This is a post to help explain to all my friends and family why I became interested in gardening this year and last year I could just as easily have said it was a huge waste of time, and most likely did.
Since I became really interested in Peak Oil, living sustainably and local food (and frankly, very worried about our unsustainable life style here in America) I made a couple of goals for myself for the future, and the future of the family, even if they weren’t aware that I had done this to them. My two main goals are listed below, but also part of this package is the desire to eat more seasonally, and by that I mean, not expecting foods to be available year round. That means I enjoy them when they are available, stock up when they are available and then use them later when they aren’t. This has forced me to expand my palette and cooking skills in order to be able to take advantage of produce as it arrives on our tables. This is a good thing. I’m not so sure the fam likes all the experimentation, but no one is starving yet. No more expecting to go to the store and get tomatoes or melons year round whenever I want.
The first goal was to get a garden started so that I can grow my own food.
This was a relatively simple thing to get going because there is plenty of information available about gardening in books and on the web, and living in Iowa I have plenty of resources to learn about gardening, so this was a natural first step. My family has a pretty long history of farming/gardening too so there is a lot of knowledge stored up in the family tree. Both my grandparents lived in rural areas and had gardens. My great-grandparents on my dad’s side were actual farmers. My parents use to garden until my brother and I got old enough to destroy the garden and then they got out of it. We’ve got the skills, so to speak.
I decided I was going to go the raised bed approach and have used square foot gardening as my main guide. Really, I went this way because I didn’t really want a huge bed of dirt to take care of. I didn’t see that as being productive, and with kids, it would be too inviting to them to get into it. Square foot gardening is also less tool and labor intensive, not to mention extremely productive from small spaces. I’m pressed for time like everyone and didn’t want to spend all my time working soil and pulling weeds and such. I also wanted to be as organic as possible and thought this would be easier than a big traditional garden. I’ve been able to build 5 separate beds for my “garden” and fit them into our yard in a way that is fairly pleasing to the eye (except for all the chicken wire to keep out the rabbits) and it doesn’t take over the yard like a traditional garden. I plan to build more going into next year. It’s also very easy for my little ones to help me plant the seeds using the square foot methodology. This is great because it gets them involved and let’s them play with some dirt (who doesn’t want to do that when they are 4 and 2? Or 30…). I really want to make sure they grow up with all the skills and knowledge they will need about growing their own food so they will be better prepared for the world we will face in the future.
So far I’ve been able to get things to grow even though I’m learning as we go, and no garden space was ready early in the season. We’ve eaten spinach, arugula and lettuce from the garden. Lost my peas to something, not sure what, and so far rabbits have helped themselves to 2 eggplant plants, a jalapeno plant and one tomato plant (I hope you bastards get indigestion from the peppers) but the rest have survived. As the summer goes along we’ll have carrots, corn, beans, broccoli, zucchini, squash, cantaloupe, basil, parsley, oregano and tomatoes for sauce and salsa. Then the fall crops will go in and we’ll have peas and spinach, arugula and lettuce again, and probably some bok choy. (I’m not sure what else at this point) I would recommend this style to others interested. I knew that with my knowledge base and lack of garden space I wouldn’t be able to completely fulfill our food needs from the garden, and that is where goal #2 came in.
The second was to frequent the local Farmer’s Markets, or possibly join a CSA, as well as find local meat producers to replace my trips to the meat section of the grocery store.
I am pleasantly pleased by how satisfactory this has gone on both fronts. When my wife started back to work we stumbled across a local farmer (his wife worked in her building) who raises mostly grass fed cows that he sells directly to the public. It has been a lot of headaches to get this going, but right now it is about ready to come to fruition. Our cow is at the meat locker being butchered as we speak and the final price per pound is going to come in at a price that is less than we would pay per pound for ground beef from the local mega-mart. I can’t wait to see how it all tastes. This same farmer also sells free range eggs, which are flat out delicious and so nice looking it’s hard to make yourself eat them, but I’ve gotten over that. So I was able to start getting eggs there too, which is great. I’m not sure if the egg thing will work out in the future as my wife just moved to a new job, but the Farmer’s Market has egg vendors so I’ll be able to backfill that need. I also stumbled across a local pork producer who raises pastured, antibiotic free heirloom pigs. This was just a lucky chance meeting at a Farmer’s Market and it turned out good. We have his information, and even though his stuff is rather pricey, the taste is amazing. I imagine we will selectively purchase items from him as needed in the future. (I’m not sure about the freezer space with a quarter of a cow in there) There are some local people that raise and sell chickens but we haven’t gone that route yet.
I’ve been visiting the local Farmer’s Market for our produce (which requires that I rise out of bed on Saturday morning at about 5:30) for the past few weeks. Yes, even in Iowa in early spring it’s possible to obtain all your produce needs at a Farmer’s Market, if you eat seasonally. For the past few months I’ve been so eagerly anticipating the opening of the Farmer’s Markets that I could barely wait for it. I was like a kid on Christmas Eve. Now it’s here and it’s better than I expected. I’ve been buying peas and green beans, basil, potatoes, spinach, asparagus, rhubarb and I’m not sure what else. I was surprised how much was available at this time of the year, and even more surprised by how it tastes. It’s amazing. The market has too much artsy fartsy stuff and way, way too many people selling baked goods, but I don’t spend any time at those tables.
I’ve been shocked at how reasonable the prices have been for the produce I’ve bought. I didn’t expect to be actually buying things for less than at the stores, but in most cases I have been, and even the ones that were more expensive had so much more flavor and taste that they were worth the price difference. Right now I can’t wait to go back to the Market and get more peas to cook for the next week. Even better, I’m going to start buying twice as much of everything and freezing half of it for the future. Then we’ll be eating from that in the winter. Oh yeah!
And I’ve learned to cook new things. Last Sunday we had creamed new potatoes with peas. I’ve seen this a million times and never really thought to make it, but when I looked at my fridge and saw 2 pounds of peas (unshelled) and a big sack of new potatoes I thought I’d give it a try. Turned out amazing. None of us could get enough and I ate it the next day too, and wished I had more leftovers. I’ve also figured out that you can bake slices of new potatoes in the oven and get a fairly good chip replacement (I learned this by accident when I overcooked them, but they were pretty good, and that isn’t a bad way to learn). If I had kept cooking the old way using the old standard stuff I wouldn’t have learned these two things. Or how about learning how to wilt spinach into dishes for a nice colorful tasty addition to a vegetable serving? When my garden was producing spinach and arugula I had to figure out how to use it so I cooked up a frittata with broccoli, spinach and arugula. It was great. If I hadn’t made a garden, planted early crops and then forced myself to use them I probably wouldn’t have cooked a frittata, even though I’ve seen them made on the Food Network a million times, and I wouldn’t have realized how good something like that could be because I wouldn’t have been pushed out of my comfort zone to do it. I’m now mulling over making a quiche. Isn’t it great to force yourself out of your box?
I’m not perfect by a long ways. I still eat at restaurants without worrying about the local content of their food. I still use spices and things that aren’t local. I still have prepackaged foods and store bought veggies in the freezer. I still use sweetener in my iced tea, neither are local. But I’m taking baby steps here. That’s really the thing, take baby steps, make a goal and move towards it. Don’t you want locally raised fresh and great tasting food? Then go to your local Farmer’s Market. I’m sure there is at least one in your town (my city, 120K, has one every day of the week, I’m not kidding, and sometimes two a day) and support those local farmers. When you buy your food look the grower in the eye, ask how he/she is doing, learn about how they grow the food. It’s great. They will even let you touch it in the containers and bag it yourself. Nothing is prepackaged. They know great ways to prepare it, how to store it, and how to treat it. It sure beats asking the pimply faced kid at the mega-mart a question, to which he responds “Uh, I don’t know”, or most likely, just ignores you.