This weekend involved planting a few things for us to eat + a few things to feed the birds, bees + butterflies. I went looking for seeds online + found a bunch of what I would normally have bought sold out. (Amazing!) I was able to find a nursery nearby that is offering a limited selection for online ordering + curbside pickup. One of their offerings was even a potted tomato plant with a cage...perfect for an apartment balcony. I didn't mind the limited offerings, because it made it a little easier to make my choices...cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, peppers, strawberries + a pollinator flower seed mix for now. I also planted some radish seeds that I had on hand.
I didn't always understand what people meant when they said it felt good to get their hands in the dirt. But now...I like to move soil with my hands...to tuck each seed or seedling in...skin to dirt. It feels like I'm connecting with my food right there at the beginning...like I'm tucking love + hope in with them. It feels good to get dirt under my fingernails...sun on my shoulders...wind in my hair.
Zero-waste may not be practical in every way at the moment, but I love that garden-fresh fruits + vegetables are still a great way to eliminate food packaging, transportation + even viruses. :)
Once upon a time I read books about homesteads + small scale farming. I scoured the area for homes with land...just enough to sustain us. We looked at an old house on one acre of land. The sellers had a few sweet cows in the small barn. I read books about suburban families who grow enough food to sustain them on their suburban plots. We attended classes about backyard chickens, visited working farms + went to hear Joel Salatin speak. Midway through this studying + dreaming, we finally had some space to start a garden of our own.
My current gardening strategy is not to stress out about growing all we need (though I admire that greatly). I focus on growing the most expensive things that grow well where we live (+ that we love to eat). For us that means tomatoes, peppers + strawberries. We grow other things too, but tomatoes are my main priority. Fresh tomatoes are a highlight of many summer meals. Tomato sauce is the base for soups, pasta sauce, salsa + other meals all year round. We avoid all the transport, the cans + lots of expense by growing our own.
This jar held the last of the tomato sauce from our 2018 home-grown tomatoes. I used it this week, and it's almost time to start picking this year's tomatoes. :)
Tidy landscaping is not my forte. My preferences lie with nothing but beachgrass...like some of the homes near the lake where I grew up...or a front walk surrounded by nothing but a tangle of wildflowers + a back yard filled with nothing but vegetables. My gardening leans more toward wild...with nature firmly in control. :)
Wherever we find ourselves, I try to plant native plants that are about as thirsty as the conditions provide for. Growing things in New Mexico is quite different from growing things in London, but I've attempted it in each place + learned by trial + error...lots of error. :)
We have a big planting bed on the side of our house in which I've tried everything from tomatoes + cucumbers (not enough sun) to potatoes (not sure about the work to yield ratio) to a butterfly + hummingbird garden. I prefer plants that produce food to purely pretty things, but food for butterflies, bees + hummingbirds makes me happy too. This year I wanted to have a view of the flowers + their visitors, so I devoted the backyard bed closest to our kitchen window to them as well.
Lately it seems that a new type of flower pops up every day or two in this well-rained-upon tangle of color. The bed hums with bumble bees + I'm keeping an eye out for the first fleeting hummingbird sighting of the year.
It's been raining for weeks, but today the sun was shining when we woke up. I couldn't help but smile. There's nothing like a garden to make us realize just how dependent on the weather we really are. Too much rain can wreak as much havoc as too little. My tiny stakes don't begin to compare to a farmer's, but they do open my eyes to the enormous effects of climate change on our food supply.
Growing our own food is one of the most zero-waste things we can do. From a little paper packet of seeds come whole bunches of the freshest + tastiest food. There is no packaging + no transport emissions. There wasn't even a trip to the farmers' market. Not all of us have a patch of dirt to cultivate, but we might be able to grow a pot of peppers on a balcony, basil in a windowsill or onions from the core of a used onion.
Eating food fresh from the garden is pretty amazing! Never are the radishes so spicy or the chives so pungent as when they've been harvested minutes before that first bite.
Planting + watering + caring for + harvesting + tasting our own food just must be one of the best ways to share a connection with our planet...with our children. I felt it imperative to be able to let my girls pull a carrot out of the soil...pick strawberries off the vine...dig potatoes out of the ground. I'd done it as a child + there was just no way to explain the pure magic of it to them. Before having our own garden, we made sure to find pick-your-own apple orchards and strawberry + blueberry fields. We ate things straight away, and we made jam + apple sauce too. Establishing connections between the land + weather + farmers + our bodies is crucial. These connections form our thoughts + attitudes + actions...and the connection is there whether we acknowledge it or not.
This space has become a little food heavy in focus this summer. I have to say that food is one of my least favorite things to focus on. I love to eat flavorful whole foods, but I don't really like to think about the acquisition or preparation of them. That said, food has been the major focus of my zero-waste efforts...so I do like to share a few of the simple zero-waste things that go on in our kitchen.
Our simple garden is my favorite zero-waste food source...no packaging or transportation costs involved. A few of the ways we've been using our garden harvest lately (other than enjoying it fresh) are making simple tomato sauce, easy pickles, + spicy pepper flakes. Oh, and (obviously not from the garden...but still zero-waste + tasty) cookie dough. :)
If I could only choose one spice (other than salt), it would be pepper flakes. We love them sprinkled into + onto most everything savory. From avocado toast to soups to grain bowls...we like them all a bit spicy. So last summer, after growing peppers for years + eating them all fresh, I was scared/inspired into trying to make pepper flakes out of some very spicy peppers that burned my hands when I cut them. :)
Those pepper flakes lasted all year + were so good! We are still using up the very last of them. So, of course, we're at it again with this year's spicy peppers. I've found the best way for me to dry the peppers is just to put them in the oven on low heat (I've been putting them in at about 270F) until they become brittle enough to crack. I check on them every hour or so + remove the dry ones from the pan. I'd rather hang dry them (to avoid the power used for the oven), but my attempts last year made me realize that it is just too humid here to avoid some going bad in the process. Oven drying lets me avoid losing any of my precious peppers!
Once all of the peppers are dried, I crush them with the bottom of a jar (to avoid getting stinging pepper hands) + put them into jars. (This step involves a little sneezing, no matter how hard I try to avoid it...but confirms that this is good stuff!) That's it + we have spicy, zero-waste goodness enough to last another year!
My favorite kind of peppers to grow are Carmen peppers. They grow well in our climate and they are sweet + tasty. I was unable to get the seedlings from our usual source this year, so I decided to try these spicy peppers along with some more bell shaped sweet peppers. Both plants have done very well + produced a lot of peppers.
We love spicy food, so I was very excited when the first spicy pepper was ready to pick. What I was not anticipating was the painful burns I got on both hands from cutting them. Wow! They kept me awake at night. So, I've been a little afraid of these things ever since. :)
They have been pouring in from the garden, + I've been avoiding them (other than adding portions to the pickle jars). I thought I'd try drying them and then crushing them into pepper flakes for use throughout the year. The peppers are strung onto some buttonhole thread + will probably take 3-4 weeks to dry. Once they are dry, they will be crushed, kept in a jar for up to a year, + used to season lots of meals.
My favorite + most used spice in the kitchen has to be pepper flakes. I am fortunate enough to be able to buy them quite inexpensively in bulk. Even so, I think it will be rewarding to use our own homegrown pepper flakes...+ I'm guessing they will be a bit more spicy too.
If anyone is looking for a simple food to grow...even on a balcony, or back porch in a pot...I'd recommend trying peppers. A seedling can be found at a nursery or farmer's market in the spring + transplanted into a pot. They don't grow too big (as opposed to a cucumber or tomato plant), resist pests, and like water, sunshine, + heat. :)
P.S. Update 10-28-17 I ended up having to dry the peppers in the oven. They just didn't seem to be drying evenly strung up. I wanted to avoid using power if possible, but the oven worked well to dry them. I cut the tops off + lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet in the oven at 170F. It took almost an entire day to dry these peppers entirely. Above are our actual pepper flakes from our own garden...completely zero-waste! :)
In addition to enjoying fresh, organic flavors straight from our backyard, I've learned a few things about growing + trusting + letting go in the garden this summer. We've experienced repeated bouts of torrential rain interspersed with hot dry days. A few storms downed trees and the tomatoes. Floods evacuated neighborhoods more than once in the span of a few weeks. Warm days in March contrasted with a cooler than normal August.
It took time + twine to rebalance the tomatoes. I hoped that their roots remained intact + that they would survive. And then it happened again. I don't think that tomatoes like extreme amounts of rain on repeat. Our harvest is usually at its peak in August + September, but this year it has almost quit.
Radishes + strawberries did well early in the season. The snap peas that usually produce enough to preserve for months to come didn't do so well. I'm not sure exactly why.
Our potato plants looked different this year, so I just decided to hold my hopes for them lightly. I decided to be happy, if we had potatoes...and to be ok, if we didn't. Our harvest may be double what we planted, and for that I am grateful. It takes a lot of work to plant + dig potatoes however, so I'm not sure it was totally worth it. I'm just letting it be.
But the cucumbers...at first they trickled in. And then...they started coming in by the armload...every day! I think it's safe to say that cucumbers don't mind lots of rain.
Climate change is on full display in the garden. I'm mindful of the privilege of being able to observe its effects first hand. My humble gratitude goes out to the farmers whose knowledge + toil goes into growing the bulk of our food. They are my heroes. Sun + rain are necessary ingredients for growth, and their amounts matter. Yes, weather patterns ebb + flow...but the shifts are becoming ever more drastic. Whether or not we grow our own food, our food grows. Climate affects each and every one of us.
We have only two or three cucumber plants this year, and yet cucumbers have been our most plentiful crop. I guess they like all the rain we've been getting. Today Julia brought in 19 (!) cucumbers, and tomorrow there will be more. Eek.
Quick + easy pickles are a favorite around here. It's rare to have a treat in the house that anyone can eat their fill of...at any ol' time. I mix up the vinegars + seasonings with each batch. The current batch makes use of our spicy peppers...yum.
Now we're searching for ways to keep our cucumber consumption (+ donation) at pace with the haul. A dish filled with cucumber slices accompanies every meal...cucumber + mint flavor our water...(Julia calls it "party water")...and all the break room tables are full of fresh, organic cucumber freebies. :)
Any surprises in your garden this year?
on a journey toward zero-waste, simplicity, + compassion :: daring to choose fair one choice at a time