As I mentioned last week, I was inspired to keep writing in this blog, but I never fleshed out what I might be writing about. A short list of items includes homesteading, harvesting, unschooling and urban foraging.
One of the sessions I attended at the Mother Earth News Fair talked about all the food she had within reach of her backyard, or on the roads she travels to and from work. Living in Maine, she had an abundant supply of wild blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. But she also found that the plants in her own garden, so often ripped out as weeds, were very edible and sometimes more nutritious than the very veggies she was trying to protect.
In our home, we have already known from our time at Foxwood Farm that pigweed, purslane and lamb's quarter were very delicious and hardy weeds. The kids make a regular snack out of the purslane we keep in our backyard garden this year, pulling it between bike rides and the tree swing. They love the idea of foraging for food, even in this small way. Sometimes they'll bring me a stalk or leaf and ask if its food? After careful identification, I give them the thumbs up or down. Since I am so inexperienced in what herbs and plants can be consumed, most of the time it's been a thumbs down.
Well, no more. I endeavor to learn every plant we can eat on our 1/2 acre lot we rent here in Oshkosh.
An easy one to start with is our city garden.
I suppose this can't be considered foraging as we intentionally dug up the ground and planted it with peppers and tomatoes. However, seeing as the spirit of foraging (especially in the city) is to be more self sufficient, the garden is our number one supplier of free* food.
* We paid $30 at the beginning of the season for all the started plants and $15 for some makeshift fencing.
In June, when I was holed away in an office for 12 hours per day, Andy took on more than most Stay At Home Dads (SAHD) do. He kept the kids wrangled and dug up a garden from sod that hadn't moved in well over a century. At first he did it by hand, spending three hours moving sod from a 6 x 3 foot patch of lawn.
Then my father graciously offered the industrial sized rototiller we had used when we gardened at the farm. There is a setting on the tiller specifically made to uproot grasses and this made the work much more expedient, though still exhausting.
We decided to make four rows, three feet across and about forty feet long, with three foot stretches of grass in between the rows.
This was a good start for the garden. Good for this year. Next year we will likely expand it just as many rows. As it is, the plants we bought completely filled in the rows and we had no room for anything but tomatoes and peppers. We have some large stuffing peppers, but mostly hot banana peppers, which we think was a labeling error on the part of the gardener we bought from, as we never had a need for that many hot peppers. The tomatoes are two varieties; the classic red heirloom Brandywine and a new (for us) long-storing red tomato called Mountain Mist. You can easily tell the two apart both in appearance and flavor. It's nice to have a small variety; we usually have about 15 different tomatoes, but in the end, they all get boiled and canned and look about the same, even the colorful ones.
Very late in June, shortly after my temp job ended, we planted the tomatoes and peppers in the fresh farm compost my father had driven over in the pickup truck. Since it came from several composting sites on Foxwood Farm, there was a rich variety of nutrients and compost age. A lovely black earth, Andy took the same tiller and worked it in with the hard, poor soil the sod had been hiding. At last, he used a hiller function on the tiller and gave us "raised beds." Not the fancy ones held in by gleaming white pine boards but certainly enough to keep the plants from drowning in case of a flood. (Little did we know in June that this would be a record breaking year of drought for not only Wisconsin, but over half of the United States. Drowning...not really a concern this year.)
In the process of planting, we discovered lots of bones in the compost. Some were small. Some were large. Now before you get the willys, remember that this came from when Andy and I were still on the farm. Do you remember us talking about those sheep we purchased from a Craigslist ad? We had been told they were wormed before we got them, but shortly after their transition to Foxwood Farm, we lost three ewes in as many days. On a farm, all flesh is grass and they went into the newly formed compost pile to aid in fertilizing our fields in the coming years.
We really didn't think about that very much after we left the farm. We had a nice little reminder of our time as shepherds and thanked the sheep for their contribution (however untimely) to our new garden here in Oshkosh. At the time of their death, could we have ever known how that compost would be used? It served as a simple reminder of how God works things out in much more perfect and complicated ways than we ever could.
After the tomatoes were planted, we headed out west and came home to find an amazing growth spurt in both the tomatoes, but also the weeds. In fact, before we even put our luggage back in the house, Andy and the kids and I spent two hours weeding compulsively, before dusk and hunger pains shooed us indoors.
Above, before mowing the walkways. Below, after. Isn't it beautiful? This of course, before the great tomato take over in about a month!
After that, we kept the garden watered during July and August to preserve the parched plants. Our lawn was brown, but our garden was gorgeous. As the farm market vendors began to showcase their Early Girls and Cherry Tomatoes, we were beginning to get restless for our own brood to hatch. Plenty of green globes danced about the ever-expanding vines but nothing even hinted at ripeness. We bought our tomatoes from a vendor friend instead and dreamed of the first sun-warmed red fruit that would sit triumphantly on our kitchen counter, proclaiming to anyone who cared, "I'm as local as they get!"
We didn't have to wait long. Early September came and we were getting a steady sprinkle of red maters hanging out on our counter, waiting for bruschetta or BLTs or a simple slice and rock salt. Then...we didn't look for a few days. We got a heat wave followed by a steady rain for three days. When the thunder clouds cleared, our own homegrown downpour had only just begun. As Ethan excitedly proclaimed, "It's tomato season everybody!"
And we set to work. Since we didn't get the tomato plants staked in time, they literally took over the garden and even finding our grassy walkways was a tall order. All the super ripe fruits begin at the bottom, so much of the work is gently and firmly lifting a plant to find it's hidden treasures below. It's exhausting work for a normal person, but with my belly expanding daily and heat tolerance near zero, harvesting became quite the chore.
Thankfully, I had two excellent helpers in Elly and Ethan...and Liam was just amusing to have around as he eagerly picked all the tiny green "balls" he could find. I found out that while Elly has an eye for the very ripe ones, Ethan was fearless, burying his small 3 year old body deep in the monstrous tomato plants for the red globes underneath.
Over the course of the month, Ethan has been my best and most eager helper in the garden. As a middle child, it's sometimes hard for him to have a niche in the family. I want him to know that his help has been irreplaceable and of great value to his Mommy and Daddy.
Once the harvest is in, the time comes for processing. This is where Andy takes over and shines as his personality must find the most efficient and effective ways to can food. Putting eager kids to work never hurts and much of canning is very kid friendly.
One Sunday about two weeks ago, I had some pressing freelance work that needed to be completed by Monday morning. The tomatoes were just as dire. So beginning right after church, Andy began the long day of processing what we guessed to be 120 lbs of tomatoes.
It was a long day indeed. Hours after the kids were in bed, he was still boiling water and slicing stems and peeling skins. Hours after I was in bed, he was cleaning the kitchen and making sure the last jars sealed. In all, he worked for 14 hours. We are now blessed with 50 quarts of stewed tomatoes and sauce. When I asked Andy if that would supply us for the winter, he laughed and said, "Maybe til Christmas!"
It's a good thing that when I began harvesting tomatoes again this morning, we got 90 lbs in boxes and I still have 2/3 of the garden to pick.
Our neighbors in our small block think we're nuts. Some even have gardens, but only enough to supply them for the fresh season. An older lady saw us weeding in July and asked if were had planted a truck garden. For those of you who may not know, truck gardeners were the equivalent of the farm market vendors of today; people who planted huge gardens with the intent to truck the produce into the nearby towns and cities to sell. No, we assured her, this was not our intent. We explained that we just liked to make our own food and her eyes brightened immediately. She told us a story of her own mother, canning away in the kitchen and how she had to help put the food by. We promised to share our harvest with her when the time came and she seemed delighted. "Can't beat homegrown tomatoes and how I do love to slice them and eat them fresh!"
We love how a garden brings people in a small community together. The rag tag family down the alley comes by often and offers to pull weeds from time to time. The divorced hairdresser across the street checks up on the progress regularly as she has a green thumb for landscaping. The blended family two houses down has a little girl about Elly's age and after a few get-togethers, we gave the mother several tomatoes and hot peppers. Just yesterday her daughter came over with a homemade cake for us. Just three days ago, we got a note in our mailbox from a handicapped woman who walks through our alleyway regularly. She asked for some of the green tomatoes for fried green tomatoes. She offered to pay for them, but we'll just give her a bag to enjoy. We'll certainly have enough!
As the canning season winds to a close in the next two weeks (our first hard frost often lands in the first week of October), we will turn to other means of foraging and winter prep. As I'm actively learning, there's a lot of food out there if only we are willing to work for it.
This brings me to the country garden.
A few days ago, we headed about fifteen miles due west to the farm (formerly known as Foxwood Farm). My brother and his family live there now, keeping up the house and front yard quite beautifully. My father continues to raise crops and beef cows on the rest of the acreage while the fate of the family farm seems more securely in generational hands than when we first exited two years ago.
One of the projects they are diligently working on is repainting the house and garage, no small task as they are doing it without help of a contractor. My parents and brother and sister-in-law have been working for the last month, prepping and priming and painting the wooden siding and sills. When Andy and I pulled in the driveway late in the afternoon, the house fairly glowed with fresh white paint. Ever the classic midwest farmhouse, she is doing well under new management. Having spent about 75% of my life in that home, I am pleased with the care being given.
Our purpose, however, was not to supervise any home improvements that might be brewing. Today we came for pumpkins and potatoes.
A joint project between my parents and my brother's family, a large field garden was planted with rows of sweet corn, pumpkins and potatoes. What used to be sheep and cattle pasture is now commercial corn. The temporary fences long taken down, the lane between fields offered ample access for a small strip of garden. Here is where the sweet corn and pumpkins grew. Across the lane, a small triangle of land with very sandy black soil holds the two long rows of potatoes.
Last week the farm experienced an early frost, killing the family garden and causing the field garden to die down as well. My family harvested the pumpkins and brought them to the front lawn in hopes of selling a few to passersby. Mom and Dad have been involved in a year long fundraiser to build a well in sun-parched Uganda and decided that half the proceeds from pumpkin sales will go towards that cause. We thought it would be nice to see the operation and get a few orange cucurbits ourselves.
I had hoped to help with the harvest, but they had to grab them last week when I was in PA, so we got to benefit from the season's labor by just walking amongst the beauties and choosing what we'd take home. Since we had no hand in helping grow the pumpkins and yet were invited to take some home free of charge, we chose sparingly.
I was a bit surprised when the kids gravitated towards the smallest pumpkins in the group, but pleased that they could carry their prizes to the car all by themselves. It also gave them a sense of accomplishment, I'm sure. Even wee Liam managed to grunt a pumpkin over to Daddy before thumping it at his feet!
And of course, the obligatory kids in the pumpkin patch photos ensued. :-)
Elly with her new hat from Grampa Steve.
Ethan, with his exuberance flowing through even a static photo.
Liam, more than displeased to have been deposited in between these cold, slippery lumps of orange, attempting a fast get-away.
After we chose our pumpkins, we drove down the dusty lane and began our subterranean search for potatoes. Again, beneficiaries of my family's hard work, we were thankful for the homegrown goodies that lay in wait of our digging fork.
At five and three, Ethan and Elly have been two full years removed from the last potato harvest we undertook. I knew they wouldn't remember that potatoes grow underground. I asked Elly as we stepped out of the car where she thought the taters were. She looked around and guessed at the remains of the pumpkin patch across the pathway.
Nope, we told her. You've got to look under the ground. She thought we were crazy and when I explained that a potato was part of the root of the potato plant, it didn't really help her dismay. The best way was to just show her. Andy and I had good fun playing up the digging experience. What could have been a sweat-inducing, mundane task became a veritable hunt for treasure as our children squealed in delight at the sight of each colorful tater emerging from the black earth.
Here, Elly grabs handfuls of a red variety in which the name presently escapes me.
Ethan and Elly work together to find the "baby ones" and add them to our grocery bag.
Finding a particularly large potato caused ripples of excitement.
Below, Ethan shows off his "Swimming Cow" potato which he dug himself. As I found in the tomatoes, Ethan was again our best helper, sticking with Andy as he dug for the duration of the hunt. Elly lost interest and began exploring the fields with Liam, which was fine. However, our Little Man here never lost focus.
Before we knew it, we were joined by three of our nieces, who walked the 1/8th mile from the white farmhouse to join in the potato dig. They had come from digging potatoes with their own parents not one hour earlier, but enthusiastically helped us up and down the rows by finding the biggest and most unusual looking taters to add to our bag. In no time at all, we filled the bag much past our initial intent and had to call the search party to a close. With 6 pairs of helping hands, the abundance of food will last us a solid few months.
Again, I am thankful for the generosity of our family in sharing the feast without any help from us during the season. We were able to share a 30 pound box of tomatoes which mutually helped us out.
We intended to eat potato soup that evening for supper but by the time we were back in Oshkosh it was already 6pm and the kids were clawing at the windows for food. Poor planning, Mom and Dad! We stopped for pizza at Papa Murphy's instead. I know I know! We're not perfect by any means and we do love a good pizza...
We had warm potato cheese soup for lunch the next day instead. :-)
Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on Google+.