Thursday, July 18, 2013

Where Do You Hide Your Food?

I'm finding it increasingly interesting to think that my city's major source of food is the grocery store chains or the warehouse chains. I recently spent some time looking around my neighborhood on Google Earth looking for gardens in people's homes. I found a couple but they were hard to find. I found lots and lots of swimming pools, lots of grass, and lots more concrete but hard to find a garden. I have to come to the conclusion that most folks in my neck of the woods don't grow food. I may be wrong, but you would have to provide proof to the contrary.
 
Our city is in the desert in the Southwest. Everything comes in by truck from somewhere else. We don't even have rail service anymore for non-industrial materials, and that's rare, too. Everything comes to us from one of three directions over the highways by truck. The bulk comes from California north up I-15. Some comes from Utah and points north via the same road in the other direction. And some comes up from Pheonix from the southeast. We might get some from the northeast, but I haven't seen much in the way of truck transportation from that direction. I would estimate that 75% comes from California.
 
I remember a bunch of years ago when there was a trucker's strike. Truck transporation all but stopped into town. Those that did arrive, didn't go to the grocery stores, they went to the hotels and casinos and their distributiors and suppliers. They knew how their bread was buttered. I lived at that time across the street from a Safeway store that has since closed and has been torn down. When the strike was announced, there was a run on the store and within 24 hours you couldn't even buy a bag of water softener salt. The shelves were completely bare. It was scary.
Be sure! What a great insurance policy against
just about anything: empty shelves, strikes, disasters,
or any other disruption of the fragile and delicate
system we have. It's a good hedge against rising
fuel costs, too. As diesel prices increase, food
prices increase. There is a direct link between the two.
 
We didn't suffer too much because my folks have always been prepared for things like that. That came from growing up in the Depression and was reinforced by the teachings of preparedness that my church does. They were ready long before it happened. But my friends weren't. I was in high school and when I took my lunch of huge sandwich on homemade bread and some veggies, my friends offered what was for us a huge sum of money for my lunch. After the first week, I had people waiting in the parking lot to be the first to bid on my lunch. I was actually afraid to sell it to anyone for fear that I would upset the wrong people so I ate my lunch in silence. There was food, just not as much as normal and not the variety that we were used to.
 
Some folks actually organized caravans of cars to drive to Southern California to buy food in bulk and bring it back to town. You could go to Utah and buy all the fruit you wanted from the farmer's markets, too. It was there, it was for sale, they just couldn't ship it to Las Vegas because of the strike.
 
I wonder if something like that could happen again? We certainly haven't changed our way of doing things in this town. We still don't produce food in any quantity. There aren't any farms or food processing plants of significance here. But there are a lot more people.
A garden will make your rations gor further, or
your paycheck last longer, or you health improve,
or....well, you get the idea.
 
Oh, we have grocery stores in abundance and Costco's and Sam's Clubs and other food warehouses. But it makes me nervous that the bulk of the food in town is not in people's homes or pantries or gardens, it's in these stores. I've seen how fast they can empty out. I spent 5 years working for one and I know how much food they shipped out daily. We had trucks replenish every night and Costco gets several trucks daily. So the system is working, for now.
 
We've come a long way from the days of the Victory Gardens. We've come a long way from a time where people accepted at least a part of the responsibility for providing for themselves. We have worked ourselves into a situation of "I work at my job to be able to buy stuff from your job." And although this is a workable situation, the more complex the system becomes, the more opportunities it has to break down. The farther away from the earth we become, the more dependent we are on others to provide the basics to us.
That doesn't make me feel comfortable. That doesn't make me sleep well at night. What does allow me to sleep is the knowledge that I am doing everything I can to produce as much as I can for my family. It may not be much right now, and we wouldn't be able to live too comfortably on what I can grow yet, but I'm getting better, my soil is getting better, I'm learning more and more and I'm trying.
 
A phrase I learned a long time ago fits this. "All you can do is all you can do but all you can do is enough." All I have to do is all I can do. But, I have to do all I can do. I can't slack off. I can't do less than all I can do, but I'm finding that the more I do, the more I find I can do, and the better I'm able to do it.
 
That makes me feel good.
It's nice to see our Super Heros are on board
with this. Truth, Justice and the Victory Garden!
 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

We Really Are the World


Could someone please explain to me why we have food shortages and famine and starvation in this world? Could someone please tell me why some people go hungry? So far, unless it’s a function of mankind, I’m not buying the arguments I’ve been told.

Here’s why I make that claim.

I was given a tomato last week by my daughter-in-law. She and my son have grown a garden and are producing some food for themselves. (They also brought me a squash the size of a baseball bat that I’m going to grill tonight for dinner.) It was a Brandywine tomato, an heirloom variety with a rich flavor, amazing aroma and peculiar markings. It was delicious.

Before I ate it, raw, sliced, with a little salt sprinkled on it, I saved out the seeds. I placed them on a paper towel and then removed the jelly-like sac around each seed and let them dry on another paper towel. I ended up with about 180 seeds from this tomato. Then I started to look at them and started to wonder.

I wondered how many fruits a single plant would produce. Then I wondered how many seeds that would be. Then I wondered how many plants would germinate and grow from those seeds. Then I wondered how much fruit could be produced by this one seed alone over 5 years with some very conservative assumptions. Then I rested my brain because numbers of that size cause me pain. Without a spreadsheet, I wouldn’t be able to follow along.

First, I assumed that if I grew this tomato plant, I could expect about 24 fruits per plant. Some would yield more, some fewer. But based on my experience with this variety, this is what I could reasonably and conservatively expect. OK, so now we start to look into the future.

Let’s assume a 50% germination rate. That would yield me about 90 plants the first year. At about 24 fruits per plant, I would yield about 2160 tomatoes. This would, in turn, give me 4,665,600 seeds for planting the second year. Again, with about a 50% germination rate and the same productivity rate, at the end of the second year, I would have more than 261 trillion seeds. By year 5, I would have 1,553,347,859,158,130,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 seeds to plant. I don’t even know what to call this number. I think it might be 1.5 quintillion googol, but I’m not a math guy. Has your mind exploded yet? Mine did.

So if we go back to the second year, the one with the measly 261 trillion seeds, we can figure that’s probably enough seeds for the world. We don’t have that many people on the planet yet, so I figure that we’re safe with that many. If we allot 2 square feet per plant, to grow that many tomatoes we would need about 18.8 million square miles. That’s about 6 times the area of China. That’s without taking into consideration walkways between the rows of plants, roads for the trucks to haul the produce, and land for the stockpiling, storage and processing of the tomatoes. Might need 7 Chinas then.

But I don’t think that we want that many tomatoes anyway. I don’t, certainly not all the same variety. I realize that this would be a Monsanto fantasy, but what about the other varieties of tomato, especially the ones with fewer to more seeds per fruit? All of a sudden, we’re talking about a lot of tomatoes. So why would we have so many seeds in one tomato? Why would one tomato plant produce so many seeds, more than 4000 per plant per year? Is it only because it wants to insure its DNA is continued into the future, a ‘survival of the species’ thing? I don’t think so.

I think it’s another example of our loving, wise and kind Heavenly Father preparing a world so filled with richness and beauty and abundance all for the welfare of His children.  I think it’s a reminder to us that we need to remember others; that it’s a message for us to know that God loves us and that we have a responsibility to take care of this earth and each other.

If someone is going hungry, it’s not because we can’t feed them. If there are places that don’t have access to food, it’s not because they can’t change that. Now I’m not proposing that we build greenhouses in Alaska to grow tomatoes, but we could. I’m just suggesting that we can do a better job taking care of what we have been given. We can do more than we are doing. We can find ways to take care of ourselves. And still have plenty left over to help someone else.

Let’s say in my house we need to have 24 quarts of tomatoes each year to take care of our needs. We could use these in sauces, as additions to main and side dishes and to add to things like salads and sandwiches. That translates to about 12 medium-sized tomatoes per quart, or about the output of 12 of those plants from the seed example. Could I grow 12 tomato plants in my yard each year? Yes. I’ve done it before and I can do it again. So I could produce all the tomatoes my family needs each year. All I have to do is grow them, pick them, bottle them and store them for later consumption.

But can I grow more than 12 tomato plants along with the other things I would need? Yes, I can. I’m lucky that my house sits on about 1/3 of an acre. 12 tomato plants will only take up about 24 square feet of space, about .3 of one percent of the land left over after you subtract my house, driveway and sidewalks. 3/10ths of one percent for a year’s supply of tomatoes. Seems to me to be a reasonable exchange.

So let’s say I can produce twice that amount of tomatoes. Now I have enough to provide tomatoes for a whole year to another family the same size as mine. Of course, there will be some expense involved, so I would need to charge this other family for my services to cover my expenses. I’m sure I could find a family that would buy tomatoes from me even if it just saved them the trouble of growing them. All of a sudden, I’m a farmer. I have a business.

But I don’t want to just grow tomatoes and eat tomatoes. I want salsa. Now, I have to add onions, garlic, cilantro, and hot peppers to my grow list. Can I do that? Sure. Can I repeat the same thing about the seeds with, say, cilantro? Sure I can. In fact, I just did that. I let 6 of my cilantro plants continue to grow after it got hot this year. Once they bolt, the leaves don’t taste nearly as good as they do when they are young and tender. So I let them go to seed.

I had these tall, beautiful plants in my garden, nearly 4 feet tall. They blossomed with a showy cover of tiny white flowers. Each of these flowers was visited by my neighbor’s bees. (I LOVE having a neighbor who keeps bees!) For a couple of weeks, the garden was really buzzing.

Once the flowers had all been pollinated, they closed up, dried and fell off. Then I could see a small, round, hard ball-like thing on the end of each flower stem. These were the seeds of the cilantro. These are called coriander. This year I harvested about two pounds of coriander. That’s enough for me to have all the cilantro I can eat this fall, winter and spring as well as coriander seeds for seasoning and spice use. They are great in pickles, plus I don’t have to buy seed again next year. I will just save some of what I grew to plant this fall.

I am in the midst of harvesting my garlic. Last fall, I planted about 220 individual cloves of garlic. That was dumb. What am I going to do with 200 garlic bulbs? Oh, yeah, that’s right. I have a business now. After I set aside the best of the garlic for this fall’s planting, I still have more garlic than I can use. I’ll dry some and powder it for seasoning and I’ll mince some and I’ll give some away. It’s actually fun to ask people if they would like some garlic. It’s not the most normal question a person gets asked. You ask them and they stare blankly at you while it registers in their brains. Then they smile, and everybody says “thank you.” I haven’t had anyone turn me down yet.

A few years ago one of my daughters was staying with us for a while. During that time, she bought a cayenne pepper plant. We installed it in the garden and it did just fine. That fall, when everything else died, it lived on. We had it in a south-facing spot up against a block wall. Apparently, the wall retained enough heat and radiated it back onto the pepper so much that the pepper didn’t die. Actually, it lived for three years before an unexpected seriously hard frost happened one night. I must have harvested 30 pounds of hot, hot peppers from it. Each year they got hotter. I dried them and put them in a small blender and powdered them. I’m still eating that stuff, which we call “PH” (for “Powdered Hell!”). And it is mighty tasty and might hot.

Each of those peppers had a couple dozen seeds in it. I’ve saved quite a few of them and they are viable and grow quickly. I don’t think I’ll have to buy another cayenne pepper in my lifetime as long as I keep saving seeds and refreshing my stock of them.

One day my wife was cutting the green tops from some bunching onions. She stopped about an inch from the bottom, the root end. When she was done with each onion, she would casually toss the end bit into the compost bin. I watched her and thought about it for a while and decided I wanted to try something. I had heard that you could grow onions from just a bit of the root end and I wanted to try that out.

I soaked those ends in water for about an hour and then I poked my finger into the soil of the garden and inserted the onion butt into the hole. I watered them in. Every day when I checked on them, they seemed to have grown a bit taller. At first they were only a tiny little bud poking out of the ground. Then several leaves appeared and finally it grew large enough and was picked again for dinner. After that, I just ate them as I worked in the garden or brought them into the kitchen when my wife needed some for a salad or some other dish. When she cuts off what she needs, I pop them back into the garden and off the go to repeat the process. People look at me funny when I tell them I’ve been eating the same onions for three years. They look at me funny anyway, but I have been eating the same onions for three years.

Now to get back to my original question about the food shortages and famine. I’ll take a shot at answering it myself.

Obviously, we could grow all the tomatoes the world could possibly want. We don’t lack for seed or raw materials. Since we can produce the food, and we can process it and store it, what does that leave us? Is it a transportation problem? Well, no, we already know that we can eat a tomato in New York that was grown in Peru, so obviously transportation isn’t the problem. That only leaves us. People. Are we the problem? Are we getting in our own way?

I don’t know, but my guess is that we don’t want to feed everybody. It’s not a priority. We want to eat, that’s for sure. But my guess is that we want to have an income more than we want to feed the world. After all, people with no money cannot pay for food. And if they cannot pay, then we don’t have to send them food. We are not forced to feed the world so we don’t. we also are not motivated as a species to take care of other members of our species so we don’t.

And it's actually sad that amidst all this possible abundance, we have folks who lack. Makes me want to change my perspective a bit.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Camel's Nose, or, How Gardening Grows on You


There is an old saying that says something about a camel wanting to “just put his nose in the tent” during a sandstorm. Pretty soon, his head is in, then his front legs, then…well, you get the picture. Before he knows it, the owner of the camel is outside in the sandstorm while the camel is in the tent.

I’m not sure that gardening in the backyard isn’t exactly like that.

First, you get a nice potted plant and it looks good on the plant stand in the corner or in the windowsill. You just do it for some 'color.' Then, you think that you would like to have some potted geraniums out front by the door just to dress it up a bit. Then the flowering plant in the corner of the yard. Then the flower bed along the fence or driveway. Then you think you might like to have a peach tree in that far back corner of the back yard. Just one, because you don’t know if you can grow peaches in your area.

Later on, you visit your neighbor and he has some nice, fresh, juicy tomatoes that taste so good you start to think that you should do that, too. So you plant one. Just one. After all, you don’t really have all that much time to garden. Mowing the lawn and trimming the bushes and pruning the now productive peach trees (you had to add another one for adequate fertilization) take up all your “yard time.” And you are surprised at how well it does. 11 cups of cherry tomatoes from one plant in one season. And they are sooooooo tasty, too, that you cannot remember how many of them actually made it into the house.
And in buckets, no less.

Then you decide that if your neighbor can grow those big, juicy beefsteak tomatoes, you can, too. So you plant several, not knowing which ones will do the best in your area. When they start to ripen, you can’t believe how easy it was compared with how expensive they are in the store (and how much better your own taste!) that you start to think about making salsa.

This year you buy the peppers and the onions and the cilantro to go with your tomatoes, and it’s good. But something just isn’t quite right and you realize that your wonderfully tasting tomatoes are being mixed with rather bland, tasteless “store-bought” food and you decide that you need to grow some of the other things. You don’t need a lot, just a few onions, maybe a couple of pepper plants and of course, you’ll only buy one packet of cilantro seeds. (How much cilantro can you grow with only one packet of seeds anyway?)
You absolutely cannot make salsa without cilantro.
To do so would not only be unthinkable, but possibly criminal.


Sweet red onions.

In the fall you plant the onions. In the winter you start the tomatoes indoors (you didn’t need all that stuff on those shelves of that rack in the garage anyway. The neighborhood thrift store can get much more use out of those things anyway.). And those light fixtures weren’t all that expensive, either.
Love those apricots.

In the spring you plant the cilantro and transplant the tomatoes outside. Come the middle of July, you begin to harvest the whole thing and you make your first batch of home-grown salsa. As you sit under the shade of you apricot tree (the peaches did so well you decided that a couple of varieties of apricot might be nice, too) and sip lemonade (who knew lemons could do so well this far North?) and dip your toasted kale chips (much better for you than fried tortilla chips and kale grows so well that you don't miss those silly shrubs along the fence) into your fresh salsa, you think to yourself “Now if I take out those shrubs and remove that lawn over there and …” you suddenly realize that the camel is in the tent leaving you outside.
Chard, not kale, but you get the idea.

But that’s really OK because that’s where your garden is.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Breaking it Down, Barrel-style

A long time ago, I listened to a farmer who said that we cook and prepare our food so that it doesn't resemble what it really is. If we can still tell what it is, we probably won't want to eat it.

Now, although I agree with him on the concept of shrimp (which I love to eat but get kind of grossed out when I see them) and liver (ditto), I don't necessarily agree with him on things like fresh fruits and vegetables. I really don't mind if a peach still looks like a peach when I eat it. I actually prefer that. But I have come to the conclusion that plants follow that rule themselves pretty closely.

If you put a pile of manure on a plant bed, it just sits there. The plants don't want it in that form (can you really blame them?). They want it broken down and reduced to forms they like. That's where the bugs and the worms and the bacteria all come in. They break down the manure and the waste materials into their component parts, add things to make it better, and then leave it for the plants to use. It's a great system, but it takes time.

We mimic and encourage this system with our compost piles. Here we pile up our grass clippings and plant waste and manures and kitchen scraps and then let them sit for a year or so while Nature takes its course. We keep it moist so it can work and we turn it periodically so it can breathe, but mostly we don't even think about it until we need to pile up some more waste.

I don't have the luxury of having a space that I can dedicate to the annual decomposition of materials so I have to make sure that I can keep my pile small and speed up the process. To do that, I "borrowed" some ideas from some commercial products and built a compost tumbler for myself.

Finished compost tumbler in its own stand.
We started with a 55-gallon barrel that at one time had held smoke flavoring for food products. We hosed it out a few times (didn't help, still smelled like smoke) and cut the top off.

By inverting the top, we were able to get a very good fit between the top and the sides of the barrel. It seems that the lid has a deep groove around it that just fits the sides, making me wonder if that was planned by some re-use engineer or if it "just happened that way."

The lid fits quite snugly.
We cut a hole in the center of the bottom for an aeration system. This is a 4" ABS plumbing pipe with a series of 1/2" holes up and down the shaft. Two screw-on adapters securely fasten it to the bottom of the barrel, one on the inside that is screwed to the one on the outside. We put a cap on the other end, and drilled a hole in it.
Standard plumbing components for the air system. If I were to
do it again, I would use a toilet flange instead and save a
couple of dollars in attaching the air pipe.
The axle is a pipe inside another pipe. The theory is that the outside pipe will act as the bearing on the axle so that the holes in the side of the barrel don't get bigger with age and movement.


The lid is currently held on with a ratcheting strap, but will soon be changed to some truck bungees as soon as I get them. It's worked fine all summer so far, and I don't seem to be in a rush to find the bungees.

Here's how it works. When the grass gets cut, the clippings get dumped into the barrel. Some water gets added and it is given a couple of turns which tumble all the stuff inside. Same thing when we add kitchen scraps, garden trimmings, shredded paper, manure, etc.  I haven't kept track of everything that we've thrown in there, but we have certainly put more than 55 gallons of stuff into it. I would estimate that we have put at least 600 gallons of material into it. I'll bet we would have had a pile the size of a small car with everything we've put into it. It just keeps shrinking the stuff down into really great compost.

It gets pretty hot inside there, obviously the bacteria are getting enough food, water and oxygen, and it has never stunk. It gets hot enough that the sides of the plastic barrel, normally quite rigid and firm, are soft and somewhat pliable. I think it gets hot enough to cook any smelly stuff because there is no smell. Not only that, there is only a slight aroma of smoke when you lift the lid. Certainly nothing like it was before. And the materials get converted in a matter of a few weeks, rather than months.

Here you can see the air pipe. Proper oxygenation is important
so that you keep you compost process aerobic. Anaerobic decomposition
stinks. Makes for bad farming neighbors.
I've only emptied it once so far. The strap slipped and the lid came of during one of it's tumbles (Of course it was while it was upside down. When else would it have happened?). So I took that opportunity to sift it through my 1/4" sifter and put the rest back inside to continue cooking. I had about 10 gallons of great smelling, black, rich compost to top feed my garden beds. (Soil amendment is almost a religion in the desert. At least you have to do it faithfully.)

It's amazing to me how much this thing can eat. 6 months of grass clippings, all the kitchen scraps my worms can't eat, all the plant waste from the spring garden and lots of tomato plant trimmings, several bags of shredded paper, and several 5-gallon buckets of horse nuggets. Although it fills up when we add the grass clippings, by the next time we need to add stuff to it, there seems to be plenty of room. It's like the black hole of the garden. It has worked so well this year that we are actually planning on building another one this fall to double the amount of stuff we can compost, although I'm not sure where we'll get the waste materials to put into it.

Recently, my son-in-law was eyeing the neighbor's grass, suggesting that we offer to cut his lawn for him in exchange for his clippings.

Come to think of it, it is looking pretty shaggy over there....

Friday, August 19, 2011

Beans, Beans, The Magical Fruit....

The more you grow, the more you begin to really like these things.

I know that doesn't exactly follow the old ditty, but it's close enough for my taste.

Earlier this summer, I had finished the lettuce harvest and needed another crop to sow in that bed. My grandson was out there with me, helping to turn and rake and supplement. When we got done with that, he asked me what we were going to plant in it. I guess it seemed the most logical thing in the world to him. We had just prepared a garden bed and now he wanted to know what we were going to plant. I didn't know. I hadn't thought that far ahead. The lettuce succumbed to the heat sooner than I thought it would and I wasn't ready for my fall garden yet.

I scrambled a bit and as I was walking into the pantry, I noticed a bag of beans on the shelf. Pinto beans. Next to them were some white beans, then some Navy beans (smaller white beans). In the freezer were some black-eyed beans that I had grown last year. I don't know how they got into the freezer, I don't freeze my seeds. I grabbed all of these and went back out to the garden.

I showed him how to broadcast them and get a nice even distribution. I didn't plant these with a lot of faith that they would grow. These were store-bought pintos intended to be eaten, not grown. The white beans we had dry-packed nearly 10 years ago intending to eat them. And the black-eyed beans had been in the freezer for who-knows-how-long? But, we sowed and then blanketed them with a mulch of straw. I showed my grandson how to water them and set him to it.
Amazing how much effort is displayed here. The seed halves have
not fallen off yet, and it has pushed up through two or three inches of straw.

He watered them every day as instructed. I checked the soil every evening after work. It was always moist and warm, two good things for germinating seeds. After a few days, I noticed an wonderful thing. Strong beans pushing up through the mulch.
First one, then two, the three hundred.
These guys just kept popping up day after day. I noticed a few one morning, then dozens the next, then too many to count on the next. It was magical.
A new neighborhood overnight.
The true leaves started to unfold and grow and the straw began to disappear. It went from a calm sea of yellow-brown straw to undulating waves of bright green leaves in the course of a week.

About two to three weeks after planting. A foot+ tall and no sign of the straw mulch.
Then the flowers came. Beans have weird flowers. They are flat and smooth and not really very pretty unless you consider their purpose. Then they split and the beans start to appear.
The beans a-bloomin'
These are strong plants, in spite of the fact that they are growing at about twice the "advised" density that the garden manuals say. I guess they like living that close together. Kind of like living in a city.

Look closely, you can see the bumps inside the pod.
My grandson got to show off his bit of the garden recently when his other grandparents came to visit. He proudly led them out to the garden to show them all the green stuff. He talked about planting them and watering them. If he had had any buttons on his t-shirt, I'm sure they would have popped off. His grandparents were duly impressed with his work.
The pods push the flower petal up and off. These grew in about 12 hours from flower to pod.
My daughter had the coolest comment about them. She used the same comment on my tomatoes earlier this year and it has become the standard comment about the plants in the garden. She said they were happy beans. Seeing the growth and the lushness of the plants, the flowers and the abundance of the pods, I'm inclined to agree. They must be happy.

And they're not the only ones.

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