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Interdependence AND…

Kale Mix Harvested

This past spring saw a surge of interest in gardening and in articles on the topic. I came across one by a woman who had good advice, but made a comment that didn’t sit right with me. She said her family’s reason for growing their own food was not ideology since they believe in interdependence.

After much reflection, I realize my discomfort is in being asked to choose between interdependence and independence, as if anyone could be just one.

My Garlic

Certainly I am seeking to gain skills that make me feel strong and responsible and let me take back some power over my basic needs. But I don’t see that as isolationist – in fact, it often comes from a place of seeing and caring about my connections to the rest of the world and wanting to improve those relationships. I continue in the tradition of The Nearings and Wally and Juanita Nelson with a philosophy of food growing that strives to honor and experience my interdependence with the whole

Monarch Pollinating

planet and find ways to live here that avoid doing harm.

My goal is to do more for myself, and then to shift who I am dependent on to more local sources and relationships. That way, I can have some say in how things are done, as well as cutting the travel footprint of goods.  But I don’t expect to ever be going it alone.

I also find that the more I engage in these activities the more connected and interdependent I often feel, in both liberating and frustrating ways.

Canned Peaches

Canning Peaches

A full root cellar and shelves of preserved food in the fall brings me such pride and satisfaction and a sense of safety. But, being a gardener during a drought, as I am right now, is tremendously humbling, a moment when I truly understand how little control I personally have over the world and my own best-laid plans. Keeping bees also shows me the limits of my personal power. Although I can work hard to be a good beekeeper, I can’t control many of the problems they suffer from: exposure

My Apiary in June 2020

to pesticides and fungicides, forage opportunities lost to development and lawns, erratic weather including droughts, and new diseases and pests traveling quickly around the globe.

These situations help me understand the balance between what I can do by myself and what I must join with others to accomplish.

I live in the US, a culture that tends towards extremism and either/or dichotomies: you’re with them or against them; powerful or a victim; independent or helpless; useful or useless. I am also posting this a couple of weeks after July 4, US Independence Day, when people celebrate the concepts of freedom and self-reliance. Those are great qualities… but when they are emphasized by themselves, they become warped, even pathological, devaluing our connections to and care for others and exacerbating loneliness.

If anyone starts to really think it through, it quickly becomes clear how much we depend on others, especially in a complicated, industrialized society. Even if you have all the skills to fix your computer, your car, your health problems, pave your own roads, make your own clothing, grow your food, cook and preserve it – no one person has the time to do all that. When we pay others to do this work we somehow don’t count it as a dependency, but it is. Can we embrace that, or at least accept that it is the reality?

Hen with Chicks

I can relate to the wish of needing no one but myself. I grew up in a chaotic, stressful house with a mother who had Multiple Sclerosis. I watched her lose all her physical abilities and become increasingly dependent on others, while receiving the societal message that this made her less and less valuable. It was excruciating for my whole family, and from there the idea of living alone in the woods depending on only myself had a certain appeal. I started camping as a young woman, even took classes in “primitive skills” to learn how to survive by myself. 

One Bee on Gooseberry

However, I discovered that the amount of work and dedication that took was more than I could realistically do by myself for any length of time, shaking my illusions of truly doing it by myself.

There is now lots of research including in the fields of neuroscience and health that show how social our species is and how isolation hurts us. I also raise other animals so I have a comparison point. Our goats can stand, run and clean themselves within an hour of birth, and our poultry aren’t far behind,

Mom and Kid

while a human takes years to do those things and then lots more to be taught other necessary skills to live well. Yet we have this wish to see ourselves as needing no one.

 

It is both humbling and beautiful to see how connected we are. To consider how little control I really have over the world and my life scares me. But, to see how much a part of a larger whole I am, to feel how much support I receive just to be alive, and to know that I share the responsibility for the world with many others is a big relief.

I don’t think I’m alone in internalizing this more deeply lately. In this time of pandemic and economic crisis, many people see that we are truly in this together.  Can we find more ways of acting like it across race, gender, class, political beliefs and species? We have so much to gain.

“It is a law of life that man [sic] cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world’s problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world.” –Harold Clurman

Swallowtail Butterfly on Echinacea

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Filed under Food Preservation, Gardens, Interdependence, Uncategorized

2019 On the Homestead

Garden in July

We just finished up our most productive season on our homestead yet, a year that showed how abundant permacultural systems can be. The bounty also kept us very busy with picking, drying, freezing, canning, and root cellaring.

Winter in New England provides a natural space to review, reflect and plan ahead. During the rush of the growing season, it’s a struggle just to keep up with daily chores. I’m grateful for the down-time that lets me practice the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Some of what I note I can’t necessarily plan for – such as how much rain we get – but other information will change what I do – such as I planted too many bush beans for what we need or what my back feels good about.

I’ve begun to think of our years here less as numbers and more by conditions. Like, 2018 was the Year of Rodents & Clouds and 2016 was the Year of Drought. This year, 2019, stands out to me as the Year of Enough Rain, Weird Nectar Flows & Overabundant Veggies.

Last year’s review focused on the gardens. Here I will expand that to include our animals and other projects.

Let me begin again with speaking to problems, starting with the issues I identified in my 2018 Review and how I fixed them or saw them evolve.

Seedlings in April

Starting Seedlings

Having learned from my 2018 reflections on our seedling trouble, I did go back to a commercial blend. I found a company called Organic Mechanics that has peat-free seed starting mixes, so at least I was able to address that ethical issue arising with these mixes. It still came in a plastic bag. It worked well, though, so I got off to a good start with lots of healthy new plants.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Fewer Chipmunks Mean More Strawberries!

Rodent pressure was SO much less this year! It’s basic population dynamics – if a group grows beyond it’s ecological limits, it will crash. After 2018’s nearly unbelievable numbers, we had our easiest year yet dealing with chipmunks, squirrels, and voles, our usual competitors. I see this with insect pests and diseases often as well. It’s why I take my time and observe carefully before reacting, especially with any kind of drastic intervention.

We did have a groundhog appear mid-season, hanging out in our lower garden. We failed to figure out how it was getting in and out of the fenced area so we had some damage – it loved my broccoli and cauliflower plants and took bites out of many of our winter squash in that section. Honestly, for a groundhog, it was well-behaved to only make that much of an impact. It just kept me holding my breath for the day I’d go down to devastation! I’ve exhaled mostly by now.

Healthy Cucumber Vines in August

The cucumber disease that I and many others were affected by in 2018 was not a problem this year. In fact, I had way more cucumbers than I felt ready for! Luckily, the chickens and goats are fans of the overgrown ones. The only change I made from previous seasons was to space the vines far from each other around the garden, making it harder for disease to spread. I’m not sure that mattered, though, as so many others reported great yields from their cukes. I think it was a problem that came and went by factors larger than we control.

Pulling Parsnips

Roots

After a few years of germination problems with carrots I seem to have found the right combination for success. First, I planted later. Although carrots, beets and parsnips as “cool season crops” are happy to grow in cool weather, they don’t necessarily germinate well in cold soil. Especially since I am a committed mulcher, seeding carrots in March meant weeks before seeing them, and keeping them consistently moist that long was tough. So, I waited for some warmth and exercised patience, which I really needed given what a cold spring we had. It was May 26 when I finally seeded the root crops. I also put up a shade cloth over the carrots to keep them from drying out as the sun strengthened. It worked! In fact, my carrots came up

Carrots for the Root Cellar

thickly, and it had been years since I had needed to thin, so my first planting had it’s share of weird twisted, multi-legged roots from being crowded. I was on top of thinning the later plantings which gave me gorgeous results and 195# just of carrots to eat and pack in the root cellar.

 

Labor

The one big problem we experienced this year was a labor shortage. This should not have surprised me, as it is a very common problem on farms. When you are putting a lot of work into a product that is comparatively undervalued financially, there are going to be problems, even with the many labor-saving techniques used in permacultural systems. Steve needed to take more off-farm work this summer, leaving me to do more than I expected and than I was really up for. Any real solution to this needs to be addressed at a societal level, but, meanwhile, I am going to have to rethink some of my choices and be more realistic about my time. I am a great solar-powered, renewable resource, but have my energy limits!

Good Soil, Big Plants

Success in the Gardens

At this point we have about one acre out of our 7 in garden beds full of organic matter, built from the countless truckloads of reclaimed resources we have brought in since we moved here in 2008 (seaweed, coffee grounds, manure, hay and wood chips). The majority of the beds are planted in perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, berries and fruit trees, most still too young to be very productive. Between the young trees, and in our 3,300 square foot sheet mulched main garden, we plant our annual crops.

Peaches!

With the regular rain, low rodent numbers, and the soil we’ve built, it was a great year for growing. The trees are also becoming mature enough to begin to bear and we had our first real harvest of peaches, 219#, juicy and delicious.

Here are the veggie and fruit numbers, hopefully presented in an useful way (feedback on that welcome!):

Alliums – garlic – 165 hds; garlic tops – 161; leeks – 96#

Beans & Peas – 96.75# snap beans; 17.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 11.5#

Brassicas – broccoli – 3.75#; brussels sprouts – 12.5#; cauliflower – 3#; kale/collard – 29#

Celery – 1.5 #

Corn, popcorn – 9#

Cucumber – 195.5# (ack!)

Eggplant – 70.25#

Greens – lettuce – 9#; nettles – 3#, beet greens – 1#

Herbs – basil – 6.25#; dill – 1#

Melon – 21.5#

Potatoes – 166.5# (from 22# seed potatoes, a solid 1 to 7.5 ratio)

Roots – beets – 30.25#; carrots – 195.25#; parsnips – 38#; radishes – 82

Squash – summer – 53.75#; winter = 686#

Tomato – 55.75#

Fruit:  beach plums – 1#; crabapples – 12#; currants, clove – 16.75#; currants, red & white – 21.5#; elderberry – 1#; grapes – 12#; honeyberry – 3 ½ cups; jostaberry – 3.25#, nanking cherry 1/4#; peaches – 219#; rhubarb – 15#; strawberry – 20.5#

This bounty kept us eating well and was preserved to last for months to come.

Bees Making Honey in June

Bees

My two hives from 2018 came through the winter strong, ready to take off in the spring. It was a slow start with the chilly weather, but once they had the opportunity they were wonderfully productive. Usually we have a dearth (lack of nectar) in July, but this year that did not happen. Instead, they just kept on filling their combs, to the point that we pulled honey in order to avoid towering hives toppling over, or late season swarms. I also split the overwintered hives to create two more, plus a small nucleus hive. Strangely, though, the fall nectar flow never came. I have no idea why. I gave them back some of the honey frames I’d pulled plus some sugar syrup and hope they were able to build up enough of a population to survive the winter.

We were able to take 165# of honey, so despite the weird season, I consider it a good one.

Goats

Goat Kids: Zan & Jayna

We had another year of healthy, happy goats, including two successful births in the spring. All four kids were sold to other homesteads with natural goatkeeping practices. We helped Gagnons Mountain Homestead start their herd with Luna’s little girl, Jayna, and her whethered brother to keep her company. We love helping others get started, especially folks we resonate with on animal keeping.

I have been milking three animals since the spring, this year’s moms, Cocoa and Luna, and 2018 mom, Lily. We brought in 107 gallons of milk over the course of the year, most of which I turned into yogurt, chevre cheese, and mozzarella.

Young Dominique Chickens

Poultry

All went smoothly with our Dominique chickens. From the incubator and one broody hen we raised 41 chicks, some of which we added to our own flock, some of which we sold, and some of which we harvested to eat. We added to our number of move-able chicken houses and yards to keep the growing birds protected but rotating pasture. It is tricky to make the structures strong enough to withstand predators but light enough to actually move.

Day Old Ducklings

Our Indian Runner duck flock had some turnover this year. We still had our “old grey duck” from the first batch we brought home back in 2012 but she was showing her age. Over the winter she had seemed arthritic, walking stiffly at times. I thought it kinder not to ask her to go through another cold season. We really liked her and her big blue eggs and wanted to keep those genetics in our flock. So, I put her and our drake together by themselves for a week, took her seven eggs, and put them in the incubator. We find duck eggs much harder to hatch successfully so were delighted when six of them hatched out 28 days later! And, in a poignant, bittersweet coincidence, Old Grey curled up in the pasture the following day and peacefully died, probably not – but maybe on some level – knowing that she had

Our Current Duck Flock

completed her basic biological imperative to pass on her genes to a new generation. Four of those ducklings did turn out to be female and are now part of the flock!

At that point, though, our drake became too related to everyone else in the flock to breed from, so we are ordering some spring ducklings from Sand Hill Preservation Center to add new genetics to our operation.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,683 (140.25 dozen) chicken eggs; 593 (49.4 dozen) duck eggs; chicken meat about 100#; duck meat about 5#.

Other Homestead Projects

Packing Parsnips for the Root Cellar

The root cellar is up and running after about 7 years of intermittent work! This is a free-standing cellar since our house doesn’t have one. Lots of rock moving and masonry was involved, slow and heavy work. We also continued to expand the orchard and garden areas enough that I can order about 10 more trees for spring planting.

Looking Ahead

And now it’s time for me to do an inventory of our seeds and send in my order to Fedco, as well as orders for trees, bees, and ducklings. Now is also the season to find new and interesting ways to cook and bake all the food we have put up from this abundant year, and thus enjoy eating what’s still fresh and completely local. Watch for me to get back to the topic of food preservation in coming posts.

Happy 2020 – it’s a year of auspicious anniversaries including the 100th year of US Women’s Suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day… we’ll see what it brings for us all, on the homestead and beyond!

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Filed under Chickens, Ducks, Gardens, Goats, Honey Bees, Permaculture principles, Poultry, Soil, Uncategorized, Weather

Winter Squash I Have Grown, Respect Where it’s Due

Curing Winter Squash in 2018

Winter squash (Cucurbita spp.) is an amazing food resource – prolific, nutritious and with a long shelf life requiring no electricity. We humans love it as well as our chickens and goats. Over the past few years I have branched (vined?) out to try more varieties, especially heirlooms, to honor and help preserve what the native people of this region cultivated. Those master plant breeders cared so well for this land for thousands of years, including living through climatically challenging times. We immigrants could learn a lot from them.

Here is a review of our trials so far, starting with our latest finds.

Seminole Pumpkin or Chassa Howitska (Cucurbita moschata)

I first heard of this squash in 2018, but it was cultivated by the Seminole people in the Florida Everglades since the 1500s. I came across it in the Fedco catalog’s Indigenous Royalties program. They included a disclaimer that we might be too far north to succeed with this crop, but it’s claimed pest and disease resistance tempted me to risk it.

Seminole Trying to Cross the Road

It was slow to get started in the cool spring we had, but once it got going there was no stopping it. It grew farther and wider than I’d planned for or imagined possible. It snaked out into the road, pulled small trees down in its path and sent down roots everywhere it touched the ground. I had to climb into the patch regularly to free my persimmons, jostaberries and beach plums, not an easy feat. The foliage was huge, dense and deep green all the way to our first frost. I never saw damage from vine borers, squash bugs or powdery mildew.

Seminole Squash Vines (see the blue of my shirt in the jungle?)

I also couldn’t see much fruit through the greenery, leaving me to wonder if we’d actually have a crop from it at all. But after the frost hit, I ventured into the tangle with 5 gallon buckets, trip after surprising trip eventually bringing in 414#, all from an original 6 planting spots with a couple seeds in each.

Seminole Ripening on Vines Just Hit by Frost

None of it was totally vine-ripened. The small green fruits we used like zucchini and shared with the goats. Any that had started to turn orange I brought inside hoping they would ripen. This was in October. Over the next couple of months, any that showed signs of rotting we cleaned up and ate ourselves or fed to the animals. By January a batch of 50# had totally ripened, living in buckets in our dining room. These can supposedly last for years without even being kept cool. I’ll be testing that and can report back!

Cured Seminole Pumpkin

As for taste… the immature ones weren’t sweet, but were more nutty and like summer squash. As they ripen they sweeten up. They have made lovely fluffy pies and are especially great for pumpkin bread. Their size of 3-5# each is handy for using in the home kitchen.

I’ll definitely plant these again this spring, but farther from the street!

Boston Marrow (Cucurbita maxima)

This heirloom seed came to me from The Piscataqua Seed Project in 2018. It can be traced to upstate New York where it may have been gifted from Native Americans to settlers, then documented in Salem, Massachusetts in 1831.

Boston Marrow Squash

I grew one plant in one of our young orchards. It happily climbed up a small nearby oak. As expected, it made one large fruit, an impressive deep orange 20-pounder. We cracked it open in February and it cooked up sweet and moist. I made a few delicious pies and squished squash dishes. My complaint is the size. Chopping it up and having to process it all at once is not convenient at a typical home scale. If you cook for many people at once this is a great one, which I’m sure is why it is becoming popular with chefs at farm to table restaurants.

Long Pie (Cucurbita pepo)

Long Pie Pumpkin, Ripe and Stored through April

I received seeds for Long Pie at a Seacoast Permaculture seed swap in a homemade envelope with no photo. In 2016 I planted a variety of winter squash, including these seeds, in our front garden and orchard. That turned out to be a big vine borer year. Every few years there is a surge in their population and we lose much or most of our crop. Those are the ups and downs, the boom and bust cycles of nature, which I don’t worry too much about. But one vine kept going after all the others succumbed. It formed long dark green fruits looking like a weird cross between a zucchini and maybe a butternut. I didn’t know what to do with them so left them.

Long Pie Pumpkin, Still Green on the vine

When they started turning orange in the late summer I had enough information to research and realize what they were.

 

I was already a fan after seeing them shrug off the pest pressure that year. Their long-keeping nature, handy size and shape, and how they sweeten nicely over time keeps them on our must-grow list.  Other local growers have noticed it as well.

Delicata (Cucurbita pepo)

Delicatas in Storage in April

It is my personal history with Delicatas that endears them to me. When I was a beginning grower in the early 1990s, farmer David tried these out. Small and sweet with edible skin, they were perfect for me as I was living alone, making meals for one. I love them halved, sprinkled with cinnamon and baked. They are not super pest resistant or prolific, but they keep well for many months.

It is also an heirloom. I buy the Zeppelin variety which can be traced back to 1894, before more recent breeding programs.

Butternut (Cucurbita moschata)

A Baby Butternut

Everyone knows Butternut squashes, right? I thought I did, but only recently learned that they are direct descendants of the Canada Crookneck grown by the Haudenosaunee and likely other New England, New York and Canadian tribes (see “Seven Sisters” by Dr. Fred Wiseman). More recently they have been selected for straight necks, but still maintain resistance to vine borers, a trait common to C. moschata.

I’ve grown these for years, and never intend to give them up. This year I grew both Waltham and Burpee, with the Waltham being the better producer. Butternuts have generally been my best keepers, sometimes all the way until July. This year they haven’t been lasting as well, which I expect is because none of them escaped chew

Butternut Squash

marks from rodents in the fall. Maybe the Seminole pumpkins will outdo them on shelf life, we’ll see. They are sweet and delicious and a convenient size.

 

Looking to the Past, Planning for the Future

I had thought this blog post was going to be a simple one on a simple topic. However, while writing it, I found myself struggling with conflicting feelings and thoughts. I love this food source and I have a lot of gratitude and respect for the people who developed it. But honestly, it has come to me more through theft and appropriation than gifting.

The case could be made that I shouldn’t be on this land – there are others who should be. But here I am anyway, living in the wake of histories and choices that I didn’t have a say in. And – where else could I be? I’m ½ Irish and ½ Italian with no citizenship rights in either country. There isn’t a clear way to go back.

We can learn so much from Indigenous people. In fact, permaculture specifically looks to cultures who live in good relationship to the land. Many Native Americans are urging the rest of us to learn from them before we destroy us all.

I have no answers here, only questions and struggles. But sometimes hard questions are more important than quick answers.

I plan to continue to grow Native American crops – squash, beans, corn, potatoes, tomatoes and more – and try to give credit where it is due. I will also pay attention to current issues in native communities and find ways to give back for all that I receive.

Here are just a few projects and resources to look to for ways to support indigenous peoples rights.

The NH Coalition for Indigenous Peoples’ Day

Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People

Indigenous New Hampshire

Dawnland documentary

Grand Canyon Trust (If you went to SELT‘s 2019 Wild and Scenic Film Fest in Portsmouth NH in April you’ll remember the film on this subject: Too Precious to Mine)

Standing Rock Sioux Tribe

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