Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Our first harvest season is finally drawing to a close, and what a busy season it has been! I just finished recording all that we have been able to preserve, and I am overwhelmed at just how much my rather poorly tended garden produced. My deep freezer is nearly full, my canning shelves are well stocked, and I have yet to finish six bags of fruit and all of my pumpkins!
For the most part, the bulk of my garden produce was ready in August. From then until late October, we had a heavy influx of produce coming through our kitchen. Some of this went to our CSA member and a lot went on our table, but the majority was put up for the winter. These items were preserved through a variety of methods: freezing, canning, dehydrating, and cold storage. I ended up freezing a lot more than I originally intended, as it was much quicker and easier in most instances. I hope to go through some of my frozen items and can them later when I have more time (which is assuredly not just wishful thinking, right?) Currently, we have pumpkins and apples in cold storage, as well as pears chilling before being ripened inside.
Although our garden grew abundantly, we did have some issues that I hope experience will help remedy. The greatest frustration was discovering that our dirt is made of incredibly dense clay. Tilling our garden was nearly impossible, but we eventually claimed victory in at least breaking up the surface. Likewise, weeding it became a daily struggle. Every weed I pulled simply snapped at ground level, in spite of the many creative weed pulling techniques I tried. Eventually, the vegetables got large enough that I figured they could fend for themselves, and I gave up the battle. This fall, I plan on tilling under ample amounts of compost and leaves. My soil will be so fluffy next year that I expect the weeds to be eagerly leaping into my hands.
There were other minor problems with specific vegetables, as well as planning mistakes on my part. The broccoli had so many worms that it was rendered virtually unusable. My corn was completely ravaged by deer. I planted squash and pumpkins throughout my garden and found myself on the losing end of a coup d'etat perpetrated by their grasping vines. My beans that I thought were bush beans turned out to be pole beans, and my pole beans grew to be bush beans. The resulting makeshift trellis consisted of sticks and tomato cages hastily jabbed into the ground as the beans grew around them. Also, a late start in planting and limited cold weather crops saw me eating nothing but radishes until mid July. My daughters irreverently wrinkled their noses at that.
Despite my amateur mistakes, we somehow have plenty of vegetables left over for winter. I have bags of carrots, green beans, cherry tomatoes, peppers, and blanched greens in my freezer. I saved carrot greens for throwing in pots of homemade stock. There are jars of pickled beets and stewed tomatoes on my shelves. I have both refrigerator and freezer pickles. Tomato paste was frozen in cubes, alongside tubs of coleslaw and spicy arugula pesto. I let half of my green beans dry out at the end of the season and then shelled them for soup beans. There are even a few dark green leaves of Swiss chard still growing in this frigid weather—the last remaining garden item not ravaged by frost.
The trees in our small orchard were our greatest producers, and I ended up giving away bags upon bags of fruit to family and friends. I simply could not keep up with it all! Even after that, we harvested 50 cups of cherries from our single cherry tree, in the vicinity of five hundred apples from our four apple trees, and a couple hundred pears from our two pear trees. From these, we have applesauce, apple pie filling, sliced pears, dehydrated apple slices, and apple butter. Our grape vines were fairly bursting with Concord grapes, which were frozen as grape juice or canned as grape jelly, and our chestnut trees gave us six gallons of chestnuts. I foresee a lot of chestnut pudding in our future. And wrinkle-free noses.
While I was at it, I decided to try a herb garden this year. I was able to make a makeshift cold frame, which allows us to continue harvesting herbs through the early November snows. It is rather small; the garden contains just sage, oregano, parsley, and basil. I originally planted thyme as well, but that died with remarkable swiftness. I now have paper bags full of drying herbs cluttering my kitchen windows, as well as a new found love for fresh sage.
While this year has required limitless time and energy, I am truly thankful for every day—even the ones that left me gasping on the couch for a cold beverage and a back massage. There is something so naturally human in sticking hands in dirt and sweat dampened hair, stained fingernails and the smell of tomato plants. It is the joy of my oldest daughter pulling up weeds beside me while the youngest dances with dandelions and kittens. It is in cooking a supper consisting of organic food entirely harvested from our own land. It is being grateful for a salary that cannot be counted but, rather, is measureless.