person can make a tremendous impact on the environment, saving endangered species, save the lives of thousands of animals over their lifetime, and completely restore their own health would be the best possible work for me.

I know this is a big dream.  (Add to it that we want it in a warmer climate like southern California) I don’t usually dream quite this big.  It probably will not start this complete but will manifest and grow into itself.  We have been learning and preparing for this dream for the past ten years.  Here on this little urban sanctuary I have room for a few more rescued chickens.  Perhaps some ducks.  Maybe a wether.  Really, not much more if even that.

But first things first.  Create a written plan.  Learn how to start a non-profit.  Pay off debt.  Dream big.  Enjoy the present.

The Real Face of Farming and How to Change the World

elsaWe fell in love with her instantly.  She was so small, adorably white, and cuddly.  I gave her a bottle full of milk which she took with relish and snuggled into my arms to sleep.  Her name was Elsa.

A friend of ours gave her to us out of sympathy.  Our first two goats were Katrina, who after giving birth would not have anything to do with us and we were not able to milk her, who went to live with someone new, and Loretta.  Loretta was a rotund black dwarf who came to us pregnant.  We did not know this at first.  She loved my husband.  She followed him incessantly, attempting to help him with chores.  She just adored him and we loved her too.

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We were excited, as new goat farmers, that she was pregnant.  We would make some money off of her babies and then milk her.  The buckling within her womb was too big for her and his foot punctured through her uterus.  She died a rather painful, screaming death.  Instead of deciding that perhaps animals shouldn’t be used for milk, we decided to get a gun in case we needed to put future animals out of their misery.  (We sold it a year later.)

Elsa was placed in our arms.  A three day old doe will melt anyone’s heart.  She loved to ride in our truck, windows down, music playing; she was like a puppy dog.  She went with us to speak at inner schools.  She introduced dozens of children to farming and the joy of goats.  She pranced about the living room.  She ate geraniums and loved farmer’s markets and attention.  We loved her.

Here’s the thing about farming-even sustainable, humane, compassionate farming-it’s not any of those things.  No one was more compassionate and affectionate as my husband and I, yet when you have a farm, your perceptions change.  Animals are expensive to keep, and there comes the mentality that animals have to earn their way.

IMG_0801We bred Elsa-because we had a small dairy- and she gave birth.  We whisked the baby away.  She cried and we told ourselves that animals don’t feel the same as humans, she won’t even miss the baby.  She got mastitis and huge scabs on her udders made it so that we could barely milk her.  I had to hurry because if she was in milk she was worth more than not.  I sold her for two hundred and fifty dollars to someone who drove out from New Mexico, loaded her into the minivan and was gone.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that I just sold and got rid of our beautiful Elsa.  It is not that we were heartless, we just fell into the perceptions of a small farm.  Our friends all had the same mentality, and it was just the way things were.

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The roosters were friendly.  All of our chickens were.  They had all been kissed and carried around by us or our children since they were two days old, freshly home from the feed store.  But they were not kind to the hens.  Their roughness trying to mate the chickens caused gashes in the hens’ necks and a lot of stress.  There is only one way to get rid of a rooster.  We placed them in dog kennels and took them to a nearby freelance butcher that would take care of them.  We joked and laughed and said they were heading to freezer camp.  We put up the filter, the barrier, the wall, the ignorance, that all farmers put up.  Two living beings were about to be killed.

My husband drove by and saw that they were still in their kennels two days later.  No water.  No food.  They were delivered to us in plastic bags.

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We thought chickens got their heads cut off and it would be quick and easy.  But that is not so.  Chickens are bled out.  Upside down they hang while their necks are slit.  The blood runs across their face, up their nostrils, into their eyes, until at last they succumb.

Laverne was a beautiful black hen, whose feathers shimmered green in the sunlight.  She loved to sit on my lawn chair next to me as I read.  All chickens have personalities.

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“The animals die quickly,” we told ourselves.  Hanging by one leg, having their necks slit, fearful, swinging from overhead, not understanding.  We could hear the cows lowing frantically a mile away at the slaughterhouse.  Not even the few that are dispatched by gunshot die quickly.

I had been vegetarian for twenty-seven years and vegan for two years.  I was fiercely passionate about animal rights.  We dreamed of living in the country and our friends around us all had small, sustainable, compassionate farms.  We started drinking goat’s milk.  We got our own goats.  We prayed for all girls.  Because there is no other use for male goats.  Most don’t even become dinner, they are killed and dumped in most operations.  “I don’t want to hear if the males are becoming meat!” If you knew how many times I have heard that from goat farmers.  Ignorance makes us lose our empathy.  It makes us lose ourselves.

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It is easy to put up walls so that one cannot see the personalities or the lives that are being taken in the name of country and farm living.  I told myself that it was hypocritical to be vegan because everything causes harm.  Our ancestors ate meat.  So and so is ninety and he’s fine!  Oh the reasons we come up with.  And there we were eating meat.  And in that time I watched our health flutter downwards in a spiral that could not be blamed on anything else.

Many people will decide that gluten is actually their health downfall.  Perhaps it is chronic disease, inflammation, hereditary.  I have found as a Clinical Herbalist that there is not an ailment out there that cannot be benefited by adopting a plant based diet.  In fact there is not an ailment out there that is not caused or worsened by eating meat.

But the idealic countryside of cows grazing in the hazy dawn of a country morning would not exist.  Farm animals have many good days and one bad day!  It’s the circle of life.  It’s healthier.  I never really believed the last statement as my lymph nodes grew larger and larger but one does tell themselves many things in order to justify what is not right.  I have been on both sides of the spectrum.  I can see the romanticized farming lifestyle.  But I can see and feel the karmic and physical and emotional and spiritual disaster that inevitably follows by consuming animal products.

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You see, the mothers do cry for their young.  The cows do wander out of the fields and down the street looking for their babies.  We get upset that kittens are boiled alive in China for food but not when a lobster does.  Society gets upset over a dog being eaten, but doesn’t bat an eye at lamb.  When the word cow becomes beef and sheep becomes mutton and we begin to make them less than sentient beings in our minds, we begin to fool ourselves.  We might be outraged that dogs are experimented on for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals but then feel hopeless and be a consumer anyway.  We may not wish to harm any animal but then feel overwhelmed and purchase the packaged, bleeding, unnamed meat in the grocery store.  Or maybe we buy from a sustainable, humane, compassionate farm.  Well, now you know how that turns out.

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It took me four years to realize what I was doing and what I had done.  The word “vegan” has a negative connotation to it and I thought I’d rather be ignorant than angry.  But it is not anger, you see, it is compassion.  It’s realizing what is actually going on.  It is realizing that our health and our spirit and our life will be more peaceful, and more beautiful, and healthier, and more vibrant once we let those illusions leave and let the wall down.  But I will warn you, you will begin to see things with new eyes.  You may be horrified, angry, empathetic, passionate, saddened, but we as humans were never meant to murder.  Imagine telling a small child to kill a rabbit.  It does not come naturally to us.  It is time to let the old myths go and the excuses and step into a more enlightened way of living.  Just wait and see how it changes you.

The Crone and the Ants

20171103_092307We named her the Crone upon first seeing her, for her lengthy limbs and wide trunk seemed to tell stories of old.  It was obvious she was coming up in years and wouldn’t be around forever.  Sawdust fell at her feet and pieces of her skin fell off in the dust.  Her scant leaves held firm.

The tree men came and took down just the limbs over the electric wires and noted that the Crone was hollow.  “Carpenter ants,” a shrewd one said.  You have to go get ant killer.  Bayer.  It’s at the hardware store.  It’s the only way to save the tree.”

Doug hopped in the car and started for the store.  I had a sudden realization, like a deck of cards filing out quickly in front of me of what we were about to do.  I called him and told him to come back home!  No poisons.  That is not how we have ever done things.

“Then your tree will die,” the tree man shrugged.

I had him put corn meal into the hollowed ends.  I put the wood ash around her base.

The thing to remember here is that the ants are there because the tree is dying, not the other way around.

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I watched the wood pecker the next day with his lacy wings and red head pecking at the tree.  Several friends joined him.  Sparrows and finches burrow into her limbs.  Squirrels play among her arms.  We would have killed them all.

I planted twenty trees in her place.  She will fall when she falls.  Then she will return to my garden and to the wood stove.  All in nature’s time.  No poisons necessary.

Planting Arbor Day Trees (how to)

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Years ago we had donated money to the Arbor Day Foundation and received in the mail ten trees.  Rather, ten sticks.  I didn’t know a darn thing about raising trees and have killed many over my years, I am afraid.  Well, those first ten were subject to neglect and the lawn mower.

Ten trees…sticks…arrived in the mail from Arbor Day the other day.  Ten more are arriving next week.  3 Dogwoods, 2 Redbuds, 2 Crepe Myrtles, 2 Crabapples, and 2 Hawthorns (the primary ingredient in my heart medicine) were carefully planted in the yard.

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Gandalf was very helpful with digging the holes.  I started the hole and he finished it for me!

Dig a hole at least a foot and half wide (so that grass and weeds can’t sneak up on the tree) and a foot and a half down.  Any lower and you might lose the tree!  They aren’t very big but they are trees and the Arbor Day will send you ten with a ten dollar donation and that is a great deal for everyone.  They catch up to their older, potted cousins within a few years and will be stronger because they started so young and they will adapt to the soil they are put in.

 

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One huge mistake I have made in the past was using compost or potting soil to fill the hole.  The tree just wants regular dirt!  Fill the hole back with the dirt that was in there.  The sticks soaked in a vase for a few hours to absorb water.  Draw a two inch reservoir a foot away from and around the tree base.  Fill with water.  Put a tomato cage over it so you won’t hit it with the lawn mower! (and you will remember where you put the sticks.)  Mulch, leaving base clear, with leaves or straw, or the like.  Water occasionally through winter.

20171115_122425This is the first house we have bought in a long time and we are thrilled that this time we will actually be able to enjoy the trees we plant this year!  Time flies and it won’t be long before the trees are large and beautiful.

“The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago.  The second best time is now.” Chinese Proverb

Actually Moving and the Garden that Keeps Giving

20171025_14592720171025_150124In many ways I haven’t actually “moved” to Pueblo.  Perhaps because out of all the places I have lived Elbert county was the first place that ever felt like home to us.  Slowly, slowly I am moving to Pueblo.  We have been here nine months now.  I changed my bank last week.  I do my shopping here now.  I go to Elizabeth to work my shop just once a week.  I work from home and am rewarded with many new customers that seek me out here.  I still greatly love my old town and I pine for the country but I am gradually moving here.  The garden is helping me do so.

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Garlic planted for fall. The bok choi keeps coming back!

I am not sure that I could go back to gardening at 6500 feet.  Yesterday two more overflowing baskets of produce came into the kitchen.  It is late October and the gardens in Elbert county have been sleeping for awhile now.  In my gardens there is more…more vegetables to be harvested, another month’s worth at least.  I am astounded and thrilled at the farming conditions in this valley.  The soil that has not even been amended has produced the most flavorful and prolific crops I have ever grown.  I am smitten.  The weather here is heavenly.20171025_150112

20171025_15010420171025_150011I am extremely proud of what we have accomplished on this little homestead in just nine months time.  It will be beautiful seeing what it all looks like as months turn to years and years turn to decades.

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This is also the first time in two decades that we have a mailbox in front of our house.  If you would like to exchange letters you can write me at Mrs. Katie Sanders, 1901 Brown Ave, Pueblo, 81004.

The FSA (Family Supported Agriculture)

veggie 2“Do you know what you want in your FSA this week?” I asked Emily.  Eggs, goat cheese, beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, sage, and pumpkin piled into the cooler.

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I have always been on that in-between-sized farm.  I can grow a lot of produce, but I have run into a few problems with a small farm.  When I take produce to the farmer’s market, most folks will pass up my small display to go to the big farm tables.  You have to have a big, vibrant display to get folks to stop.  I tried to do a CSA (community supported agriculture) one year and some weeks my customers got a lot, and sometimes barely a shoe box.  We used to pick the best to go to the market and for the CSA’s and then ended up with the garden dredges ourselves, or worse, out to eat because we didn’t have enough!

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This year I took produce to the market early on and ran into the very same problems so I stopped.  Our kale is still four feet high out there and vibrant ruby beets line the row.  We have eaten more of our own produce then we ever have before.  We put up quite a bit as well.  I still have Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, potatoes, and cabbage to harvest but the garden is sleepily falling into slumber.

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I have found more joy in delivering large bundles of produce to my grown children then I ever did going to market.  Knowing that they are eating delicious, organically grown produce, cheese, and eggs makes this mama’s heart happy.  I always throw in some meat from my friends’ ranches.  It is my way of giving gifts to my kids.  I can’t always help them repair their cars or pay their bills, but I can feed them.  It’s what I do best.

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FSA stands for Family Supported Agriculture.  Payment comes in the form of a hug, and that is just right for me.

The Autumn Gardens (Spring and Fall Crops and the Great Harvest)

20170929_121332Fall crops grow beautifully and swiftly in their haphazard rows.

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The spring crops that I painstakingly place inches apart in the early cool of spring take awhile to germinate in the cold and then go to seed when summer decides to come on strong.  When those very same seeds are planted in  late July or early August they germinate quickly from the warm soil, ample water and light.  Then the nights become brisk and they soak up the cooling temperatures and thrive, which is why they are called cold crops!

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Of course I have all the energy in the world in April.  By then I have been dreaming of my garden for many months and am ridiculously excited to break ground.  By late summer we are getting tired of weeding and daily waterings and bugs so fall crops look more like mosaic puzzles than long tidy rows of food.

I had one bed pretty clear from the spring crops so I roughed it up with the hoe and planted-or rather, kind of threw in- a bunch of seeds.  Carrots, spinach, lettuce, peas, cabbage, and radishes came up with the colors of early spring with no help from me.  I forgot to water the seeds several times.  And yet they surprised me with their delicious arrival.

There are still tomatoes and other delicious summer crops in the garden.  The weather speaks of a freeze coming Monday.

Seeds and plants want to grow.  They are hard wired to do so.  As an experiment when the flea beetles came to town to chow down the cruciferous crops, I left a few of the broccoli and others to see what would happen.  I think we will have broccoli cheese soup tonight.  This garden has been a lovely experiment this year, one I allowed myself to do being in a new climate and a new place with un-amended soil.  Amazing.  Plants never fail to thrill me.  I think I will have radishes for breakfast.

A Great Farming Book and Why Every One of Us Needs a Garden

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With very little work I am still pulling out baskets of tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, beans, squash, and greens from the gardens.  The nights are getting cool enough that tonight I will need to bring in the houseplants.  Crickets still sing for summer as I write.  These gardens have been such a lovely respite.  They didn’t cost much to start or maintain and if I did have more money for amendments it would have been even more prolific.  Each year the soil will get better and better with techniques I have learned over the years from organic gardening and permaculture.  I am still learning.

A garden is not just a hobby.  It is one of the most fundamentally important things we ought to be doing.  To provide really fresh, nutritious food without chemicals and without the oil needed to produce, package, and ship our food from across the world is imperative to the health of our beautiful earth, and in a time of epidemic chronic disease, imperative for our own health too.

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Miraculous Abundance; One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World by Perrine and Charles Herve-Gruyer is a lovely guide filled with inspiration and ideas.  By simply focusing our energies on the soil and improving it we then let nature grow all of the food.  We are the helpers, not the geniuses behind food production!

The author states, “If we want to live sustainably on this planet, a growing number of people will have to reconnect with the land and produce food for themselves and the community….But the farmers of tomorrow will not come from the agricultural class that has been reduced to near extinction; they will come from the cities, offices, shops, factories, and more….Their farms will be places of healing, of beauty, and of harmony.”  The farms will be in front yards, in the country, on balconies; we will have to find a way to feed all of us because the current food model is killing us and killing the earth.  Period.

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Our yard in the city is the equivalent of four city lots, or just under a third of an acre.  We have utilized very little of it this year and are still producing all of our own produce for our week’s meals plus some for canning.  I have purchased the rest of the vegetables for putting up from local farmers, thereby boosting my local economy and putting food up for our winter meals.  I have chickens for eggs in the city and just purchased a goat share so that I can get plenty of fresh milk to drink and make cheese and other dairy products.  I trade classes or spend my grocery money on fresh meat from my friends that are ranchers.  Now I just need to get staples.  I save money, eat better, and support my local friends and farmers.  This is the model that we may all have to follow sooner or later.  Unsustainable systems are doomed to fail, and Honey, if you look at our food and medical systems….better plant some comfrey and Oregon grape root while you’re at it.

But we can do this!  We can support each other and help each other with knowledge and tool sharing, with friendship and bartering.  What can you plant next year?