Planning the Fall and Winter Garden

Apologies for the long absence! What can I say? I was ready for a new spring look.

We came back from our trip and hit the ground running!  We have been catching up on the weeding, the planting, the weeding, and the harvesting.  We’re also getting ready for a sailing trip this weekend, and then I go back to work next week.  There are many blog posts yet to be written on all we’ve been up to, including my continuing work on the Grand Master Plan…

But Monday I picked up an excellent local book (the author is on Saltspring Island, which matches our local microclimate almost exactly) on winter gardening at the library, and now that all the summer crops are in, I’m turning my attention to planning for the next harvest.  Last year we had some greens and tomatoes through the end of November, but my meager attempts at having the garden produce beyond that didn’t come to much.  I planted some brassicas (cabbage, brussel sprouts, etc) by direct seeding too late, and then the slugs got them all.  I tried some nursery seedlings, but again, it was late in the season and they were all root bound and didn’t really produce before the weather turned.

Last year my major stumbling block was getting my head around the idea of planting for fall before the summer had even kicked in!  But this year I am prepared and determined.  Our infrastructure (new beds, better soil, irrigation, hoops) has set us up for so much success, I have no excuses!  And now, with Linda Gilkeson’s small book Year-Round Harvest: Winter Gardening on the Coast to help, I’m ready to start my seeds.

The book walks readers through what crops work here, which ones need any kind of cover, and what kind works for the author, and when and how to harvest.  It’s a nice local and simple (empowering!) complement to some of the bibles of year-round harvesting, usually a la Eliot Coleman.  Gilkeson also helpfully confirms Steve Solomon’s crop rotation suggestions for the Maritime Northwest.  The process, which I really got my head around as I was doing my garden planning this past winter, is much easier than trying to adapt the conventional rotation schedules to our 3-4 crop growing season.

The jist is that early spring crops are usually done by sometime in July (with this year’s late spring, I’m estimating late in the month), and can then be followed by fall or winter plantings.  Those early crops could include those that have been overwintered, like garlic or fava/broad beans, also usually done in July.  Summer crops–long season ones like tomatoes, potatoes, squash, etc–need to go in the ground in May or June, and so usually need to follow either a cover crop (like winter rye that goes in the fall before and whose spring growth gets tilled under in early spring), or in a lucky year, a very early planting of salad greens or other quick early crops.

So rather than focusing on following a particular crop with another particular crop (ie roots follow leafies), I look at my beds and what’s in them.  I have a list of the early crops (peas, spinach, beets, spring lettuces, etc) and pick one to plant that hasn’t been there in the last few years.  Then I pick a fall crop that hasn’t been there before and put that in next.  When that crop is done, I can either mulch for the winter/early spring, or put in a short spring cover crop early in the new year.  This bed will become a long-season crop the next year, to be followed in October-ish by an overwintering crop (sprouting broccoli or a cover crop), that will then be replaced by a spring crop come March/April.  Still with me? 🙂

My next step today was to figure out how much to plant.  Remember that for winter crops (I’m planning November to March to be conservative this year), plants are surviving, but not growing.  So you need to plant enough that will be full grown by November (or by the first killing frost) that you can consume the whole plant when you harvest it.  Some plants will start to regrow in the early spring as soon as the weather warms up a little, but they will be slow.  Chard and kale, for instance, will be harvested to the stalk as mature leaves for cooking, but will regrow small leaves in spring that can be used for early salads.

I’m anticipating having salad greens, tomatoes, beans, carrots, parsnips, zuchini, cucumbers (?), chard, and kale (and possibly a fall pea crop?) from my summer plantings right through until frost (or close to it), so I’m really planting now for the post-frost harvest: winter brassicas (cabbage and brussel sprouts, plus overwintering broccoli and cauliflower), extra kale and chard, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, turnips, beets, winter Asian greens, spinach, arugula and other mesclun, etc.  My winter leeks were started in February and are already in the ground, growing slowly but surely.  Some of these crops will get a hoop house when the cold temps hit, some will be fine without any protection (unless we get an unusual cold snap), and I’m also planning to do some greens in pots in the greenhouse.

I’m estimating how much produce I think we’ll eat each week, and planting accordingly.  So in a given week, I’m projecting we’ll eat: 1/4 cabbage, 6 carrots, 1 lb brussel sprouts, 1/4 rutabaga, 2 parsnips, 1 turnip, 2-3 bunches of chard, kale, beet greens and/or spinach, 2 beets, plus salad greens and stir-fry greens.  Multiply these amounts by 20 weeks, and then I hope I have enough space!  These winter harvests will be supplemented by crops in storage (onions, garlic, apples, potatoes, squash, canned tomatoes, and possibly frozen summer produce and berries, and hopefully our own dried beans) and probably a few purchased veggies like mushrooms.  I’m also determined to harvest and dry more of our herbs this year–they are so much better than what I usually have in the pantry!

That yummy-looking winter diet (all too familar as we’ve been eating it until VERY recently!) also has some implications for my Grand Master Plan, which includes selling some produce through the summer.  In order to figure out how much I can sell, I need to know how much of the summer crop I need to save to sustain us through the winter.  The answer seems to be, in this climate, not much.  We have gone through most of our stored tomatoes, but still have a few cans of both sauce and diced, and that was in a poor tomato year.  I don’t tend to cook with a lot of frozen produce through the winter as we try to eat seasonally anyway, but I was pretty frustrated when the grocery store brussel sprouts and chard that I was buying this Februrary were from Mexico!

So we’ll see how this goes–there’s no way to plan perfectly when it’s all new territory, and I know many PNW gardeners preserve a lot more than me to be self-sufficient in produce year-round.  It’s probable that they know something I don’t!  But we all have to start somewhere!

Depletion and Abundance: Building Resiliency

Prepare to be poorer.

That’s one of the most central messages in Sharon Astyk‘s book, Depletion and Abundance. And it’s really not a message of fear and doom, but a new way to look at the whole question of self-sufficiency.

Last year, I did a little blog series On Self-Sufficiency, where I worked out my thoughts around what self-sufficency means. At the end of the series, I decided that I was going to move toward thinking about self-reliance instead. After all, once you work through the idea that you want to run away and create a little kingdom where you can survive anything on your own, most of us pretty quickly decide that divorcing ourselves from the wider community wouldn’t be desirable even if it were possible. Self-reliance became more about learning to be able to provide what I could for myself, while not needing to do it all, and recognizing that building community is where real security lies in uncertain times.

Astyk, though, has painted a picture that has me thinking a little differently again. It’s all the same dots–climate change, peak oil, food costs rising, etc–but she connects them in a way that’s fresh for me.

The upshot is this. Climate change means more “natural” disasters more often. More flooding, more tornadoes and hurricanes, more intense storms, more droughts. Sound familiar?! But the realistic impact of these is that in our wealthy Western world, the government will declare states of emergency, send in the troops, provide emergency reimbursements for losses. In other words, society will expect our leaders to take the same steps that it traditionally has when a major disaster hits, only it will be called upon to spend that contingency money more often. Again, this sounds eerily familiar this week…

So one major impact of climate change is that higher levels of government spending are needed.

Peak oil, of course, is going to make everything more expensive. Again, this is happening already. In Canada, at least, a recent report confirms that everything is costing more, even when gas is isolated (which, of course, it isn’t!).

I don’t know about where you live, but the general state of things at the momentalso  seems to be that governments are already facing massive debts and budget deficits. The US is barely functional, if the recent federal budget debacle is any indication!

So we take governments that are already in debt, combine that with heavier demands for emergency funds, and higher costs for everything under the sun, and we get….yep, you guessed it… higher taxes and spending/program cuts. And we get those at the same time that we as individuals are facing those higher costs for everything too.

So whether all of this happens quickly and apocalyptically, as many thought was happening during the big crash in 2008, or whether this is indeed a “long emergency,” and regardless of the whole conversation about mitigating climate change and shifting away from fossil fuels, most of us are facing a financially challenging future.

What I like about Astyk’s response to all of this, is that she doesn’t suggest that we are all doomed, or that we should run away and learn to live in the woods. Instead, she just says in a practical way, you’re going to have less cash–so how are you going to earn it, and what are you going to spend it on?

Becoming resilient is not about becoming totally self-suffienct as an individual or family. It’s about finding your own balance of how you might meet the challenges of the future. Most of us will continue to work for some money, and we will still need money. But we need to think about where that money will need to go. Will you be able to afford a long commute? Or perhaps doing that commute will enable you to meet all of your other needs without money. Can you save your money to buy staples like grain and grow the rest of your food yourself, rather than needing to move to a really large property that would make growing those grains yourself possible? Maybe you want to save your cash to run the computer and the washing machine and not put in the expensive solar panels because you can meet most of your other needs yourself. Maybe, like us, you have family across the country and you will need to save cash for what undoubtedly will be more expensive flights. We can make that happen if we make trade-offs in other ways.

Prioritizing is one important part of planning; diversifying is another. This is a psychological shift that I’ve been working on for a couple of years. I grew up thinking about finding vocation, career, calling. In reality, I’ve always done a lot of things, usually working at a couple of different jobs over the course of a year while in school. Though my job is still insecure, I have nevertheless had work full-time or close to it teaching for the last 5 years. As I disclosed in an earlier post, I also want to farm for some of my income. I also love to write, and always have a few projects on the go. For a long time, I thought all of this needed to be either/or. I struggled thinking I needed to BE a teacher, or BE a writer, or BE a farmer.

Now, though, I’m finally coming around to the fact that all I need to BE is myself, in a happy life with the people I love. That likely looks like doing a variety of things to earn some income, building resiliency through growing and harvesting food–domestic and wild–devoting time and energy to good relationships with family and friends (who, after all, are the ultimate safety net), and building relationships and strong networks of support in my community, to ensure that we all survive together.

Resiliency means having a wide range of skills and resources available, and the flexibility and creativity to adapt.  No one can have all the skills and resources necessary for a fulfilling life (plain survival is something else, I guess), so we gain resiliency–and security–through networks and multiple ways to meet our needs.

All of this also makes me feel a little better about our finances.  Although we could/ should be building up a reasonable cash cushion when possible, our money is going into building our resiliency in other ways.  Saving for the future is good, but putting in a woodstove means one less need that requires money to meet.  Storing emergency food is important, but having a garden with some reliable perennial crops, knowing our wild edibles, and being able to save seed makes a big impact in how much food we might need to store, and how varied and healthy a diet we might have should we ever have to survive off those stores.  And both protect us from needing to be wealthy should food costs soar in a crisis.

So, oddly, all this reflecting on an uncertain future ended up making me feel more empowered by the choices we’ve already made, and more confident in making decisions to come.

How about you?

Depletion and Abundance Lesson 1: Staying Put

As I mentioned a few days ago, I have an addiction to the idea that moving house solves all problems.  I have fought this most noticeably since we bought our first home almost 2 years ago.  We LOVE it here.  There really is no reason I should be doing anything but basking in that feeling.  And I do.  But yet.

Then we did our taxes a couple of weeks ago.  We’re always a little shocked at what our combined incomes amount to.  We spent so many years with me as a full-time student, working part-time, and even though I now work full-time, my job is not secure, and I still spend part of the year (usually a month or so during the summer) on EI.  So we don’t exactly feel like we have 2 substantial incomes.  But it adds up, nonetheless, and at the end of the last 2 years, we’ve been quite startled to see by how much.

Which always begs the question, where the heck is all the money going?!  It certainly isn’t piling up in the savings account!  We spent a number of years concentrated on paying off debt and tracking our expenses quite carefully, but we’ve eased off in recent years.  I still keep mental notes, though, and, truly, I do know where the money goes.  The mortgage, insurance of all kinds, commuting car, maintenance, and fuel costs, higher (than a condo or apartment) utilities, and right now, into the garden.  Building supplies, fencing supplies, irrigation, topsoil, mulch….infrastructure that feels well worth it.

So I had a moment in the midst of all this money reflection where I thought, maybe it’s time to move to Nova Scotia.

We are a bi-coastal family.  Most of my family is on the west coast, most of the Skipper’s is on the east coast.  The Maritime provinces are stunningly beautiful, and they are SUBSTANTIALLY cheaper–at least in property prices–than here in the west.  We used to spend our trips there driving around the province, real estate booklets in hand, oohing and aahing over heritage homes on large, picturesque acreages, priced at less than $100K.

We never did the big move for a whole variety of reasons, but it remains in our minds as a phantom possibility.  And every once in a while, the possibility starts to look appealing again.  How different would our lives be, how much less income would we need to earn if our mortgage was less than a third of what it is now?  It’s a staggering thought in weak moments.  We conveniently forget the costs of renovating one of those century-old homes, the costs of heating oil through the winter.  Hard to say how that might impact the overall picture.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that last night I was reading Sharon Astyk’s chapter in Depletion and Abundance on “Home Economics and Home-Land Security.”  In it, she takes a realistic look at what our homes are going to need to do for us in a low-carbon, less stable future.  And she asks readers to consider the option of moving if necessary.  Perhaps you live in a home you can’t afford, or in a location that isn’t working for you.  Perhaps you are far away from family or other support systems.  Perhaps the climate change projections for your area are dire: underwater, say, or desert (Palm Springs?).

On the other hand, she also asks us to consider the option of staying put.  If you are currently in a home that you can afford, that allows you to grow some food or has other flexible assets (rooms you might rent out or bring family into, a garage that could be a business space, a good community location, etc), then keep it.  Don’t go chasing the dream of the perfect, sustainable house.  Don’t build a new house.  Improve the one you’re in and hold on to your family asset.

Reading all of this was a helpful reminder of all the reasons why we bought this house to begin with, which includes many aspects that could serve us well should the future look dramatically different.

1.  Location, location, location.  There is often a trade-off with more rural living, and that trade-off is the car.  Rural life is often completely car-dependent, and that doesn’t look particularly stable in a low-energy future.  However, our house is within walking distance of a lovely village with some basic shops and services.  It’s within walking distance of the marina where our sailboat (potentially a useful transportation and food gathering tool) is moored.  We are within an easy 2.5K bike ride to the large suburban shopping plaza that has a grocery store, pharmacy, restaurants, etc.  We are within about 10K–also an easy biking distance, though not so much fun along the highway at the moment–to a small city with many central services for the wider community, including a large and thriving farmer’s market.

We are also located on a reasonably trafficked road, which in some ways is a downside, but if/when we wanted to start any home business, becomes a big plus.  In fact, we’re the only home for a few hundred meters that has a pull-out space from the road, which makes drive-by business entirely feasible.

In the wider community, the picture is also bright.  The culture here is very focused on sustainability and food security.  There is an active Transition Town movement, among many other groups.  There is growing political will to revive the old rail line that used to be the essential commercial and personal link up and and down the Island, and this would mean that larger centres–including the two that Skipper and I work in at the moment–could be accessible after a short bike to the local train station.   In fact, there’s even a local livestock feed producer who still uses that rail line to gather feed supplies from the island and blend it here.  When I really think about it, there are not many other places where there is so much potential so close by, and with minimal transition required.

2. Neighbours.  Our neighbours are great.  A family as dedicated to growing their own food moved in next door to us, and we have provided mutual support already.  On the other side are also friendly folks who have a small, sunny acreage that they keep as simple pasture/meadow that they mow (but no chemical lawn).  There are numerous and diverse farms close by and all of the above groups are there for us to become involved with.  There is an elementary school a few blocks away which is a vital community centre (including our polling booth for today’s federal election!).

3. Size.  We loved this house and property because it was a great size and layout for two adults without children.  There is lots of space for guests or boarders, and we could easily build in a suite if we needed to.  But right now this also means that there is lots of storage space and prep space for food and other livelihood production.  The property isn’t big enough to farm commercially (I don’t think, but that’s another post), but it is certainly big enough to provide most of our food and some surplus veggies, etc.  With the other community and neighbourhood resources, there’s also no reason for us to need to provide all of our staples on our own property.

With no children to change our needs over time, it’s also likely that this house could work for us for the rest of our days.  We could easily live entirely on the main floor if mobility became an issue, and other spaces could be used by caregivers and/or garden helpers (or both in one!).  We live right on a fairly main road, which makes accessibility easy.

4.  Reasonable energy independence.  Few homes not specifically built to be energy independent are going to be perfect in this regard, clearly.  But ours has some definite advantages.  It was custom built, rather than a generic spec house.  This means that some basic function were really intelligently considered.  There is a good south-facing wall for lots of light and passive solar heat gain.  Cleverly, the house layout also means that these warmer, brighter rooms are also the main living spaces.  The open layout also means that once we get the woodstove in, it will easily heat the main living areas, and with some minor (according to the Skipper!) tweaking, we can use the existing duct-work to blow some of the heat downstairs.

The house and windows are well-insulated, the rooms reasonably sized, the layout efficient.  Our climate is not extreme–even with no heat, inside would rarely drop below freezing.  Wood (waste wood in particular) is easily available on this forested island.  We also have the space and plans for an outdoor wood oven or rocket stove, and lastly, we have good south-facing roof space for solar panels, if we ever wanted to go that way.

5. Water.  Water is a mixed bag here.  Presently, it’s a bit of a weak point that we would need to address.

We’re on a well to an aquifer, and luckily it’s a good one, not too far down (unlike many in these parts!).  The water quality is very good, though we do use a softener to deal with iron (but I think that’s more cosmetic–if we couldn’t run the softener, I think we’d just be like many people in the world that deal with water that tastes a little odd and causes scale build-up.  Inconvenient, but how most used to live and many still do).  The down side is that the pump for the well draws a LOT of power.  Not constantly, but when it fills up the tank, it draws around 4000W!  This winter, we bought a generator, and it was a big decision whether to get one with enough power to work the well.  For a few days without power, we could buy drinking water, there would be some stored in the tank, and we would just cope with not bathing much or flushing toilets.  But in the end, we went with one big enough to be able to re-fill the tank if necessary.

Down the road, this is something we should continue to work on.  A more efficient pump, a manual or solar option would be worth putting in.  We do no rainwater collection right now, and that could add a lot to our irrigation ability.  Our aquifer is great, but aquifers are mysterious.  We don’t know if the farm across the street, or the new subdivision down the road are drawing on the same one, or how big or deep or secure it is.  We have installed low-flush toilets and low-flow showerheads and micro-irrigation.  We could install a greywater system from the kitchen to the garden fairly easily.  But in this climate, we have summer drought, and climate change may be expanding that drought period, even as it makes our springs cooler and our growing season shorter.

6. Sewage.  Here too, it’s a bit of a mixed bag.  Most rural properties have septic systems, and though these take up a lot of space, they are usually simple, last a long time (with an occasional pumping), and use gravity to power them.  We’re a little different.  The good news is we have an actual sewage treatment “plant” on our property.  With some bacteria and enzymes, our sewage is broken down in a series of small tanks and when it’s done, pure water comes out.  Cool!  The down side is that it’s location limits our growing area, and the process does draw some power.  Not a lot, though, I don’t think; we should look into solar options for that.  And, truly, there is lots of space on the property for an outhouse or composting toilet if it came to that.

To conclude this epically long post (!) then, let me say that I think I may have kicked my real estate habit.  At least for now!.  If I can make the psychological shift, I think we are in an extremely fortunate position.  The shift is two-fold: consider the mortgage something to be paid off and continue to invest in good neighborhood relationships.  So traditionally taken for granted, and so radical today!  But both of these are doable if we focus on them and stop the mental background noise that tells us that a home is something to flip and “move up the ladder” with, and neighbors are there for pleasantries, but there’s no point in really getting to know them when we’ll be moving in a couple of years.

Whew!  Well, there’s my exercise in apocalyptic preparedness!  How does your home resource stack up, do you think?

The Reading Season

I finally have a day to really get at the garden projects, but, inevitably, Mother Nature is not working to my schedule. 🙂  It looks like November storm season is beginning today; not too much rain, and the temps are mild, but winds are gusting up to 90km/hr!  Gusting is the key word though, so I’m hoping to get out in the calmer moments.

But with Daylight Savings time now a memory, colder, rainier weather and early dark evenings are the new normal.  I’ve been reading steadily for the last few months, but as my teaching term winds down, I’m building up a winter reading list too.  Love to hear some suggestions–what have been the great books (fiction and non) that you’ve been enjoying recently?

In the last month, I’ve read a ton of books about keeping chickens, and I had a brief flurry of research about goats as well.  We’d love a dairy goat, but it seems that it won’t be practical in this property’s current organization.  Oh well!  I’ve also been reminding myself of the permaculture principles and reading books on designing kitchen gardens–I keep struggling to reconcile the two, and I’m getting there! (more on this another day)

Other notable recent reads:

The 100-Mile Diet.

I know I’m way behind the times here.  I followed Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon during their journey as they posted about it on the Vancouver-based online newspaper, The Tyee, but I never got around to reading the book.  I was surprised by the personal and reflective nature of the book, and also by the recipes–what a different way of cooking and preparing local foods than I am doing!  Definitely worth a read.  I was particularly moved by their experiences at their property in northern BC.  The Skipper and I have spent a fair bit of time in the North, and I absolutely love it.  I think I’ll go looking for other writing about life in northern BC…

No Impact Man.

As with the 100-mile diet, I followed No Impact Man on his blog throughout his project and really enjoyed it, but I never did get around to reading the book (or seeing the movie!).  By the time these came out, I basically felt like I was the converted and was working on my own sustainable life projects.  I have to say I didn’t enjoy this book as much.  I like Colin Beavan and enjoy his writing.  But I found that although there were some very informative and moving moments in the book, a lot of it felt very repetitive.  I skimmed through a lot of the information that I already knew, or where he came to the same conclusions over and over again.  The culmination of his experiences is certainly inspiring though.  And he did really get me thinking about the value of some technologies in our current lifestyles, and what we don’t want to throw out with the bathwater.  First on his list?  The clothes washer.  I can see it!

I’m currently working my way through Eliot Coleman’s New Organic Grower, which I will also be buying a copy of at some point (most of my reading comes from the library).  Athough some of his innovations are now commonsense around these parts, there are still some brilliantly useful sections.  I’m ready to take the plunge into soil blockers in the spring, I think (I’m converted to the idea of growing seedlings for just about everything; last year I tried direct sowing just about everything); his section on crop rotation is the most helpful I’ve read (so many suggestions are just too simplistic for the diversity of crops in the home garden; Coleman’s rotation is an 8 crop one and he provides a process to work out one for yourself); and perhaps my greatest takeway so far is from his green manure section.  I’m inspired to get into these more seriously, and his undersown green manure system is perfect!  I’ll definitely be trying sowing clover, for instance, underneath squash, potatoes, carrots, peas, etc.  Polyculture, weed suppression, and the fertility and soil structure improvements of the green manure when you turn it under after you pull the crop.  Brilliant!

I’ve also enjoyed Jennifer Bartley’s Designing the New Kitchen Garden, Diana Anthony’s The Ornamental Kitchen Garden, and a number of books by the wonderfully named Bob Flowerdew.

Among the books on my request list at the library are:

Mini Farming: Self-Sufficiency on 1/4 acre by Brett Markham, Homesteading: A Backyard Guide to Growing your own Food, Canning, Keeping Chickens, …. by Abigail Ghering, and Charles Sanders’ The Self-Reliant Homestead. Notice a theme?!

I don’t expect to learn lots of new things from these books, but I’m looking for portraits of how to pull the various elements together into a cohesive, functional homestead.  And it keeps me dreaming of spring and waiting for the seed catalogues!

Happy Reading!

Life and Books

I haven’t been posting as often these last couple of weeks; life has taken some twists and turns, as it often does.  Many gardening/homesteading bloggers drop off a little this time of year, and we understand–we’re all swamped by the harvest and the preserving that usually goes along with its peak.  Or at least that’s what it sounds like for those in the East.  For me here on the west coast, the peak hasn’t really hit.  We’ve been eating some ripe tomatoes everyday, but we’re far from overwhelmed.  I’ve been collecting a handful of beans every couple of days, and I pinched off the first of the big-enough zucchinis yesterday.  No cucumbers to speak of; the onions and garlic are cleaned and curing.  I am picking about a pound of raspberries a day and have been for a couple of weeks.  It’s been a lesson in our soil–which has a ways to go–and in the benefits of the diversity in the small garden.  It’s been a lousy summer for many crops here, but we’ve still had lots to eat everyday.  Which, I remind myself, is the point!

So I haven’t been lost in the harvest; instead it’s been life’s transitions taking up my attention.  When we moved to this property a year ago, I had a strong sense that life was pulling me in a new direction.  I said to friends and family, “It will be so interesting to see where we are in a year or two; this is such a momentous change for us that I’m sure it will ripple through to other parts of our lives.”  I said to another friend recently that it’s impossible to make profound changes in many parts of your life without those changes–at some point–catching up with and impacting all of your life.  Some of those changes are now unfolding for me.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading.  I’m a writer and a scholar, and books are my constant companion.  I did a PhD in English (Canadian literature) and yet I’ve hardly read a work of fiction in the last couple of years!  Instead, perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve been reading non-stop about gardening and food production, and I’ve been hungry for stories about people living with the cycles of their lands.  I thought I’d share a few of the ones I’ve finished recently, and I’d love to hear of books that have sustained you too!

Jenna Woginrich’s sweet book, Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life was a quick, pleasant read.  The book jacket advertises that this is the story of a young, urban web designer who becomes a homesteader, but that’s not exactly true.  Instead, Jenna is passionnate about learning to homestead, but is also happy in her design work.  So the book shares her experiences as she learns skills and then puts them into practice in small-scale ways that work for her life at this stage.  She works her way through gardening, cooking, rabbits, chickens, sewing her own clothes…all kinds of things.  Her coverage of these is fairly basic, though entertaining.  But there were a couple of chapters I really appreciated.  In one, she encourages readers to learn to play even a simple musical instrument.  She argues that music is sustenance when you are homesteading; it is life, joy, community, beauty, and companionship and distraction on lonely nights without tv.  She makes a compelling case, and almost made me pick up the viola that I haven’t played in 15? years but that I continue to hold on to!

The second chapter I appreciated was one on buying used.  Or more specifically, buying vintage.  She encourages us to shop at thrift and antique stores both for the alternative pattern of consumption and as a boycott of the contemporary economy, but mostly, she reminds us that when we buy products made before the early 1960s–and preferably long before–we are inheriting objects that were built to NOT be replaced.  They are made to last forever and to be repaired easily if they wear out.  I will definitely be on the lookout for these!

I didn’t learn much from Made from Scratch, but it was sweet and a nice way to spend a few hours.  I’m glad I borrowed it from the library, though.

By contrast, Jon Jeavons’ How to Grow More Vegetables than You Ever Thought Possible, on Less Land Than You Can Imagine is one that I wasn’t sure I should buy, but now I will.

This is the bible of biointensive gardening for North America (or as they refer to it thoughout: GROW BIOINTENSIVE).  Jon Jeavons learned from Alan Chadwick, the man who brought French Intensive gardening from Europe and began tweaking it in California in the 1970s.  Jeavons was blown away by the transformation of the soil and land that Chadwick was working on, and he has continued the legacy ever since, refining it regularly.   The work that the Ecology Action Group has been doing in California ever since stands as one of the longest running food production experiments in North American food culture, and it’s worth paying attention to.  It’s a proven, very specific system of food production, but it can also be a little daunting, and it does raise some questions for me.

The book’s goal is to teach us how to produce all the food we need plus all the crops we need to improve the soil each year, all on about 4000 sq ft per person, which is much less land than North American food production currently uses per person!  Jeavons lays out the whole system to do this, which is great.  But what if you don’t have the space or the time to do this?  (Jeavons says that when you get experienced, each 100 sq ft bed should only take 15 minutes a day to deal with.  A reader in my library copy pencilled in the math–15 mins times 40 beds= 10 hrs per day!) What if you have a little livestock–even a few chickens–that help you improve the soil and provide some substantial calories?  What if you have a family of 4?  What if your community has waste that needs diverting from the landfill?  Or a farm that will produce the grain crops and we can exchange?  The book seems to push for us to be individuals responsible for ourselves, rather than on becoming interconnected members of resilient communities, which would be my goal.

All that aside, though, there’s tons of good, practical information here, and I’m going to start with some small tips right away–like layering some soil into my compost, to bring in more microorganisms and help to break down the woodier portions of my piles.  Well worth reading.

Lastly, I just finished Joan Dye Gussow’s memoir, This Organic Life: Confessions of a Suburban Homesteader. I heard about this one because Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver both cite it as a highly influential and important book.  It isn’t what I was expecting; it’s a rather straightforward memoir with just a few sections where she explores some deeper issues of our food system.  But she’s a beautiful writer, and the book is very moving.  And it’s lovely to spend time in her company.  It’s good, too, because Gussow was born in the 1930s, and so has a very different experience of the changes in the food system over the many decades since.  I always find it moving to read and/or listen to those who lived in times not so preoccupied with consumerism.  It reminds me that it is possible, and that the strange times we live in now are really a blip in human history!  The memoir was published in 2001, and most of the analysis that she offers about the food system are a bit self-evident almost 10 years later, but her experiences of growing all of their own produce for many decades is rich, grounding, and inspiring.  Also well worth reading.  Comes with some recipes too!

So what books have inspired you lately?

Book Review: The Zero-Mile Diet

Carolyn Herriot is a well-known fixture in these parts, and I’ve been anxiously awaiting the publication of her new book, The Zero-Mile Diet: A Year-Round Guide to Growing Organic Food. I managed to pick up a copy at the fabulous Watermark Books (they have no website, which is a shame, because I was ready to read through the whole bookstore!)  on Saltspring Island a few weeks ago, and read it cover to cover over a day or two.  I haven’t seen any reviews yet, so for what they’re worth, here are my thoughts.

First, the reason that I had been looking so forward to reading this book was because Herriot and her husband, local environmental activist Guy Dauncey, have been working on gaining food self-sufficiency over the last number of years.  They live on a small property just outside Victoria, and Herriot has been writing, teaching, and selling plants from the property for a long time.  I’ve seen her present about backyard chickens, among other topics, and she is hugely knowledgeable.  So I was excited to read about how her family had become self-sufficient in fruit, vegetables, and eggs (and meat?), on a not-so-big property in my local climate area.

This also ended up being my main disappointment with the book, because this book doesn’t tell that story.  Herriot mentions in the introduction that her family set out on a self-sufficiency goal that to their surprise only ended up taking 5 years–even from a soil base of clay fill, which is what we have!–but she never does clearly explain how they did that.  So that’s too bad.  But the fact that the book wasn’t conceived as I was hoping it would be is hardly a reason to judge it badly.  And Zero-Mile Diet in fact does many other things very well.

Like her previous book, A Year on the Garden Path, The Zero-Mile Diet is set up as a month-by-month how-to guide, which appropriately groups garden tasks and knowledge in the season during which they are needed.  Thankfully there is also a good table of contents and index to help you when you don’t know what month pest management or some other topic might be covered in! Reading the book straight through does give a reasonable sense of the cycle of the year, which makes for a good overview, especially for the novice gardener.

Once you find the particular topic you’re interested in, luckily, Herriot goes into full depth, rather than just touching on what you need to know that month.  So when we get to composting, for instance, we get all the information we need, not just what’s appropriate in May.  There’s a lot of useful information throughout the book, including detailed information on seed saving that goes through plant by plant, a decent section on backyard chickens, including coop sizes and feed requirements.  Herriot is also a big proponent of lasagne gardening, and she gives easy-to-follow instructions with photos.

In fact, the large, colorful book is packed with photos, which is one of its best qualities.  Overall, Herriot looks like she is trying to make backyard food production look easy and fun, and the book is definitely appealing to read.  She is also balancing a potentially wide audience with a real sense of the local climate on Southern Vancouver island, and one of the aspects of the book I appreciated the most was her attention to what grows well here.  As a longtime seed producer, Herriot has given her customers access to some unusual, heritage, and otherwise specialized vegetables, herbs and flowers.  In this book she talks more about what these plants are, how they taste, and how to cook or preserve them.  And there are some great looking recipes scattered throughout the year that I will definitely try!

As with any “overview” book, I have some quibbles with what’s left out.  She has a good discussion about composting, including a “recipe” for her “Super-Duper Compost” which she says will produce nursery-grade compost in six-months.  I’m getting ready to try it!  But despite her advocacy and passion for the topic, she never gives really practical beginner-level instruction on building the compost pile.  She provides the “30:1 Carbon-Nitrogen Ratio”, but never breaks that down into how to use the ratio in your home compost.  This is a silly oversight, because 30:1 doesn’t mean anything when you’re standing in front of your grass trimmings and your kitchen bucket at home!  Tell us that we need to layer our straw or leaves or paper in a ratio of inches on the pile to make it easy.

She also has a section where she talks about her preliminary experiences with Muscovy ducks in her garden.  This is a topic of particular interest to us, as we’re seriously contemplating ducks rather than chickens.  She’s up front about the fact that she’s just learning, but more detailed information would have been helpful, as it’s difficult to find.

So, like many books intended for wide, beginning audiences, there is lots of information here that’s covered in other places, and there are some gaps where reading additional books is necessary or at least helpful, to get more depth.    I could see that even while I was standing in the bookstore, trying to decide whether to bring The Zero-Mile Diet home.  But in the end, I’m glad I bought it, particularly for the following reasons:

1.  Seed Saving: this section is excellent, and seed-saving specific books are not in the budget at the moment.  The Skipper is particularly interested in getting us started in this regard, and this section is thorough enough to give us confidence.

2.  Perennial Vegetables: Permaculturists and others are experimenting with perennial vegetables and other edible plants.  It’s hard to get good info and even harder to figure out what will grow well in our area and then even harder to find the seeds!  But Herriot treats these unusual plants with practical ease, and her company even sells the seeds for the varieties she discusses.  Super-helpful.  And did I mention the cooking instructions?

3. Practical Advice for our Climate: I’m not sure if this would be as helpful elsewhere, but I can’t see why not.  I know in my extensive reading, I’ve often come across contradictory advice or been left with questions about how to apply a practice in my specific yard.  The Zero-Mile-Diet answered a lot of these questions for me, and also gave me convincing reasons to follow a particular direction in areas where there is debate.  For instance, there is some debate about whether it’s better to start seedlings and transplant them or to direct-seed into your garden beds.  I’ve been a proponent, in the abstract, of direct-seeding as much as possible, as the resulting plants are often more productive and are usually stronger and healthier than transplants.  But Herriot makes a convincing case that raising transplants is important when our changing weather patterns make traditional planting cycles unpredictable.  This spring I was very glad that I had healthy tomato transplants in the greenhouse and that I could wait until the weather co-operated to plant them out.  Herriot suggests that over her 20 years of growing here, the springs have become colder and more unsettled, and that transplants are the way through unreliable weather.  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that seedlings raised up off the ground are also less vulnerable to slugs!

All in all, although this isn’t the narrative of becoming sustainable that I was hoping for, it is a very helpful how-to guide that covers some topics that others don’t, and that even experienced gardeners will take some good tips away from.  It’s a well-illustrated, down-to-earth way to get started, and reading it certainly made me wonder if food sustainability is just that easy!  We’ll see. 🙂