So You Want to Be a Homesteader- Day 1- Gardening

Growing food is going to top our list of homesteading activities.  There is nothing quite like walking outside to the gardens with a basket in hand, clipping this and that for supper.  Seeing the plethora of tomatoes hanging heavy from the vine or crisp salad greens in various colors.  Here are a couple of things to keep in mind.

You don’t need a large plot of land to garden.  Don’t think FARM quite yet.  Growing for excess is the goal, but it should be the goal for preserving for your own use, not to sell.  Take care of your people first before getting into a farming operation.  I think of all of the vegetables I sold for near nothing and realize that I could have used those on our own dinner table.  Later down the line, if you are feeling pretty good about the whole a crop, then designate an area, but for homesteading purposes, we are only thinking of providing for ourselves and those close to us.

Grow as many varieties as possible.  If one crop fails, you still have plenty of other choices.  And for a homestead, variety is the spice of life.  Tomatoes, peppers, green beans, for sure, but also potatoes, onions, garlic, ice burg lettuce, and lots of herbs!

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Grow perennials.  A good homestead has a food forest in the works.  Crops like Jerusalem artichokes, sorrel, and fruit bushes and vines will feed you without too much prodding year after year.

Don’t forget wild foods.  Leave a big patch of dandelions in the garden for salads and smoothies.  Mulberries will be raining down soon here.  Leaves of dock and mallow are highly nutritious.

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A ginger plant in the kitchen.

You can grow food anywhere.  You can grow a tomato in a pot in the south window over the winter.  You can use window boxes, pots from a garage sale, or the front yard.  You can garden in a rental or on your own land.  It is always worth it to garden, even if you know you will move.  Community gardens, friend’s houses, wherever you can get your fingers in the soil.

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Grow food all together.  Maybe when we get a lot of land I will give in and plant in rows, but right now seeds go everywhere in the garden beds.  They grow together snug and fill our kitchen counters with ease.  Extra seeds get added to beds.  One more tomato plant.  As long as they have the space they need to grow, they are fine.  I keep foods you might eat together, together.  The three sisters- corn, squash, and beans- grow beautifully.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil grow together.  Lettuces among green beans.  Pumpkins everywhere!

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You don’t need to overhaul all the soil.  I have given you many techniques over the years to garden easily and on the cheap.  Start today by digging a little trench across an area.  Sprinkle a handful of bagged soil across the five inch deep trench.  Now put some seeds down then cover with organic gardening soil.  Water every day.  Done.

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A row of corn, sunflowers, pinto beans, and watermelon hide in this trench in the middle of weeds in rocky soil.

Growing your own produce is really, really important.  Up north of Pueblo the farmer’s markets are filled with vegetables that were not grown in Colorado.  No one has figured that out because we have totally lost sense of what grows when.  Think about where your produce trucks in from, how much gas went into it.  From South America to California, that out of season peach is costing us health and the environment.  You can grow lettuce in the kitchen window for goodness sake.  Yes, gardening is at the top of our list for homesteading!

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Planting Basics Q&A

I have spoken at many events over the years, from small gatherings, for the Master Gardener’s Program, to large sustainability and gardening shows.  I take the fear out of gardening.  Dispel the idea that you need a backhoe to clear an appropriate plot.  That you need a yard at all!  These are questions and answers that might seem obvious to the seasoned gardener (there is always something to learn from each other, however) but hundreds of people wondered at these events.  I thought this would be a good time of year and a good forum to share on.  Happy planting!

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How do I know when to plant? 

Look up your last frost date.  You can plant cold crops four weeks before that date, summer crops on that date, and seedlings (young plants) four weeks after that date.

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How deep do you plant a seeds and starts?

Twice the depth of the size of the seed.  A carrot or radish seed will just have a dusting of soil atop it, whereas a pumpkin seed could be two inches deep.  The same goes for pots of plants, bushes, or trees.  Dig a hole twice as big as the pot.  Fill it in with garden soil.  Then give it a good, gentle watering.

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How far apart do I plant the seeds?

Plant the seeds the width of the plant.  So if you want radishes that are about two inches wide, plant your seeds every two inches.  Plant corn every foot.  Plant tomatoes every foot and a half.  Carrots are every inch or two.

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How about soil?

Until your soil has had a couple of years of amendments and care, you can use organic gardening soil.  Dig a hole, plant the seed, top it with a handful of garden soil.

Alternatively, dig a three inch trench, place the seeds in the trench, and cover with the appropriate amount of soil.  This aids in watering, as you can just run your hose right down the trench. (Not too strong of current or you will dislodge the seeds!)  This also helps the bases of the plants get stronger because they are not subjected to the wind.

You can also plant in pots!  Here is a fun decorative idea to flank a sunny entrance to a porch.  In a large pot, plant a kernel of corn in the middle, a bean on either side, and four pumpkin seeds around the edges.  The three sisters will be a showstopper come late summer!

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Keep a compost pile!

In the corner of your yard between a couple of pallets or in a fancier version, throw straw from the chicken coop, grass clippings, leaves, coffee grounds, and any manner of food (no meat) that the chickens don’t eat into the mix along with a bag of soil.  In the fall, sprinkle all of that compost onto garden beds and let them sink in over the winter then blend in in the spring.

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Annuals vs. Perennials

Let your annuals go to seed!  Mother Nature has a job and it’s to keep things growing.  The seeds disperse and will come back next year.  Since we are not doing any intense tilling and we are planting up in layers as opposed to digging out a garden bed, the seeds start where they land.  I have romaine lettuce and arugula in the path.  I planted both in nice, straight-ish lines elsewhere, but because these came up earlier, being planted by Mother Nature, I get to enjoy them earlier.

Annuals are a must.  Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, corn; all these things are annuals.  You can save the seeds of the last fruit or vegetable you pick from each and dry and save them for the following year.

Perennials are really where it’s at!  I love that the raspberries, burdock, dandelions, roses, sorrel, rhubarb, and strawberries come back on their own, bigger and better!  They are really what gives us food security.  Perhaps one year you might be ill and cannot plant a garden, but you can still feast on salsify, sorrel, sunchokes, dandelions, and fruits from trees and bushes.

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How much water?

I can only speak for my state and surround.  We are bloody nose and cracked hand dry.  Like seven percent humidity would be a lot.  Water every day, folks.  Even the “drought resistant” plants like herbs and such love a bit of water every day.  One inch of water for seeds and two inches of water for plants.  If you count for ten seconds, you have one inch of water, twenty seconds=two inches.

Use a hose without a sprayer.  Use your fingers to divert and control water flow.  It will take six times longer to get enough water from a sprayer.

Place your hose by a tree while you walk over to turn it off.  Or use a five gallon bucket with a nail sized hole in the bottom, fill with water at the base of the tree and let it slowly get into the roots once a week.

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Lastly

The thing to remember here is that Mother Earth loves to grow stuff.  She shakes the seeds out of my chile ristras and plants them willy nilly.  Seeds want to grow.  It is their life purpose.  Water, sun, soil, they are off and running.  Expect that 1/3 of your seeds will make it.  Animals, wind, viability all play a part here.  I grow equal amounts of bind weed, mallow, and straw to purposely planned vegetables and fruit.  Forget the idea of perfectly manicured gardens.  Here is the deal, Mother Earth does not like barren soil, so if you have space, she will fill it.  Grow plants together.  Lettuce next to potatoes.  Beans next to corn.  One with deep roots, one with shallow.  All through the beds.

Have fun.  Have tea in the garden!  Enjoy the birds and the lady bugs and the sounds of real life.

Making Your Own Chili Powder and Cornmeal (from seed to plant to pantry)

Drying staples is a way to preserve the harvest and has been done, presumably, since the beginning of time.  Come autumn, at just about the moment that I think I cannot possibly water one more plant or can one more thing, frost is at the doorstep.  I gather in baskets the remaining produce and carry it to the still-warm kitchen.  There will be peppers.  And there will be corn that I purposely left too long on the stalk.

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The corn came in a humble seed package at the farmer’s market.  Aztec blue corn.  I love crowing Indian corn and usually it is for popcorn, but this one is specifically for, essentially, growing blue corn meal.  I pulled the husks over their heads, removed most of the silk, and hung them up to dry on a hook in the kitchen.

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If you have been following me for any number of years y’all know that my heart belongs to New Mexico.  The terroir is so familiar to me that I can identify a New Mexican wine or chile in a blind taste test.  My friend brought me back two large ristras from Taos, New Mexico to adorn our front porch when we first moved in.

I learned that the winds out here are fierce in the spring and Mother Nature likes to trim trees and clear out debris (like lawn chairs and stuff).  She got a hold of my ristras and shook ’em like nobody’s business.  Now, I have had a notoriously difficult time of growing peppers over the years.  But there in my paths, window boxes, and in rogue spots of the garden amongst herbs and zucchini were thriving pepper plants that she had planted from seed.  “Show off,” I muttered under my breath.  I sit there tending to each seed with exact care, squinting to read the backs of seed packets, and still failing and there goes Mother Earth, flinging seeds into the barren soil seven weeks before the last frost and coming out with amazing results.  I could learn a thing or two from her.

But then happy day, I am growing New Mexican chilies!  It turns out that this very spot of land that I reside on is nearly exactly like the land in New Mexico.  The same altitude, the same soil, the same elements of the places there I love.  Not like the farmlands just east of me, nor like the dusty plains west of me.  Right here, I have a little New Mexico-in-Colorado oasis.

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I am getting better at growing peppers and last year I brought in quite a few.  Last year was not a good growing year though.  In the spring the temperatures rose to a hundred degrees and hovered there straight through till frost.  The inconsistent watering didn’t help, and I got some kind of rot on the bottom of the peppers.  But I still managed to save some.  They sat on my cutting board on the kitchen counter up until yesterday.  They had all turned a lovely, passionate red and were dry.  Once chilies are dried, they lose that volatile oil that burns the heck out of your skin when you touch them, but still take care not to get the chili powder in your face or under your nails.

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Chop off the very top stem and using a sharp paring knife pull out the seeds.  Keep these because we are planting them in a few months!

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Throw the chilies in a food processor, coffee grinder, or other grinding mechanism.  I used the grain pitcher with my Vitamix.  I like my chili powder nice and fine.

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Normally I keep the New Mexican chile separate from the others but some of them had rotted so I didn’t have a lot.  I blended the Pueblo chilies with poblanos and the red chilies from New Mexico.  The taste is spectacular.  Hints of tomato and earth, smoky, not too hot, and better because it was from my own garden.  I sprinkle it on potatoes and everything else under the sun.

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As for the corn, use your fingernail to easily dislodge each kernel, taking care not to pull too much chaff in with it.  I put the seeds in a strainer with bigger holes.  As you shake, blow gently on the kernels and the chaff will blow out.  Place corn in blender or food processor and grind to a fine powder.  That earthy, corn flavor is great.  I used it in my pizza crust last night blended with regular flour.  Save one ear for planting this year!

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Growing, harvesting, drying, grinding, cooking with, saving seeds, planting- all these beautiful, ancient practices connect us with our ancestors and help us feel connected to the earth and our food.  Soon we will be in the garden again!

Starting Seeds in Salad Containers

Over the years I have written about many ways to start seeds and they all have one thing in common, a simulated greenhouse.

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Now, every year I think I will have a real greenhouse.  Surely by the time I need to start seeds I will have one built or put together or otherwise exist, but then the same issue comes up every season (no funds), and so I am once again left with my own creativity.  This year I saved salad containers all year.  The kind with the lids.  You see, the key to seed starting is lots of sun and continuous moisture in a warm space.  It is so dry and cold here that I would be watering all the time and probably cause the seeds to mold.  No, I need a mother-nature-way of watering, softly and simply, with evaporation and condensation.

Many seeds should be direct planted.  Even though I added six weeks to my growing season by moving to Pueblo, I still need more time for peppers, tomatoes, and eggplant.  I found last year that when I direct planted them, they almost made it before frost.  This year I am holding back half of the seeds to direct plant and half I will transplant.  Transplanting is not always successful so we figure that one of the ways will succeed!  (And so goes the life of a farmer.)

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Fill your salad container 2/3 of the way full with organic, potting soil.  You want room for the plants to grow.  Water the soil so that it is evenly damp.  We don’t want any marshes settled at the bottom, but you might be surprised how much water the potting soil can hold.

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When it is evenly damp, sprinkle the seeds over the soil somewhat spread apart.  Barely sprinkle on more soil to cover and use a spray bottle of water to really dampen.  Until they are established, a water bottle prevents water pressure from dislodging the seed or drowning the poor fellas.

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Close lid tightly and mark with a sharpie.  Because you will forget the varietal and date you planted!  Just trust me on this.

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Let’s see, now to find a place with at least six hours of sun where the cats won’t step on or eat said seedlings.  (A more difficult dilemma than one might think.)  The guest room has a nice sunny spot on the bed from the south facing window a good part of the day and the door closes.

Now over the next week or two, keep an eye on your seeds.  There should be consistent “rainfall” in the box.  If it slows (every other day or so) spray thoroughly with water and reclose.  When plants are 1 inch tall, open the top and water as needed making sure not to let them dry out nor drown.  (You can still use the spray bottle.)  Once they get to be about two or three inches, transplant into another container separately.  (A blog post on that will be in a few weeks.)

I don’t know about you but I am darn near stir crazy not being able to be outside doing something.  At least starting seeds makes me feel like spring has begun.

Imbolc- Following the Agricultural Calendar

The agricultural calendar has eight farming and community holidays and celebrations making a wheel.  Every six or so weeks is a corresponding holiday that helps denote the time of year and gives us space to receive blessings and to show gratitude.  These holidays are Celtic historically but they are celebrated still.  The first of these holidays in the year is Imbolc.  Pronounced im-bowl-g.  It begins the eve of February 1st and sometimes goes until February 2nd.  It is not too late to bring back some of our most beloved traditions and wisdom.

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It is interesting to note that in each culture around the world, the gods and goddesses looked very similar and had similar roles.  Brigid is the goddess of spring.  She brings back the light of the sun.  She awakens Mother Earth to warm and bring spring.  She travels through the night on January 31st blessing articles of clothing that are left outdoors.  In her wake life is sparked. 

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Now as Christianity came rolling through, destroying cultures and people in its wake, the church demanded that the peasants (another word for peasant is Pagan) stop worshipping gods and goddesses.  But the people so adored Brigid that the Catholic church finally made her a saint so that the people would at least be praying to a saint.  St. Brigit was born.  Her Celtic cross is not a crucifix, it is a symbol of the four directions. 

Imbolc is one of four fire festivals.  The elements are revered in every original culture for their power to destroy and renew.  Fire warms, awakens, enlivens, brings life. 

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Imbolc translates to “In the belly” or “Ewe’s milk” depending on text and is the celebration of lambs being born.  Fiber, milk, and meat were of course ways of survival before we could truly choose compassion completely.  This is a time to bless seeds.  And each day gets a little longer and a little warmer and gives us hope for spring and a break from the cold. 

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Ways to Celebrate and Prepare

Sweep out the house and set out a bouquet of fresh flowers. 

Mix in a small spray bottle a blend of essential oils along with witchhazel or vodka to suspend.  Try lavender, cedar, sage, orange, frankincense, sandalwood, vanilla, rose, or other intoxicating, cleansing scents and smudge your home and yourself with the oil spray.  Your house will smell fresh, negativity will be released, and a fresh start will commence.

This evening, start a fire or light a candle.  Ask Mother Earth and Brigid and Creator to bless your seeds and gardens. 

Prepare a glass of warm almond milk with herbs steeped in it like lavender or green tea and enjoy before the fire. 

Place a scarf or hat or other article of clothing outdoors to be blessed. 

In our world of science and seriousness, we have lost the enchantment of what was.  People would not have been doing these traditions and celebrating these holidays for thousands of years if there was nothing to them.  Accept your blessings, feel renewed, and enjoy the warmth of Imbolc. 

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This Year’s Secrets of the Garden

Already I can feel the air shifting, changing.  I had been watching the birds and animals a month before the Farmer’s Almanac predicted a hard winter.  My crops are finishing up weeks early, ready to be placed asleep beneath layers of heady compost and blankets of straw.

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This year’s lessons were plentiful.

#1 I sought to use up all the seeds that I had collected over the many years of gardening and not purchase any this year.  Most were not viable and I had to do mad dashes to the store to get seeds/seedlings in order to have a garden!  I grew tomatoes from seed.  One large vine was struggling to turn ripe so I pulled the whole thing out and hung it in the kitchen.  It is now producing luscious, red tomatoes.

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#2 I did not purchase expensive potato starts.  Instead I filled my apron with potatoes from the kitchen.  Organic and growing eyes, fingerlings, reds, and a few yukons from a friend’s nursery.  They took off better than any potato start I have ever had.  I filled baskets and had three huge harvests of delicious potatoes.

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#3 I discovered a little nemesis to my farm’s name.  The Squash Bug.  Few pumpkins were found last year and this because of that wretched little bug and his army.  I shall be spending this winter’s reading time perusing garden books for organic methods to killing said enemy.

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#4 If it doesn’t grow well over here, then plant some more over there.  I never plant in rows.  I plant everything together.  This year the weather soared above a hundred degrees way too early and I did not have any spring crops.  Almost all of my new herb seedlings were toasted quickly beneath the scorching May sun.  I planted many things on the east side of the house and they thrived.

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#5 Mother Nature grows best.  The squirrel that hid a pumpkin seed in front of the porch is my hero.  The vine is up on the porch and produced the only pie pumpkin because the squash bugs didn’t know where to look.  The ristras hanging from my porch had their seeds scattered in an April wind and I will have New Mexican red chilies soon.  A rogue head of popcorn I didn’t know was there planted itself and grew in the herbs gardens.

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#6 Let things go to seed.  I had prolific basil and arugula.  The radishes and carrots reseeded, as did lettuce and spinach.

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#7 My perma/straw beds that I created this spring were genius (I say so modestly) and I had little work this year to keep them weeded.  I will add three more next month.

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#8 Some things cannot be tricked.  I grew ginseng and gingko until they realized they were in Colorado and promptly died.  Peppers, which have always been impossible to grow up north, grow plentiful and flavorful in Pueblo.  (The eucalyptus and ginger were tricked successfully, I must add.)

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#9 Water and compost are all you need.  The sun does the rest.  Plants want to grow.

#10 I love gardening.

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My porch and many gardens were taken over by morning glories, which effectively shielded many herbs and young trees from the record-high temperatures.  I enjoy feeding the birds and watching the wildlife.  I let the rogue “weed” trees grow and ended up with a lovely privacy fence.  We ate well.  Every year is different.  Even when some things don’t work, something else always does.  A good lesson for life from this Farmgirl’s perspective.

Farming by the Moon and Canning Jar Cloches

It is both exciting and daunting to be farming in a slightly different climate.  We went up one zone and added at least a month to our growing season.  I am attempting Brussels sprouts, artichokes, and sweet potatoes with my new found month.  It is quite hot here in the summer though so this is really all a big learning curve.  As soon as I thought I was pretty dang good at gardening, the new landscape will again be a firm teacher.

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I have been farming according to the Farmer’s Almanac and have been very intrigued by my findings.  As the moon is waxing the above ground crops are put in.  Promptly following the recommended days of planting were three days of rain.  As the moon was waning we planted our potatoes dutifully on the days specified and it was followed by rain.  The statistics and patterns of the earth’s cycles recorded for so very long make it pretty accurate to tell the weather and the best time to plant.  It is a nice way to up our odds in the garden.

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I started seeds in the special little plugs but ran out of money to get one size bigger and the plants were suffocating in their cramped quarters.  When I was speaking at the Sustainability Fair a few weeks ago a woman mentioned that she puts her tomato and pepper plants under canning jars for two weeks and that they do amazing.  “They don’t burn up?” I asked.  She was surprised herself.  She first put the seedlings under the canning jar cloches and forgot them.  When she came back from vacation two weeks later expecting the worst, they were blooming frantically and joyfully under their inexpensive greenhouses.  So, here I am with Brussels and artichokes and a bit early yet to actually put them out but this is all a lovely experiment anyways with these vegetables so let us try it.  Under the free cloches they went and I shall keep you posted on the findings!

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Pick Your Patience (a lesson in seeds)

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According to the Farmer’s Almanac, yesterday and today are the opportune moments to plant root crops.  My potatoes aren’t here yet, but plenty of seed packets awaited.  Carrots, parsnips, radishes, beets, onions, and cloves of garlic were pressed gently into a half inch ravine of roughed up soil and soft, organic garden soil covered the precious seeds.

The most beautiful invention in all the world might be pelleted seeds.  My, how lovely, how easy, to finger each clay pellet holding a single seed and place them precisely one and a half inches apart (give or take a millimeter).

But some of the seeds don’t have such a luxury.  Tiny fragments of what will become food threaten to fall out of my hand in great clumps due to my impatience.  I have found that later in the season I will never thin plants.  I start looking at the great plants all together and wonder in which direction do I start?  Which plants are doomed?  How long will this take me?  And I leave them, only to harvest micro thin carrots and nonexistent beets come fall.  So, I must pick my patience.  This year, I chose to have the eternally sought over virtue during planting.  I listened to a lecture on my headphones and carefully knelt over the ravines.  One seed.  One-ish inch.  One seed.  All the way down the rows.  And, oh how I rejoiced in this!  I am one step closer to inner peace and I will not have to thin plants this year.  Placing the seeds one by one in their distinct rows and spacing was not as hard as it seemed.

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The yard has been separated into Italy, China, England, Ireland, and the Americas.  Ireland is in rainbows with enough room for a mower.  It’s all shaping up rather beautifully.  This climate!  However did this enchanted city escape my search when looking for the perfect place to live and farm?

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The Cost of Gardening

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Ooh, purple carrots, must have those.  Pak Choi, yes please.  This is Pumpkin Hollow Farm, mind you, so three varieties of pumpkins in various colors sounds good.  Three kinds of potatoes.  Two kinds of asparagus (we are finally in a place where we can wait until the first harvest!) naturally, and don’t forget yard long beans.  Ginseng?  Oh yes, yes.  I got to the end of this charade and almost fell out of my chair at the final charge.  I silently clicked the order button, peeking out at Doug reading on the couch.  I am feeding either two people or an entire army with this order.  Just a touch under $500.  Yikes!  But, let’s break down the cost of seeds.

  1. Counseling- $200
  2. Gym membership-$150
  3. Homes for birds and bees-$50
  4. Mini-vacation hidden from the world-$100
  5. Fresh, delicious food to maintain health and youth-$1,000,000

Hey, I got a good deal!

Friday Farmgirl Gardening Series Week 10 (erosion, hail, hoppers, and hope)

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And this, my dear friends, is one reason we do not rototill!  With the crazy summer storms we have been getting an inch of sandy thick topsoil from the neighboring gardens slid onto my plants and pathways.

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My novel takes place in the 1930’s and through my grandparents’ stories and books I am learning about the dust bowl.  Something we were never taught in school and something that could so easily happen again as we deliberately and repeatedly deplete our soils of nutrients instead of building on top of the soil.  Soil does not like to be barren!

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“Oh hail” is my new cuss word.  Grasshoppers are my nemesis.

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Yet, each day the soil and my plants call to me.  I find my respite and peace with fingernails caked with dirt, birds flitting by, and despite everything, the harvest.  Plants want to grow.  Spinach, baby kale, baby collards, arugula, lettuce, and nearing the end of radish days fills my basket.

I thin a few carrots and beets each day.  It is the most loathsome job in the garden I know.  I think that I will just put two fingers down for two inches, pick everything in between, but goodness, those seedlings are everywhere.  Which direction do I go?  Two inches this way?  Then I take out that nice tall one…It is rather stressful but it must be done, for carrots one or two inches in girth feed folks a lot better than two millimeters in girth.  The kids need room to grow.

Next year, I think, you shall find me at the end of the winter months at a table with a glass of wine and opera blaring carefully dotting each seed with glue and placing them strategically two inches apart on long strips of toilet paper.  Though that sounds dreadful to my “do six things at a time” mind, listening to Andrea Bocelli and dotting seeds with glue sounds a lot more fun than the mass killings I am attempting to complete in my garden.

This week I will be laying more mulch and making everything tidy.  We’ll see what there is to harvest.  We’ll start planning our fall crops.  We’ll listen to birds, get a sun tan, and plan up new recipes inspired by the garden.

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My balcony garden is doing amazing, may I add.  Just goes to show that the best gardens have a roof!