The Proof is in the Compost

“How are we going to get in there?”  The Skipper asks, shaking his head.  The raspberries dangle off the tall canes, waving in the breeze at about 7 feet up.  Unless we stick the ladder right in the middle of the patch, we’re going to have to let some go.  Luckily, the ones we can reach easily are the size of my thumb–the biggest I’ve ever seen.

You may remember that back in April/May, I was fussing over my raspberries, kiwis, and some of the roses like a new mother.  All of them had yellowing leaves that didn’t look healthy.  I did some research on the yellowing pattern, and it most fit iron deficiency.  Cures for iron deficiency were confusing, though.  Many sources said that iron was naturally abundant in all soils, and that the problem was that sometimes the plants couldn’t access it easily.  This was particularly true if there wasn’t enough organic matter in the soil.

I was a little surprised at the thought that there wasn’t enough organic matter in my soil as I had added a good layer of compost to the raspberry bed in February.  But I hadn’t added any to the roses or the kiwis, so that was definitely a possibility.  So I added another good layer of compost to all of them and waited.  Late May, nothing had really changed.  In the raspberry bed there was lots of strong, healthy growth (and the volunteer columbines there positively glowed!), but there were still freshly yellowed leaves.  I was still worried.  I bought some iron chelate from the garden shop, and waited for a windless, rainless day.  One never came.

In early June, the Skipper and I went on the local garden tour.  The gardens during the tour are staffed with Master Gardeners, so that you can ask questions.  I asked about my poor yellowing leaves.  The gardeners said confidently, “Oh, that.  Don’t worry, it’s just the cold weather we’ve had.  Once it warms up, all the plants will be fine.  It might be iron deficiency, but if it is, it’s because the cold is keeping the plants from absorbing what they need.”

I was so relieved.  And, the pros were right.  The first wave of our raspberries was tasty, but the berries were small and crumbly, and the canes looked the worse for wear.  But those twice composted summer-bearing canes?  Yowza.  If I ever wondered whether compost was as beneficial as everyone says, I have no doubts now!  I just can’t wait to produce enough so that all of our food looks as good as this!

7+ feet tall raspberry canes
The tips are loaded with fruit--maybe we'll get that ladder out after all
Ready to Eat!
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The Mid-Summer Pause

Apparently it’s quite common on the West Coast to get a few days of cooler, rainy weather in the middle of our long hot drought of a summer.  We’re going on day 4 of cooler temps and drizzle in the air here on the homestead, and I’m finding it very strange.

On the one hand, the garden needs the deep drink.  Many plants (like the weeds!) love this little top-up, and I have now learned that tomatoes don’t need sunlight to ripen, so I’m reassured that there will be little lasting impact there.  On the other hand, I’ve found myself instantly adjusting back to fall/spring weather, as if the 6 weeks of summer we’ve had are all we’re getting, and it’s time to start hibernating more and cleaning up the garden.  The fall and winter garden that felt absurd to plant a few weeks ago now feels exactly fitting.

I’ve been struck, though, by the realization that what I have always thought of as summer crops–tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, peppers–are, on the cold wet coast, really a blitz at the very end of the summer.  Those crops ripen here toward the end of August, and in a good year, we keep picking them through September and sometimes even into October.  My sense of when summer even takes place is changing!

Here are some snaps of the “summer” crops–everything was planted late because of the super-cold June, so hopefully there’s enough warm weather left to get a good harvest.

Baby zukes!
Siletz tomatoes are LOADED...
The Roma Jungle--there are bush beans in there. So much for "interplanting"!
The main potato crop
The first pie pumpkin flower

These last few days have felt like a real break.  A bit of a vacation from summer, if you will.  There’s nothing major to harvest at the moment, but there are plenty of salad greens, chard, beets, and carrots happy in the garden until we need them.  So there’s certainly enough to eat (next year I will plant some spring brassicas, cause that’s what everyone else is eating right now!).  The tomatoes are ripening slowly, so there are a few to snack on each day (still the yellow cherries), but the real overflowing tomato bounty hasn’t hit yet.

So instead of digging in the garden, I’ve been reflecting, reading, and planning for next year.  The garden that we’ve inherited is now 10 years old, and there are some very overgrown perennial beds that look like weed-infested jungles.  Trellis structures that were adequate when vines and climbers were small are now buckling under thick gnarled trunks.  And layouts and plantings that made sense to previous owners are not working for us–perhaps because we’re trying to grow so much food.  At this point in the growing season, I’m looking for good access and easy maintenance, which I don’t have in many sections.

Does this look like a pathway?

I’m taking measurements and drawing pictures, and getting ready for a big fall dig.  Maybe when October rolls around and we’re ready to think about something other than canning, it will be nice to have some plans ready to go.  Stay tuned!

Simple Summer Meals

It’s been hot.  Regular 30 degree afternoons in the backyard.  I would NEVER complain about the heat per se, but it does require some adaptation.  I spend so much of the year cold that coming up with hot food ideas doesn’t seem to be a problem, but I’ve found myself a little challenged lately.  I don’t want to turn on the stove for very long, and we want to keep eating out of the garden.  I also don’t want to make anything particularly involved–I just don’t have the brain power after a long afternoon sweating over the weeds.

I went looking for new ideas online yesterday, and found this great (but old) link to Mark Bittman’s 101 Simple Meals Ready in 10 Minutes or Less article in the NY Times.   I love the simple and delicious sounding combinations–these kinds of recipes are really how we’re eating these days.  Our ingredients are so good that I don’t want to do much to them, regardless of the heat and time factors.  At the same time, you can only eat so much salad and so many sandwiches!  And lots of the Bittman recipes involve meat.  I’ve been a “pescatarian” (lacto-ovo + fish) for almost 20 years, and though the Skipper has recently declared himself “off the wagon”, we don’t cook meat at home (except for the Cowichan Bay Farm chicken sausages, which…you didn’t hear this from me…are worth veering off the road for).

So here are some of the meals I’ve been making lately:

1. Scrambled Eggs.  Not just for breakfast anymore!  I add fresh herbs and a little feta cheese, lots of ground pepper.  Great with steamed new potatoes in butter or toast, and salad.

2.  Variations on Salad Nicoise. These change with what’s available in the garden, so now it’s greens, onion, beets, tuna.  The other day we ate this with homemade potato salad: Steamed and cooled new potatoes, mayo, pickle and a bit of pickle juice, grainy dijon, pepper and a pinch of salt.

3.  Quick veggie burgers. I steamed some short grain brown rice in the afternoon, then put about 1 1/2 cups in the food processor with 1/2 can of romano beans (any soft bean or lentils will work) and 1/3 cup of toasted sunflower seeds.  After processing to desired texture (I like the rice chewy), I added 2 grated carrots, 2 T of breadcrumbs (quick oats work too), 1 egg (beaten), 1 tsp each of cumin, chili powder, oregano, 2 T or so of Tamari, and lots of pepper.  I sauteed a minced onion and lots of minced garlic and added that too (careful about adding your beaten egg to hot ingredients–it will curdle).  Mix up, add more breadcrumbs if it’s too wet, and, ideally, chill for a few hours in the fridge.  I didn’t have time, though, and they still held their shape pretty well after pan-frying.   Made about 8 patties–enough for a couple of lunches.  Served up with the usual suspects on our bread with avocado slices.  Yum!

4.  Quick stir-fries. Last night was onions, garlic, chard, and carrots sauteed with some tamari and Chinese cooking wine.  Served over basmati rice with my simplified version of the awesome Rebar peanut sauce (we didn’t have any peanut butter, so I used almond butter.  A little different, but still lick-the-bowl tasty):  1/4 cup almond or peanut butter, 2 T each honey and tamari or fish sauce, 2 minced cloves of garlic, juice of 1/2-1 lime (to taste), 1 t or so sesame oil, 1 tsp hot sauce (sirracha at our house).  These can all be stirred together in a saucepan with a little water or just whizzed in a small food processor and used at room temperature.  Delicious!

Next week if the hot temps keep up, I think I’ll venture into the cold Asian noodle salads and wraps; not usually the Skipper’s cup of tea, but just the right lightness and texture on days like these, I think.

So help me out!  What are you making simply in the kitchen these days when you don’t want to cook?

The Grass is Always Greener Syndrome

“An almost-new home tucked away on 3 acres.  1800 square feet 3 bed 2 bath home with hardwood floors and sunny kitchen.  Double garage, shop, chicken coop, small pond and large, deer-fenced veggie garden.  Come see where you’d rather be living!”

In another couple of weeks, the Skipper and I will have lived in our first rural home for one year.  It’s been a blissful year in many ways, and we’ve never regretted our decision to buy this particular house and property.  And yet, I’m regularly keeping an eye on the real estate ads…just in case.  It’s so hard to re-wire the consumer brain!

We moved houses often when I was growing up, though mostly within the same city, and we never had to change schools because of the moves.  Both of my parents had very disrupted childhoods thanks to regular big moves, and both were traumatized by the experience of having to constantly make new friends, figure out the new school, and learn about new (local and international) cultures.  They wanted to spare us that difficulty, and they were largely successful.  But I can’t seem to get the restlessness out of my neurological pathways :).

I love this house.  It’s just the right size: room for everything, but no unused space that we don’t know what to do with.  There’s all the flexibility we need to shift functions to different spaces, add a suite, do a little updating as we the mood (and pocketbook) strikes us, and it’s totally functional now.  It’s bright and open and structurally sound.

I fell in love with the garden as soon as I saw it.  It had raised beds ready to go, almost no lawn, and the English country style colourfully chaotic flower beds that tug at my heartstrings.  It had major food garden infrastructure: apple trees, grapes, raspberries, blueberries, kiwis.  It had an adorable pond and fountain, a gazebo, a small greenhouse.  After our condo and apartment life, the half-acre size felt manageable.  And the location!  We still feel like the luckiest people around.

And yet.  As we adapt to rural life and let our dreams run wild, as we fantasize about working from home or even making some income from our land, we wonder if there is really enough property here.  Much of the land is in a steep, forested ravine–great for privacy, not so great for food crops.  We’ve got space for a chicken coop, but the pond wouldn’t really work for ducks.  There’s no bocce court.  We are right on a not terribly busy road, but there are a couple of new subdivisions in the works, which might add significant traffic noise over the years to come. etc etc.  I fight the urge to look at the MLS listings out of habit.  When I can no longer fight, I rarely see anything that compares to this, but that doesn’t stop me from browsing!

I try to remind myself of the incredible, innovative ways that urban farmers are using small spaces.  There are many ways that we can adapt our property to needs that might evolve over time.  And at the moment, I have raised bed space I haven’t even planted, and we’re doing our best to keep up with what is growing!  We may not be able to grow all of the grains and dry beans that we might eat in a year, but that’s not really an efficient use of small spaces anyway.  And, really, there’s no way we could handle more than we have on our plates at the moment–there are not enough hours in the day!  So I know my restless mind isn’t really coming from a sense that something is lacking in our home.

I was inspired by Sharon Astyk‘s  recent turmoil over the possibility of moving her family.  They’ve invested many years and much blood, sweat, and I’m sure tears into their current homestead, but they suddenly became entranced by another home and property for sale nearby.  That home brought into sharp focus all the things that had been nagging them lately about their current situation, and they thought very seriously about making a move.  In fact, from the way she was writing about it, I was sure their hearts were already moving, and it was their heads that were having trouble coming to grips with the change.

But I was wrong; they’re staying put.  Lots of reasons, but what they found was that just contemplating moving forced them to take stock of what was not working for them in their current home, and then they were able to think through what they might do about it.  And lo, there were solutions to be had.

The posts helped me to see that sometimes that sneaky consumer-brain is really hard to rewire.  It’s the part of me that still sees buying something new as a solution to my every passing dissatisfaction.  Don’t like your neighbours?  Don’t try to get to know them better or work together to try to build community, just buy a new house.  Had a bad day at work?  Buy a pair of shoes.  Not happy with your current life?  Buy a book or a movie and escape to a “better” one for a while.

It’s harder, but eminently more satisfying to figure out where the dissatisfaction is coming from and deal with it directly.  And it’s amazing how the desire to get out and spend disappears in the face of real action.  I’ve noticed big changes in my spending and spending time habits over the last few years.  Today, instead of looking at new potential homes, I’ve cleaned the house I have, done laundry, done a couple of electronic chores I’ve been meaning to get to for months, and sent some important emails.  I feel much better.

Now if I can just remove the MLS link from my bookmarks…

Filberg Weekend

I spent the weekend with my sister in Courtenay, BC at the Filberg Festival.  It’s a unique festival that blends a juried art show and market with music and food in a beautiful park/garden setting.  Robi is a painter, collage artist, writer, editor, and she was selling art and greeting cards at the show.  We had a great time hanging out with friends and family, other vendors and the public.  It was a beautiful, and busy, weekend!

The people-watching was fascinating too.  Robi’s work is detailed and layered, and some folks, swept up by all the bright sights and sounds around us (not to mention the fudge stand next door!) just walked right by.  We met many women who are passionate about greeting cards who oohed and aahed over the stunning collage cards.  Then there were the men, women, and children who we watched move from yards away straight toward one or another work of Robi’s art.  They looked as if they were being sucked in by a tractor beam!  And once they could look away and up to us, the stories would begin to pour out of them; some element of the collage would remind them of an event, a person, a childhood experience.  It was a privilege to meet so many people who connected so deeply with the art.

Artist at Work!
Collage with Tractor Beam

Beautiful Filberg Park

I have to admit that after 3 days away, I was getting very antsy to get back home again.  Our wee homestead is so peaceful and rejuvenating that I have my own tractor beam pulling me home each day!  And this time of year, everything in the garden changes every day.  I came home to all kinds of excitement:

The first Golden Nuggets!

The Skipper and I have eaten the first ripe tomatoes!!! Let the record note that it was August 2nd.  Here’s to tracking these dates over time.  No surprise that it’s the yellow cherry tomatoes that are ready first; next will either be the larger yellows (Taxi) or the supposedly super-early large red Siletz.  The plants are all loaded, so I’m hoping this is the beginning of the tomato-marathon that will be August.

Also coming along nicely, but still a little painfully slow for this impatient gardener…

Baby Cukes

I think my dream of jars of pickles will have to wait for another year; neither the cukes nor the dill seem to be coming to much.  I’ll have to be satisfied with a few salad cucumbers like these until we have better soil next year.

Purple Bush Bean Flowers

Daphne in Massachusetts is already HARVESTING DRY BEANS!!! That’s how hot their summer has been on the East Coast.  Here on the wet cold coast, my tri-color blend bush beans are finally looking strong, and the most vigorous of the lot, the purples, are now in flower.  Be a long wait for my pole beans and dry beans, though!

Pre-Jam

One thing that has been doing well this year, though, is berries.  We’ve got Tayberries galore, these are juicy thornless blackberries (I think!) above, the blueberries are still going, and the second flush of the everbearing raspberries are now snack-ready.  The invasive but fabulous Himalayan Blackberries are ripening by the roadsides.  It’s going to be a good jam-year.   Mmmmm….jam.

It’s good to be home.