Need a Winter Project?

I’m tickled pink, purple, and every hue of the rainbow to announce that the current Winter issue of Heirloom Gardener includes an article by none other than moi! It’s all about making a personalized garden journal—an excellent day-brightening project for the short, dark winter months. 

Now, you could go out and search for Heirloom Gardener at your local newsstand, but you can also read the article online using this link. You’ll find my article front and center under the “Current Issue” section. If you’re into gardening, whether veggies, flowers, or fruits and nuts, you may want to check it out.

 

The Tyranny of the Garden

Last week I extolled the virtues of gardening, and here I am saying the garden is a tyrant. I know. I’m a bundle of contradictions.

It always happens about this time of year—when the garden’s productivity turns into excess and demands more time than I have to give it. And I’m not talking about weeding and watering. For the most part, the Gnome takes care of those chores. I’m talking about harvesting the results of all the labor that has gone before. I’m talking about the next steps. This is the time of year I begin to reevaluate my relationship with the garden.

When the Gnome and I purchased our first home, we couldn’t wait to plant a garden. A few years after we moved to the diagonal, we tried gardening again. But we were too busy with child-rearing, house building, and jobs to keep up with it. When we retired, we took up gardening yet again—it was a natural extension of the simple lifestyle we were after. He liked working out of doors, doing something where he could see results, connecting to the earth.

I had my own reasons. Gardening is a huge part of my heritage; it ties me to my ancestors. Besides, I wanted to prove to myself that I could. If we were to find ourselves in the midst of a worldwide food catastrophe, I wanted to know I could still make food happen.

I like the smaller footprint we make by growing and eating our own food. Getting food from thousands of miles away costs the environment and decreases food’s quality and flavor. It doesn’t get much more local than taking a few steps from door to garden.

I like knowing exactly what’s going into my body. When I grow my own, I do. And there’s something almost magical about realizing the food I prepare and eat is mine! I made this happen. There’s nothing quite like looking at a plate of lima beans, broccoli, squash with onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, and cornbread cooked with meal ground from our own corn and realizing that everything on the plate is fresh from the garden.

Gardening is primal. It’s healing. It’s hope. But it also takes over my life for about half the year. In the dead of winter, that’s a good thing. I need a break from winter’s tedium. But I have more in my life than gardening. At least I want to.

At this time of year, the garden is a demanding taskmaster. Food that isn’t harvested at the right moment gets tough and seedy. Failure to pick inhibits further growth. (Sometimes I could do with a little growth inhibiting, but it feels almost criminal to let it go.) Or it rots. Heartbreaking.

If it were only the hour or so of picking beans and squash, digging potatoes and garlic, pulling up beets and carrots, it wouldn’t be so bad. But that’s only the beginning. There’s the rinsing and scrubbing, there’s rearranging the fridge to find a few more square inches of space for the day’s gleanings, there’s the meal planning—what needs to be eaten right away and what can wait a day or two or three (when there will be yet another kitchen full of fresh produce filling kitchen counters), there’s the search for recipes to learn how to prepare that weird new veggie I just had to plant and for other recipes to keep yet another meal of green beans or summer squash from becoming boring.

There’s the pickling and root cellaring and dehydrating and freezing and canning so we’ll have food from the garden all year long. Cleaning the kitchen and emptying it of everything nonessential, because processing food takes a LOT of space. Getting out equipment and supplies and cleaning them. Filling huge pots with water and waiting for it to boil. Sweating in a kitchen that was hot even before I turned on the stove. Setting timers, watching pots and gauges, adding ice to already icy water to chill freshly blanched foods. Labeling freezer containers, filling them, and finding space in a freezer already bursting at the seams. Cleaning up. Putting away. There will be no time left today for those other things I hoped—or needed—to get done.

There’s figuring out how to distribute the excess. Harvesting on a day my donation spot will be open and able to take my offering, on a day I can afford to leave the garden and kitchen to make a delivery.

There’s postponing vacations and family visits until after gardening season ends and before it starts up again.

And there’s the refrigerator-full of vegetables crying out to be eaten. Squash and beans and tomatoes last night, eggplant and peppers and carrots tonight, beets and chard and zucchini and cucumbers tomorrow night. Yes, it’s all good, an embarrassment of riches for vegetarians like us.

But every once in a while a person just wants some chips and a ‘Not Dog.’

Soul Food

Since the Gnome and I took up gardening in a serious way, food has sort of taken over my life. It all starts in January when I sit down with the tall stack of seed catalogs that have been filling my box for the last month or so.

The pictures alone make me drool. The exotic new vegetables, the colorful ones, and especially bean seeds capture my imagination. In truth, beans aren’t my favorite dish, but I’m batty over the seeds. So, beans take up a fair amount of the garden landscape.

After the seeds arrive in February or March, I begin diagramming the garden. How much space to allot to this or that veggie, how to rotate the crops, which plants will be good companions are all questions that come into play during the planning process.

Spring means cleaning up the previous year’s garden, weeding, and watching long-term forecasts to determine when I dare to plant the earliest crops. By late spring, I do an almost daily dance with the weather, trying to outguess its long-range plans. Can I push the planting up a week this year or should I err on the side of caution and wait for that ‘last average frost date’?

At whatever date I settle on, planting begins in earnest, along with mulching and more weeding. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so I find myself in the garden with a hose on dry days. Within days, maybe up to a couple of weeks in some cases, tiny green sprouts begin popping up out of the ground. It’s a magical time and my joy is palpable.

When I’m gardening, I’m following in some mighty big footsteps. Feeding the family from the land was the work of all my grandparents and theirs before them. For them, it was honest work that meant survival. Every moment I’m in the garden feeds me ancestrally.

But harvest time is what truly feeds me, both literally and figuratively. I can’t help but smile when I look at a dinner plate filled with only the bounty of our garden: green salad, asparagus, Swiss chard, squash, rutabaga, corn, kale, eggplant. Whatever the dishes of the day, I’m satiated before I take the first bite.

Harvest time also means preserving, another soul-fulfilling activity. The hours and days I invest in food preservation mean we’ll have tasty, healthy eating from our garden all the way through winter and right on up until the next harvest season rolls around.

Typical grocery list during gardening season

Harvesting food and preserving it make me sing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Our Garden in June

Our Garden in June

For the most part, I write about gardening and modern homesteading over at Mother Earth News these days. I hope you’ll check it out. But sometimes my enthusiasm is just too big for one blog.

This is an exciting time of year for avid gardeners. Tiny leaves erupt from the ground and unfurl where seeds were buried yesterday. Early crops such as salad greens and lettuces are in full production mode, strawberries are juicy red, and summer crops like squash are beginning to produce. At this time of year, it’s not so busy that a gardener-food preservationist feels overwhelmed, yet each day brings evidence of progress and growth. It’s a time full of hope, exuberance, and plenty.

I adore this time in the gardening calendar. Mornings and evenings are cool enough to enjoy garden work without breaking a sweat, whether weeding or gathering part of the evening’s meal. Hardly ever do I leave the garden without taking a few minutes (which often stretch into bigger chunks of time) to sit on our garden bench and survey the success of our efforts.

A couple of weeks ago, our grandchildren were here for “camp” ( a story for another time). The nine-year-old asked if she could go down to the garden—a question sure to garner a hearty “Yes.” A cousin spotted her from the deck and wondered who she was talking to. Sure enough, her mouth was busy as she wandered from plant to plant, her hands reaching out to release the aromas of various herbs.

When she returned to the house, I asked her if she’d been talking to the plants. “Huh? How do you talk to plants?” she asked in astonishment. So, I had to ’fess up. Yes, I regularly talk to our plants, as an older grandchild who’s accompanied me on many a trip to the garden can attest. I didn’t even realize I was doing it until she turned to me and said, “I like how you talk to them. It’s like they’re human.”

Indeed! I encourage them, I apologize when the weather is uncooperative and urge them to hang in there, I thank them. They bring me great pleasure and I can’t help but give that pleasure some expression.

Here’s what’s going on the garden these days.  (To see captions, click on each photo group, then place cursor over individual photo. You’ll have to click a second time to see captions in their entirety.)

 

 

 

 

Thanks for stopping by and stay tuned. More to come as the garden matures.

Spring Has Sprung!

In this yet another crazy weather year, the entire month of February was one cruel joke: such sunny, springlike weather that some of the wildflowers began to bloom. It gave us a too-early taste of the beauty and hope of spring. And then, winter returned—with a vengeance. It must have decided it liked it here because it stayed and stayed. Those heavy winter coats we wanted to put away back in February were called into frequent action all through April.

I wondered if spring would ever come. Seriously, I began to have my doubts. Back in April, my Facebook memories taunted me. There I was with a healthy handful of asparagus in early April a few years ago. This year, though, not the tiniest hint of an asparagus spear more than a full month later. Next, a three-year-old memory popped up showing our big rhododendron bursting with beautiful clusters of pink. That was a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, our rhodie remained bereft of color.

Finally, of course, spring did decide to emerge, and when it did it came on like a house afire. Pretty, white trillium flowers began dotting our forest landscape. One day the ground broke in a couple of spots in our asparagus bed. The next, we were deluged with asparagus. (I am not complaining.) We hadn’t been able to get our early crops planted as early as usual this year. It was either too cold or too wet. When we did have a decent break in the weather, our schedules demanded something else of our time.

Now we’re making up for it. We took to the garden on the first clear day of May. We may have gotten a little ahead of ourselves—our last average frost date is May 25th, but the long-range forecasts look so hopeful we’re taking a chance. We’ve forced ourselves to hold off on the things that demand more heat, but we couldn’t wait to get most everything else in the ground, even those seeds that say not to plant until there’s no more danger of frost. At this point, I’m okay with replanting if some of our seedlings get zapped by a late frost. It just felt too good to get out there and get dirt under my fingernails.

So far, we’ve planted onions, spinach, radishes, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, kohlrabi, cucamelon, shelling and snow peas, runner beans, potatoes (purple and yellow), yellow squash, zucchini, lots of herbs, cabbage, broccoli, eggplant, beets, and more, as well as new raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. Still to come: Christmas limas, scarlet runners, tomatoes, green beans, okra, and cukes.

Here are a few photos of long-awaited growing things—both wild and from the garden.

We’re eating asparagus everything these days!

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Lots of strawberry blossoms—yum!

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The peas are up.

So are our salad greens—already they need thinning. Fine by me.

We’re giving Jerusalem artichokes a try this year, safe and secure in their own little bed so they don’t take over the whole garden.

Garlic is so special—plant it in the fall and forget it. It’s the first thing to appear in spring.

Bright Lights chard with stems in beautiful rainbow hues, interplanted with marigolds for even more color

Edible wildflowers–what a gift! Violets (sugared, for jelly, or in salads); wild mustard flowers and leaves add color and tang to salads; star chickweed is another salad option; mayflowers grow a sort of apple-like fruit that can be used in pies—assuming you can get to them before the deer. We never have.

 

Trillium—they have three of everything, it seems. And they’re all over the place right now.

 

Showy columbine

 

 

 

 

My Other Blog

If you’re a dedicated reader of Living on the Diagonal, you know I also began blogging for Mother Earth News a few months ago. Just thought I’d take today to remind you I have a site over there if you’d like to check it out. I Blog for Mother Earth News-1In fact, Mother Earth News is running a contest for its bloggers right now—to see how much traffic we’re getting for articles posted between December 1 and January 31. If you’d like to help me make a better showing, all you need to do is pop over there and click on each of the articles written since December 1st. (Even if it’s not your thing. Do it as a favor.) Simple as that. Thanks in advance.

(Sharing is helpful, too. Just click on your favorite social media icon(s) to the left of each article. Easy peasy.)

My most recent article tells about our early experiences gathering sap to make our own maple syrup. I’ll share more maple sugaring details next week. The week after, you can find my favorite chili recipe. It features sweet potatoes (or winter squash), and it’s delish!

Mother Earth News is where you’ll find other recipes, including my popular vegetarian quiche, my award-winning cornbread, my mom’s delicious pineapple-zucchini bread, and the world’s best kale salad (in my opinion, anyway).

I’ve written about how to make gardening easier with posts on making and using bean arches, growing in raised beds, and letting perennials and volunteers do your gardening work for you.

I’ve also posted a couple of articles telling about the Mother Earth News Fair, a unique sustainable living event that takes place in multiple venues across the country every year.

All that and more to come.  You can find all my Mother Earth News blog posts here.  Hope you’ll stop by for a visit.

The List, Part II: Priorities

THE LIST, Part II: Priorities

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up. You can find Part I here.)

Right up near the top of my “One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire” list was to make baskets. I had first learned how as a child from my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother: high school graduation photo

My grandparents, W. G. and Georgia Stillwell Dillard, on their fiftieth anniversary

Grandmother always had craft activities ready and waiting whenever we went for a visit, and she and I made baskets on more than one occasion. Basket making with Grandmother is one of my fondest memories.

An early basket weaving exercise under Grandmother’s tutelage

But I’d long since forgotten that skill. When I saw an ad for a basket-making class as part of Appalachian State University’s Craft Enrichment Program about three years before I retired, I jumped at it.

In those days I regularly worked until seven or eight o’clock at night and too often as late as ten or eleven. I took work home on the weekends. I dreamed about work. I woke up in a 3:00 a.m. work-related panic almost nightly. My job involved overnight travel, too, sometimes a couple of trips a week. I hadn’t had time for just-for-me activities for years. But I wasn’t about to let anything interfere with my basket-making sessions. In three years of classes, I missed only one because of work.

Making baskets was good for my spirit; it relaxed me; it gave my overworked mind a break from all the work-related issues that were swirling around in it. I really loved making those baskets, and I was eager to delve into my newfound hobby in a big way once I retired. In anticipation of that day, I bought my own basket-making supplies and four big boxes of reed and other materials.

Just a few of the many baskets I made in my basket-making workshops

A few things happened to change all that. No studio space for making baskets magically appeared. Nor did our small house with its open design lend itself to leaving materials all over the place between sessions. Just pulling out all those boxes and supplies, then putting them all away and sweeping up the debris after a basket-making session was time-consuming, so much so that it was only worth doing if I was going to make a day of it. But a full day of hand weaving, of pushing and pulling, of holding ornery pieces in place with one hand while forcing a reed through a too-small space with the other is hard on fingers, especially arthritic ones.

And I was running out of ways to use those baskets. Our house was overrun with them, and I’d given away more than people really wanted to receive. My skill hadn’t developed enough to sell my baskets and I wasn’t really interested in marketing them, anyway—too much like work.

Most of all, I began to realize that baskets had been my very important respite from the daily grind of my work life but now things were different. My needs had changed. Basket-making, it turned out, had served its purpose.

Besides, other interests had begun to take on more importance, like gardening and food preservation. Both of these activities had been on my list, too. At the time, my goal was simply to re-learn those skills from my childhood. I wanted to be competent at them, enough so that if, say, climate change challenged our food distribution system (as it has now begun to do), I’d be able to take care of my own food needs. In other words, I wanted to move towards more self-reliance.

But even I had no idea how these two activities would begin to take over my life. I didn’t expect to get so passionate about them. Why, last year the Gnome and I grew more than twelve hundred pounds of vegetables in our garden, far more than enough for the annual food needs of two people.

One day’s harvest from our garden

I looked back at my list recently and discovered I’d made a pretty good dent in it. What I hadn’t expected though, was to discover a few more items that had lost their importance as new interests—gardening and food preservation, for instance—emerged to take their place. Interests that sometimes have taken me by complete surprise. Like writing. Writing didn’t earn a single mention on my list. Yet, here I am with two books to my name (and hopefully more on the way), a couple of blogs, daily dedicated writing time, and participation in various writers’ groups. Who saw that coming? Not I! That’s the way it is with plans. Priorities change.

It’s one of my favorite things about retirement. I can be flexible. And I don’t need to make any more lists. Which was, as it happens, item 100 on my list.

(Won’t you come back next week for Part III of The List?)