Saturday, January 24, 2015

January Garden

I’m not so sure how I feel about this year-round gardening thing. Sure, it’s great to pull some fresh veggies out of your backyard in the middle of winter, but I kind of miss the winter break. Not that I’ve been working too hard out there!

So, to recap, for the first time I tried a fall “garden.” In August I planted broccoli, a few brussels sprouts seedlings, and tried to start some onions from seed. In theory, the brassicas enjoy the cooling weather of fall, giving harvests between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The onions sprout and, like the garlic, winter over for a summertime harvest.

As you’ve probably guessed, it didn’t work that way.

The brussels sprouts hunkered down and did nothing. One of them disappeared without a trace by September. Three attempts at seeding onions resulted in a half-dozen feeble seedlings which all got buried under the great Poop Drop in November (they were too small to work around). The broccoli did slightly better, but they were not about to adhere to my mental time schedule.

It wasn’t until the beginning of November that the broccoli started acting like broccoli.

Garden 11


Barely. I have been deeply grateful that I have real row cover material this year (thanks Mom & Dad), so I was able to leave it over the plants without worrying about them overheating, or being blocked from sunlight and rainfall. When we had a week or so of nights above freezing, I could easily enough uncover them for a little sunbathing.


The flower pot is to protect the cover from the pointy-ish end of the support stick. I took this picture the first week of January, so you can see it took nearly two months for this crop to get anywhere near harvest size. Or five months from planting, which was probably another month or two after seeding.

These are some well-aged broccoli.

There was a little bonus under there, too. Over summer I let some of my springtime lettuce go to seed, and these guys came up close enough to the broccoli to include them under the cover. So I had a little fresh January greenery on my sandwiches for a week or so.


Another week after these photos we were hit by a serious deep freeze, with temperatures in the single digits and wind chills around zero. (Yes, it does get cold in North Carolina, just not for long.) So I harvested everything I could…four decent-sized heads.


They’re smaller than the ones the farmers grow, but they are beautifully compact with a lovely dark color. I assume that means more vitamins.

I immediately blanched and froze them, filling a quart bag and a little bit more. I was surprised to find this hitchhiker during the process.


I then checked all the other heads and didn’t find a single other worm! That’s amazing, and a big benefit to “fall” gardening.

I wasn’t sure if broccoli could survive a deep freeze under cover (I actually have two layers over most of it), so as an experiment I left behind the smallest main head, along with the decapitated plants. If they do survive, I should get a fair number of secondary heads, bumping up my harvest a bit. At the moment, the results are surprisingly indefinite. Some of the plants look completely dead, others have some dead leaves and some healthy ones, and most of the small heads are looking ok for now. I think the one main head I left is a loss. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about “fall” gardening, it’s that things happen at a much slower pace than in spring and summer, so I’ll let this experiment play to its end.

A week after my pre-freeze harvest, it was time to do this.


Yup, I just started seeds for spring! And while the old generation gives its last gasp outside, the next one is just getting started inside.


To quote my favorite author, “So it goes.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

How did that happen?


Last week I was joking with a friend about how misleading my typical grocery store cartload looks. “There’s absolutely no produce,” I said, “but it’s because we buy all our vegetables at the farmers market.”

It wasn’t until today, as I pondered my most recent grocery list, that I realized how little we really buy there anymore. Every week or two I have to pick up dog food, milk and orange juice. More often than not I add some deli meat and cheese slices. And the rest is pure Guilty Secret food: Coke, potato chips, bologna.

But that’s about it. If you get rid of the junk, all we need from the grocery store is milk, orange juice, dog food and sliced things to put between bread. Everything else we have found ways to source locally and affordably.

This seems incredible to me, because it happened without my noticing. I became aware years ago that during the summer I would generally wheel my cart right past the produce section without slowing down. Since we had started to eat seasonally, it was simple to find salad fixings, potatoes, and squash at any of our local markets, at least during the high growing season.

Then about a year ago, a last-minute menu change necessitated a run to Harris Teeter for boneless chicken breasts. (Normally we get locally-raised leg quarters, or whole birds that we roast or break down ourselves.) After perusing the brightly lit shelves of the Poultry section at the grocery store, I hefted a packet of mostly-unfrozen breasts and carried it to where Miss Chef stood by our cart. “I can’t really tell, but I think there’s eight in here,” I told her. “I think there’s another layer underneath.” She gave me a patient, if somewhat pitying look and said, “No, there are only four. That’s how thick they are.”

I didn’t believe her. She still handled industrially raised birds at work, but I had gotten so used to the reasonably-sized breasts of pastured chickens—you know, the ones that are actually capable of holding up their own body weight—that my brain absolutely could not conceive of the size of these monsters. It wasn’t until we got the package home and unwrapped that I was really convinced. I was also a little freaked out, and wary about eating such freakishly overgrown meat.

That was my first hint that I was on a completely different rail than the average American eater. Our first forays into eating seasonally and locally came as an “every little bit helps” effort. Even if we still bought industrially grown bacon, at least our eggs were sustainably produced. Little by little we found new markets and vendors—Uno Alla Volta brought us mozzarella to go with locally grown tomatoes, Carolina Artisan Bakery made the bread to go around those sliced things, farmers started raising more laying hens to meet demand. Fish markets have exploded, mushroom growers are competing for most exotic varieties. And we’re swimming in it all, stocking our pantry with local flour, butter, potatoes and beans.

Somehow, when I wasn’t looking, we largely opted out of the mainstream food culture. We’ve made the mental adjustment to consider which farmer has carrots this week, rather than assuming we can always pick some up at Harris Teeter. And I don’t even go into the meat section of the store anymore (well, except when I’m having a craving for a bologna sandwich).

So no, we’re not perfect local eaters. We eat out way too often during the week, and not at the fantastic local restaurants I’m always promoting online. I am addicted to Coke (the legal kind). And I eat way too many sandwiches when I should be cooking some of that local pork in our freezer and cabbage in the fridge.

But the very fact of our shortcomings gives me hope. Because my concern about our local food movement today is that it doesn’t reach 90% of Americans. The people who want the most for their dollar still have to be convinced of the value of fresh, seasonal foods. But if we allow for imperfection in everyone’s food choices, maybe we can use the taste of ripe local tomatoes as a doorway drug. Maybe that’s the foot in the door that will lead them to try some of those carrots and pasture-raised eggs. Then maybe, like me, they will find themselves 10 years down the road with a grocery cart empty of everything but orange juice and Coke.

Because, c’mon, we all need a bad habit, right?