Friday, August 07, 2015

Growing surplus food, into the freezer

Franklin, recovering from chicken pox
Unlike last year, this year has been great for growing vegetables here in my garden.  I've even had enough surplus to begin freezing.  In fact, I'm a little low on freezer space...
Mallow, feverfew, clematis
The first thing to go in my freezer actually came from my neighbor's garden.  I gave her a couple spare tomato and zuccini seedlings earlier this summer, and then promised to water her small growing patch while she's away for six weeks.  Well, it rained for a solid week, so I didn't bother visiting, and when I finally did, her zuccini had made a monster!  I picked two off her plant, one weighing in at just under 2 pounds, and the other a more modest 1 pound.  I started off my freezer adventures with the monster zuccini (no picture, but I'm sure you know what I'm talking about).
Morello cherries, netted against birds
Though before I started freezing monsters, I froze a whole gallon of morello cherries from my little tree.  This tree is so cute!  It's not even as tall as me, but it had so many cherries this year.  Last year I froze about a third of a gallon, so it was definitely a big increase.
I built this barbecue! It's meant to be wood storage underneath, not brick storage
Next in my freezer saga are the beginnings of my runner beans.  I can't remember the exact number, but I planted approximately 40 plants, up against my neighbor's 1m tall fence.  I hung bamboo canes from the top of the fence with S hooks, and then threaded some cotton string from the canes down to the ground, and tied each string to a bean plant.  The strings and canes are now completely hidden, and I have been picking a large handful of beans every other day, some to eat and some to freeze.
Red geranium, yellow calendula, white feverfew, orange crocosmia
The most abundant vegetable in my garden this year is definitely kale.  I've got two different kinds, Tuscan (dark and crinkly), and Sutherland (smooth and wide).  I think I prefer the Sutherland, as it's less work to clean;  and since the leaves are a lot wider, there is a bigger proportion of leaf to stem:  easier to chop.  They both taste lovely though, the Tuscan a little milder in flavor.
Tuscan kale and orange crocosmia
I've frozen both kinds of kale;  like the other veg, I chop it up, then blanch it for about a minute, and plunge in ice water to cool (shock).  For the kale, I press it into a cup measure, and gently squeeze out excess water, and turn it out onto a tray to freeze, in a little ball shape.  The other veg generally gets spread out over the tray in a single layer.  Once frozen, it goes into a ziploc bag.
Sweet cherry tree, hydrangea, and pink poppy, near the old chicken yard
I've been meaning to freeze some chard this way too, but haven't got around to it.  I've got some absolutely beautiful rainbow chard this year;  I've been saving my own chard seed for years now, and it never disappoints.  This year's is bigger and brighter than ever. 
Main veg plot, viewed from the back
So that's the extent of my freezer exploits thus far, but I anticipate even more.  There's the Brussels sprouts, climbing beans, my own zuccini, leeks, and of course the already mentioned kale, chard, and runner beans.  I also have some which I won't be freezing, namely potatoes, lettuce and cabbage, plus apples and almonds.  Here's to a long and bountiful summer of veg!
Blueberries!

Monday, July 06, 2015

Musing on communication


Reading a post in one of the forums I regularly visit has got me thinking about something I have worked on personally over the past few years:  trying to successfully communicate what I need/want to other people.  I have taken some aspects from Non-violent Communication (there are a couple of good videos on Youtube detailing it);  and from a parenting book called Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting;  I have found a couple of very useful communication techniques in this book--I use them all the time, with both children and adults. 
Peas on a tripod

Something from Non-violent Communication which almost always works is to say please and thank you--and you're welcome doesn't hurt!  I also try to speak respectfully to people, even if they are not respectful to me.  In fact, with children (who often don't have enough experience in communication and are often reacting emotionally), I will specifically tell them "I need you to speak to me respectfully (or calmly, or nicely, etc)."  It usually works, especially when they realize I am speaking respectfully too. 


From the Calmer book, I have learned to phrase my statements or questions in a positive way, particularly in high stress situations like work.  I'm basically telling people what I want, instead of what I don't want.  For instance, if during the dinner rush, the servers have chucked the dirty plates all over the sink area without stacking them neatly, I will say to the next one who appears with a plate, "will you help me stack these plates up?", instead of, "why aren't these stacked properly?"  The second question doesn't actually accomplish anything except to make the server feel bad, and maybe get defensive and start an argument.  The first one solves the problem without attaching blame to anyone.  I could also say, "when you bring the plates in, will you please stack them up?" 

My little fig cutting, with cute little figs--it's finally growing more leaves

It also works the other way:  say if a salad I made got sent back because the customer didn't want onions, and the server says to me, "why did you send this salad with onions?  It clearly says no onions!"  I can choose not to be defensive about it and simply solve the problem, "ok, I'll make a new one";  or if the server comes in yelling, I can wait until they're finished and say calmly, "there's no need to shout", or "everyone makes mistakes," or anything that won't escalate the situation! and give them a new salad.

It's true that it's easier to write about it than actually do it :)  Both of the above scenarios were fairly typical at the restaurant where I used to work, and I noticed that when I started speaking positively, and not reacting negatively, people responded positively too. 
White peony
Another thing I have taken from Calmer is to notice people's efforts and praise them;  it's also a technique I learned from the Dog Whisperer!  I know it sounds cheesy, like something you do on your kids to raise their self esteem (or your dog), but it really works.  When I use it on adults, I generally (but not always) phrase it as a "thank you":  "thank you for folding the laundry," or "thank you, this dinner is lovely."  Or "I noticed you mowed the lawn;  thank you."  A non-thank you one might be: "Wow, you must have done a lot today;  it looks great in here." It costs me nothing to say, and after a while some people start doing it back to me!  I started doing it with my son, and after a while to my husband, and they now both do it to me and to each other--and neither has read the book!  I have also used it at work with my colleagues: "your Sunday roasts look really nice" or "it looks like you've done a lot of cleaning today".

A final tool in my positive communication toolbox is to genuinely listen to people.  The thing about people who are just waiting their turn to talk isn't such an issue when the other person simply listens;  I'm not naturally a talker, so I find listening pretty easy, and I have learned to ask questions to get people going.  It builds rapport and relationships, which make for better communication in the long run.  As an introvert, I practice my conversation skills with random strangers, like cashiers in shops, or people waiting at a bus stop, or people out in the park walking their dog.  I don't have to worry about building relationships with these people, so it's not a big deal if there's an awkward pause or I make some sort of faux pas!  
The last of the white roosters, having a nap with his sisters
For the most part, I can get along with most anyone now;  it's true there is the occasional person whom I truly dislike, but I still do my best to be respectful and build rapport if I have to deal with them regularly.  I try to see the best in people, and I even try to point out the good to other people.  I did this once a long time ago to my mother when she was complaining about my grandfather (who is admittedly not an easy person to get on with), and she laughed and paid me a compliment:  "you always find something good about a person."  I've always remembered that and tried to live up to it, as it has served me well over the years.

It's true that it takes more than one positive person for healthy communication, but I also think that just one person can start the seeds of positivity in other people.  My home life is so much calmer and happier since I started practicing speaking positively a few years ago.  It took time for it to become habit--and I still have occasionally have to take a deep breath before responding to someone.  But I'm happier and calmer, and I notice that people I interact with are more friendly and respectful to me too. 
Red scented geranium, rose, calendula, rosemary

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Food in the summer garden


Life goes on.  A third chickie has become our dinner, and his bones are in the freezer ready to make stock.  He was still small-ish (bigger than the first two, but smaller than any of the adults) but had also begun crowing, so it was into the pot with him.  His demise was only slightly less traumatic than the first.  Partner dispatched him.
Almonds!
There now remain three male chicks, none of whom are attempting much at crowing.  They're almost as big as the adults now, but still lowest in the pecking order, with moderately gentle personalities (the little crowers were a bit more aggressive).  Luckily everyone has now integrated fairly smoothly, though the adults and juveniles still sleep separately.  If the males continue to stay quiet, we will probably not kill them until autumn.  Partner sadly told me that the chicks have outgrown their "mama" now--they not longer come running to him.
Typical kale leaf
More food is growing and being harvested in the garden now.  My new season's kale is my biggest ever;  the most successful variety, Sutherland, is not very tall, but still has an abundance of huge leaves.  I only need about 6-8 leaves for dinner, and as I have more than that many plants, I can easily pick several days in a row.  Sorrel and chard are also big and leafy, and while there are only a half dozen lettuces, there is enough to pick leaves for a couple salads a week. 
Drying fragrant rose petals
Mainly picking leafy greens at the moment;  I anticipate leafy greens will feature heavily on the menu the rest of this year!  Franklin's been eating a strawberry a day for the past week, and it looks as though the cherries, blackcurrants, and raspberries will soon follow--probably about as many raspberries as strawberries, but the cherry tree is loaded, as are the currant bushes. 

Willow arch, leading from patio to lawn
I'm hoping to harvest peas soon, as they've burst out all over in flowers and are forming tiny pods;  the runner beans also have little red blossoms, ready to pop out plenty of beans all summer long.  Last year all my beans died in the New Fence Disaster, and the few peas that grew (in a container) went straight from the plant into Franklin's mouth. 
Rose bouquet
As well as using them fresh, I'm also picking and drying herbs for winter use:  rosemary, hyssop, sage, oregano, lemon balm.  I had hoped to dry some mint, but mine took a severe beating over winter and has barely survived;  not sure how that happened:  I thought you couldn't kill mint even if you tried!  I hope to preserve some vegetables for the winter:  runner beans at the very least.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Thoughts on death and life: raising meat chickens

Our first two chicks have been butchered and eaten.  I wrote a post about my experience on the forums at permies.com, with pictures.  A few of the pictures may be too graphic for some readers, so consider yourself warned!  http://www.permies.com/t/47535/chickens/time-chicken-butchery-photos

The second chick we killed ourselves (the first was killed by an adult hen we think), and I have to say it was pretty traumatic.  Though it was Partner who did it, I still found myself trembly and had to sit down during it.  However, I was able to pluck and dress it;  both Partner and Franklin assisted in the plucking, which was rather time consuming. 

As I grow older, and become more experienced in life both in studying/reading and personal observation, and particularly since becoming a parent, I have developed a greater appreciation of life--I mean life as in living things:  people, animals, plants, insects, fungi, and so on.  I appreciate life in all forms, even ones which are not popular among other members of my species:  like spiders, ants, weeds, rats...  And I have come to believe that all life has the right to exist for its own sake, and as part of the greater ecosystem. 

To this end, I don't like to kill unnecessarily.  Every life has value and is part of something bigger.  I don't kill spiders in my house;  I like spiders--they eat flies.  I don't even kill weeds in my garden (too much work!  and new ones grow in their place anyway), except by sheet mulch while planting new plants;  when the weeds are too big, I simply cut them back for mulch, or let the chickens trim them for me. 

And I have gradually become more socially conscious which is not something I discuss much;  for instance, I can simply no longer eat or buy shrimp and prawns after reading about the use of human slavery in that trade.  (Link to article about the Thai prawn industry.)  And I care about where my clothes come from--I try to buy them and other household goods from charity shops;  this way my money is going to charity, rather than lining the pockets of the 1% at the expense of sweatshop workers in the third world. 

And I care about animal welfare, who I believe have just as much right to a natural life as we humans, and the rest of the biological community.  Meat animals should be able to express their instincts naturally, just as wild animals do.  As a life-loving meat-eater, I want my meat to come from happy, natural animals.  Animals whose needs for sunshine and real food, social interaction with their own kind, and the ability to just be, have been met.  And just like wild animals, they should form part of the food chain, going on to feed other beings (like me) after their death.

Ok, getting off soapbox now.

But.  Here's the thing.  I don't have access to the kind of meat I want.  The meat we buy from our butcher has a higher welfare standard than the supermarket, but it is still far from my ideal.  If I want that high quality meat, I have to provide it for myself, and that means taking responsibility.  Responsibility for an animal, both in life and death. 

And I have to reconcile these two ideas:  that I believe life should be able to live, and that I believe I should eat meat raised naturally (or ethically, if you like). 

What's more, I have a drive to produce my own food, as much as possible.  I know the health benefits of garden-grown produce, as well as the superiority of flavor;  a chef by profession, I have a love of good food, and as a mother I want to provide my family with the best nutrition available.  And through my experience I have learned that my particular garden is not ideal for growing masses of vegetables year round because of shade issues--but it's good for growing grass.  Grass that I can't eat, but chickens can.

Our chickens have the best life I can give them, which is certainly better than the butcher's chickens, raised by the thousand in closed barns.  It's true, I have a relationship with my chickens, unlike those faceless barn chooks.  It was very hard to kill that first one (and I didn't even wield the knife!), who I had raised and cared for since he was a tiny baby--so hard to take away his life so that I could eat him.  And yet I know that his life is worth no more or less than mine;  I will die too one day, and other living beings will eat me.  We are all part of that circle of death and life.  That chick may not be alive, but he is part of me now.  When I die, I too will become a part of something else.




PS  He was really tasty

Monday, May 25, 2015

Bunting, eating greens, too many plants

 In preparation for our Midsummer celebration, I made a length of bunting;  it's of various scraps out of my scrap bag from some old clothing, curtains, and a sheet.  The main pieces of these fabrics have gone into making other things (for instance, the sheet became the backing for a quilt I made), and I save the smallish scraps for projects such as this.  The bunting isn't hemmed or finished in any way;  it's just sewn to a long piece of bias tape (again from my stash).  I have another set of triangles all cut out, ready to be made into another.
 I picked this bouquet of bluebells, honesty, and peony leaves last week.  Time for a new flower arrangement now.
A couple times a week I've been gathering greens from the garden for our dinner;  mainly kale and chard, and a bit of purple sprouting broccoli.  My broccoli is from a two year old plant (planted spring 2013).  It produced florets last year, and then continued to grow after flowering, unlike the rest of its compatriots.  Maybe it'll keep growing this year too. 

The bulk of my greens are from last year's plants, with nearly all of them going to seed now.  I've let the mizuna and chard go to flower, and will collect their seeds;  the rest (kale, broccoli, cabbage, pak choi) will not be allowed to flower, in order to prevent cross-pollination with the mizuna.  However, I've plenty of replacements this year, growing well with only a little slug damage, and not many losses.  Soon I should be able to start harvesting the new kale in earnest.  I'm keeping a record of what I'm harvesting, by weight.  Maybe I should keep records for the chickens too:  eggs produced, and feed given. 

We'll probably integrate the chicks in with adults quite soon.  Yesterday morning I heard a definite attempt at crowing from one of the little cockerels.  He's not loud, but I fear it won't be long before he's in the pot, with the rest soon after.  I was kind of hoping we could hold off till around August--but not if they're crowing!  I think they are about 8 weeks old now, which is the age for slaughter in commercial chickens.  Ours are not as large as our adult hens, but they are pretty big, and should be able to defend themselves (or run away) from bullying when we merge flocks.  Additionally, I'll allow them the entire back garden for a week or two, so there will be plenty of safe spaces.  There will be 18 of them altogether:  8 hens, and 10 adolescents. 

Today I continued planting out the multitude of plant starts I grew from seed;  I sheet mulched another bed, and got a good number of Brussels sprouts and chard into it, with a couple of artichokes, too.  I'm not sure how it happened, but I ended up with about 50 Brussels sprouts starts.  Nearly all of them are planted out now, with only about six or so left to go.  However, I still have quite a lot of other plants remaining:  celeriac, climbing beans, zuccini, lettuce; and various herbs, chard, kale.  So many!

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sheet mulch, growing, chicks, composting, musing and planning

Sheet mulching!  It's great, but also not without its flaws:  as in the bed above, I used paper feed sacks as the sheet part of the mulch, and it's not exactly pretty!  But underneath was a bunch of weeds and grass, and this is a much quicker and easier way to get a new garden bed than straight up weeding/digging.  Just slap on some cardboard or thick paper, wet it down, put on some compost/soil/other good growing stuff, and plant away.  I don't pull the weeds first, or even cut them down, and I don't pierce the paper;  I just make sure it stays pretty moist, and the plant roots will pierce it as they grow.  If it's cardboard, it may need a pretty thick layer of soil on top, but with this paper, I only put about 2-3 inches on.  Interplanted with soft pak choi, mizuna, kale, broccoli, lupin, and crimson clover.  We've already had a couple salads from the pak choi and mizuna.

After some good rains, and even more sunshine, the garden is off to a raging start.  I have vegetables all over my new veg patch (already I'm out of room before I'm out of plants!) and elsewhere.  Weeds (a.k.a. chicken food) are big and lush.  Flowers are coming out all over--my two apple trees, pear tree, almond (above), and two cherries are all forming little fruits.  The pear tree seems to have at least one pear, and the oldest cherry--planted December 2011--while still shorter than me, has hundreds. 
Even my tiny fig tree, now planted out, has six figs!  And growing quickly.  The two jugs are a little heat sink for it:  they heat up in the sun during the day, and release the heat slowly overnight.  Another instance of "not pretty" but I'm cool with that.  There are a lot of not pretty things in my garden, and I tend not to show them here.  However, I kind of think that's a bad idea;  misleading people to think my garden (and life) are perfect all the time.  Not the misleading thing exactly, but setting an impossible standard, which I think some bloggers do, intentionally or not--I think that's a bad idea.  I don't really want to be seen as perfect.  I'm normal...  Ok, I'm not normal.  But I'm also not perfect.  I'm not even trying for perfect.
Our chicks are fast growing into chickens.  The white ones are indeed male, and are bigger and more aggressive than the brown females.  They're growing cute little pink combs and wattles, unlike the females who still have smooth lizard heads.  Thankfully the chicks are outside in their new house, and out of mine--they were so noisy and smelly and rowdy;  and they even escaped their hutch twice, leaving little bits of poo all over my kitchen floor.  Outside, they have a small patch of ground and a nice big house with lots of straw.  They're still about half the size of the adult hens, so not quite big enough for integration. 

Catching some rays
We lost two adult hens in the last month to old age, and buried both under the newly reinstated compost bin.  I'd given up on making compost, as the chickens get all  compostable materials now, and turn it into lovely fertilizer the next day.  However, having ten hens in a coop over winter accounted for some serious manure build up, and though I could have spread it around a bit more, I decided to fill up the bin and start making my own potting compost.  I'm tired of buying bags of it every year to start my seedlings.  Along with the manure, there's also soiled straw bedding (the bulk of the compost material), a few kitchen scraps, and some paper scraps.  And one more thing which I first learned of on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2, a respected daily talk show.  At the time I was shocked and amazed, but I have since been converted:  I've been peeing in a bucket to pour on my compost.  Yes, I pee on my compost.  Even Partner's willing to try it, though he can add it directly from the source.  It adds both moisture and nitrogen.  And luckily there's no smell, probably from all that straw. 

I used to pick vases of flowers from my garden every week.  I slacked on that in recent years.  I'm committed to reviving this tradition.  Speaking of traditions, I want to start a new one, for celebrating Midsummer.  Did I mention this already?  I want it to be a bit like Christmas in summer, but less about the materialism.  Celebrating the longest day, shortest night, with flowers, BBQ, decorations, gifts (handmade).  I'd like to make it a good long celebration;  maybe we can pair it with the 4th of July and make it a long celebration.  I can at least leave the decorations up.  I'm thinking lots of bunting.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

New chicks, new gate, more spring gardening

 Our new chicks have been with us for a little while now, and are growing quickly.  They're getting feathers, and some are going brown, while others are still white;  we wonder if they'll all be brown when they grow up, or if we'll have some white ones too.  Still, it's hard to distinguish most of them, though the Franklin named the biggest one Chickadee, and I named the brownest one Patches.  We really can't tell who's male and who's female, and we're not entirely sure how many of each there are.  That's ok, though.  I do hope at least half are male though, as I really do want to try raising meat birds.  Plus, we already have ten hens out back!
 Partner's been playing with them and picking them up regularly, to make them friendly around people and accustomed to being picked up, which will help us when they're grown.  He really enjoys them, and they certainly like him the best.  We joke that he's "Mama" and I'm "Not the mama."
 Franklin helped me build this little gate so we can get through the outdoor chicken enclosure;  we've set up chicken wire to divide the garden for them, and it's nice not to have to hop over it get to other parts of the garden.  We used four long willow wands and three pieces of bamboo cane to make this gate, with no nails or staples.
Though it's covered in blossom, I wonder if my new pear tree will set fruit?  Two near neighbors have pear trees but I can't tell if either tree is flowering now, and neither of their trees are in full sun like mine.  I may plant another variety myself this winter, to ensure pollination;  I've been wanting an Asian pear for a while--maybe I can get one.
My window boxes have not been replanted since they originally went up two winters ago.  One has geranium, arugula, and chard;  the other is mainly parsley but also has a calendula.  I'm pleased with that calendula;  it's managed to self seed into the planters below the window box.  When they grow a little bigger, I'll move those seedlings to the garden. 

As far as vegetable gardening goes, I've got lots of trays of seeds and seedlings:  in the house, in the garage, and out on the patio.  I've also already planted out some seedlings into my new kitchen garden:  kale, sorrel, leeks, lupins, salad greens.  I'm hoping for a better harvest this year than last;  I lost the majority of my plants due to slug damage and to an extreme pH change.  By far it was the worst gardening year I've had in my ten years of growing.  Although there's not a lot I can do about slugs, at least the pH has gone back to acceptable growing levels on the affected beds.