I wrote this short essay for a course I took and thought I’d share it.
I grew up eating from a home garden leaving me with fond memories of standing beside the pea vines savouring their sweet taste. Tomatoes were never refrigerated and always juicy. Carrots grew beneath frilly leaves and corn grew on majestic, tree-frog infested, eight-foot-high stalks. In time, my parents assigned me my own garden plot where I planted beans and zinnias. Since then I’ve always wanted to grow my own food. A few years ago we bought our first house, and in the backyard of our urban lot, I have six large raised beds and a small coop for five hens.
I’ve morphed into an urbanite growing as much of my own food as I can. What I can’t grow I source as close to home as possible, though I still drink coffee and stock my cupboard with spices from the tropics. I’ve started quantifying the economic worth of my harvest – empirical data that feeds my scientific side. I now weigh my produce and calculate its worth based on grocery store prices. However, only a couple of months in, my experiment is already compromised. A new user of the garden has arrived on the scene.
“Mooooore,” my toddler demanded, pointing at the bed of strawberries one summer day. She had already shoved three whole berries into her mouth resulting in a red dribble down her chin. I caution her to take her time, but moments after she puts one into her mouth, she asks for another. After searching through the strawberry leaves, I couldn’t find any more ripe ones. I try to explain that more will be ripe in a few days – a concept she can’t yet comprehend. Spying a white berry with a blush of red, she tries to crawl into the bed, until I distract her with a pea pod.
No peas, strawberries, raspberries or cherry tomatoes have made it to my kitchen scale; instead they go directly into my toddler’s mouth as she wanders the garden, and she has voluntarily tried kale, nasturtiums and cilantro. Sometimes what goes into her mouth is rejected and left on the garden path, making me cringe because none of this food is making it on to my scale. Even though I can’t quantify what she is learning, I’m sure it has more value than any weight in produce. In time, I’ll assign my daughter a plot of her own.
While digging up photos for my golden buprestid beetle post from yesterday, I found a couple other great examples of iridescence from the yard. The metallic fly above and dragonfly below. Eons ago when I started this blog I wrote about how iridescent colours are formed – here is part 1 and part 2 of my explanation.
Nature’s best visual trick is iridescence, which can transform an ordinary beetle into something extraordinary. The dried up beetle carcass above is one of the prettiest examples of iridescence I’ve ever seen up close. The beetle is a golden buprestid (Buprestis aurulenta) which lives in my biome. As larvae they spend two to four years mining through recently dead conifer trees, whether that tree is rotting on a forest floor or part of your new coffee table, earning themselves the title of ‘pest’.
Once they morph beyond the furniture-eating stage, their exoskeleton matures to an iridescent green with brass coloured fringes around the wings. Strung together, these beetles would make a necklace suitable for a fancy ball, and I’m not the first to consider an iridescent beetle fit for a resplendent occasion. Ellen Terry, perhaps the most famous actress in the Victorian era, wore a green dress decorated with iridescent beetle wings to play Lady MacBeth in 1888. The dress must have looked stunning under the stage lights.
Beetles don’t hold a monopoly on iridescence; in fact, a diverse group of animals have independently evolved with their own version of colours with variable intensity and hue depending on the angle they are viewed (1). Examples abound in my own yard from dragonflies, butterflies to hummingbirds and more.
Why be iridescent?
An obvious use of iridescence is to communicate. A flash of bright colour might scare a predator away or say “I’m poisonous, so don’t eat me”. Or an animal could produce a flashy show to attract a mate (these guys put on the best show, but unfortunately don’t live in my yard). An untested hypothesis is that iridescence may help a school of fish or a flock of birds organize themselves (1) – another form of communication. For example, the iridescent patch on a mallard duck‘s wing may be a cue to help them fly in the same direction.
Counterintuitively, iridescent colours can also be used to hide (1), which explains why little fish like herring and sardines are so shiny – when looked at from below, their shininess blends with the shininess of the ocean surface. Or an animal can use iridescence to pretend to be something else – what looks like a drop of dew on a leaf might actually be a green leaf beetle (golden buprestids are probably to big to do this).
Interestingly, some instances of iridescence evolved before the organisms bearing iridescent structures developed the ability to see (1). One theory as to why iridescence evolved is that the structures that can create iridescence also create strength – so perhaps the iridescence of the golden buprestid is a side-effect of building a strong exoskeleton. We know these exoskeletons last, as fossilized beetles as old as 49 million years have been found that are still iridescent (2).
Now, I’ll need to find about a thousand more golden buprestids to make a ballgown of my own.
Last night I watched an episode of Growing a Greener World, where sustainable living and modern homesteading were highlighted. Part of the show was about a blogger, Erica, I’ve been following for years at Northwest Edible. On a third of an acre in Seattle (that’s huge) she grows a good portion of her food – including all of her produce from April to October. I like her attitude towards meal planning from a garden, as it isn’t like going to the grocery store. Instead meals need to be made out of what is ready to harvest. She describes her efforts as “trying to move away from a real consumption based lifestyle and move towards a more productive based lifestyle.”
The show was filmed in the fall and her garden looked fantastically crammed with fruit and vegetables including grapes over her massive chicken coop. Her end season garden looked lush to almost a tropical extent (she must have a better watering system than me) and brimming with vegetables without evidence of gaps where seeds didn’t sprout or young plants met an early end due to slugs and cutworms. I assume she cleaned up her garden for the film crew – if they were coming to shoot in my garden I would be out there for days cleaning it up. Even for visiting family I crack out the weed whacker to trim back the morning glory infested grass around the raised beds (In the near future I’m going to mulch these paths).
As an international boundary and small body of water is all that separates her garden and mine, what she can grow so can I. Although I don’t have a third of an acre to work with, I certainly will take inspiration from what she and her family have done.
Planting and planning last summer has left me with a fair amount of produce to harvest in January. When there’s fantastic summer produce options to ponder (e.g. tomatoes and cucumbers), I find it weird to be thinking what I could plant to be ready mid-winter, however, come January, when I look out into the garden I’m glad I did.
The photo shows what I harvested on the weekend – lots of kale, parsnips and salsify. Salsify, or oyster root, looks like dark, hairy sticks. I’ve grown them the last three years, and this is the first year I had a crop worth harvesting. They were a pain to dig up as the roots are really long and thin. Even when I put the shovel aside and dug with my hands, I think I broke each and every one – and digging with my hands this time of year is unpleasant. Scrubbing black dirt off the black roots was almost as bad as digging them up – then I had to peel the thin roots. By the time they were ready to cook, I hated salsify for the work it created.
Since it was our first taste test, I simple cut them up and roasted them with a bit of oil. They don’t taste like oysters, or have a strong flavour at all. They do, however, have a really interesting texture that was quite pleasant. I didn’t mind eating them and my significant other was keen that I grow them again. I’m willing if there is a way to grow grow salsify that reduces the labour in harvesting them. Any ideas? Sandy soil in a bucket perhaps?
I just finished reading The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times by Carol Deppe a book off my Christmas list that I started right away (I tend to receive a nice pile of books to read over the holidays). This book is about adapting your garden towards self-sufficiency and efficiency so it will be ready to provide support when a disaster of some sort hits. This year I’m shifting towards growing more of my own staples, which is exactly what this book is about.
Carol’s writing is easy to understand but her explanations are not over simplified. For example, she included the clearest explanation I’ve ever read as to why combining grains and legumes creates the complete protein that our bodies need (plenty of books explain this is necessary when not eating meat, but I’ve never come across a clear, detailed description as to why).
After discussing general topics around creating a resilient garden including irrigation, labour saving ideas, soil fertility, she devotes a chapter each to discussing her choice of staples – eggs, beans, corn, potatoes and squash. Since, I am in the same biome as her (the author gardens in Oregon), her staples could be mine.
Potatoes are by far my favorite staple crop that I grow. In her chapter on potatoes, the author considers an all potato diet as a thought exercise. For the space they require, potatoes produce the most calories of all the temperate crops. Additionally, if my caloric needs were greater than 3000 calories a day, an all potato diet would provide all my protein. Unless disaster strikes in form of an apocalypse that forces me to spend my days hunting down zombies, I don’t need that many calories and, as she points out, eating nothing but potatoes for any length of time would create other deficiencies – never the less, I found it an interesting thought exercise.
Corn for flour and polenta is another of her staples. For some reason growing corn has been a disaster for me – I’m yet to eat an ear out of my own garden and I’m not even going to bother growing it this year (although her arguments for growing corn as a grain were compelling). As an alternative grain I’m going to try amaranth. Ironically, my favorite way to eat amaranth is to pop it like I would popcorn – but not in a hot air popper. I tried once and discovered amaranth is tiny enough to slip through the air vents into the motor. To be useable again, the machine had to be disassembled and cleaned out. Now, I pop amaranth in a pot.
As a bonus, she includes preparation techniques for her staples. Unfortunately, she relies heavily on her microwave – an appliance I don’t own. I do agree with her philosophy that if one is growing their own staples, one should know how to turn them into tasty food.
The Resilient Gardener contains more than just gardening instructions, it you are trying to grow some of your own food or even store and use locally grown staples, the book is worth reading.
I started keeping track of my harvest in May 2014 – so my tally misses last year’s over wintered and early veggies. I have no idea what would be a good harvest for the amount of space I have so I’ll consider 2014 as my baseline year and see how much more I can grow this year. Here is what we produced in the garden in 2014:
Eggs – 427 (~35 dozen) from 5 hens, three of which are pushing chicken old age.
Greens – 14,485 g. I’ve lumped all the leafy greens together from lettuce, chicory, wintercress, to kale to simplify things.
Radishes – 2,475 g
Sprouts and herbs – 1,430 g. I harvested plenty of herbs in too small amounts for my scale to measure, plus I wouldn’t accuse my scale of accuracy, so this number is likely low.
Peas – 380 g. I had huge success with peas last year, most of which where eaten by my daughter while out in the yard. She may have screwed up my tally, but I can fault a toddler who eats green things.
Green onion – 1,125 g. The seed package said they were multiplier onions, then they went ahead and set bulbs, so I ate the bulbs. I don’t think I’ll bother with green onions in the future since I have plenty of chives.
Potatoes – 18,675 g. It was my best potato year yet and we ate them all by October.
Root Veg – 9,965 g. This includes carrots, beets, turnips and parsnips. Not included in this tally are my stored carrots and beets – I have still have a small cooler full of them. Plus most of my parsnips are still in the ground waiting to be dug up and converted into something tasty.
Berries – 2,000 g. I grow strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. All of the strawberries and raspberries were eaten in the garden and the blueberries didn’t produce, so this tally is just the blackberries.
Green Beans – 2,275 g. Unless I get around to converting them to pickles, I don’t like green beans this much.
Tomatoes – 26,300 g. I froze all my excess tomatoes and still have plenty in the freezer.
Hot peppers – 975 g. I only had three plants and they did awesome producing peppers that were actually hot.
Celery – 820 g. I started six plants as an experiment and they are defiantly worth growing again. I didn’t get a huge amount, but what grew tasted really celery-y and even after several cold snaps, there is still celery to harvest.
Cucumbers – 11,085 g. Most of these were lemon cucumbers which are tasty to eat fresh but don’t pickle well. I’ll be trying different varieties next year as I love pickles.
Garlic – 975 g. Finished off the garlic in October and planted five times as much in November.
Apples – 1,375 g. This was the first year my gala apple tree produced fruit. They were tasty! A second apple tree is planned for the spring.
Squash – 575 g. My home squash harvest was terrible, however, I did outsource some of squash production which isn’t included in the tally.
Leeks – 625 g. I’ve only just started harvesting these, plenty more are still in the garden. I’ll grow twice as many next year as leeks seem to do better for me than onions do.
I think my produce tastes better than what I can buy, but is it financially worth it? I get asked all the time if I’m saving money by gardening, so I thought I would do a quick analysis based on the numbers above and the produce prices listed on the grocery store’s website that I normally go to. My super rough calculations put the produce above worth around $1100. The most valuable crops were my greens (based on the plastic tubs of washed greens I used to buy), eggs and tomatoes. All my veggies were started from seeds but I didn’t keep track of what I spent on them last year, so I’ll guess $200, add that to the roughly $150 of chicken feed and it appears I’m coming out ahead*
*I realize I’m excluding the cost of land, property taxes, value of my labour, tools, water and more.
My latest article over at the Sustainable Collective is about exploring exotic places through the spices they export. Pepper is so ubiquitous across cuisines it’s easy to forget about – but it stems from far off lands and has a fascinating history. Unfortunately, pepper is a vine too tall for me to even contemplate growing as a house plant, so I’ll try growing some bananas instead. Check out my article here.
According to the weather forecast, our cold snap should abate returning us to seasonal temperatures. Since it is an El Nino year we may end up with a warmer than usual year – or not. Most of what had left in the garden has handled the below freezing temperatures with the exception of some arugula and edible chrysanthemum (this is the first time I’ve grown the edible chrysanthemum and I’ve been really enjoying the mild, juicy greens). My celery might also be finished which isn’t a surprise as I wasn’t expecting it to over winter. The leeks, parsnips, kale, broccoli and chicory are all looking great.
Last night temperatures dipped and the scheduled rain became snow. The garden looks so different covered in white – but it won’t last, I’d be surprised if there is any evidence of snow by tomorrow. With the exception of the chard, most of what is left in the ground will tolerate the cold just fine.