In Search of the Lean Six Life

Smarter, not harder. Preferrably A LOT smarter.


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How to Suck at Gardening and Still Feed Your Family

I am not the world’s best gardener, but I think I have unlocked the biggest secret to achieving some kind of success at growing and harvesting your own food.

Perseverance.

Last year, my strawberry crop was decimated by storms of Biblical proportions that flooded cities and washed away roads. Honestly I was “lucky” that my biggest loss was a few gallons of strawberries.

This spring, the weather continues to be bipolar – running the heat a few days as temps plummet into the 40s over night, in May! And then flipping on the AC less than a week later. But the precipitation has remained at manageable levels. With a little supplemental drip irrigation, my strawberries have flourished.

(Although I always found it strange that my Junebearing strawberries produce fruit in May… possibly due to their location on the warmer side of the house.)

Strawberries galore!

Strawberries galore!

So far, I have harvested enough strawberries to be worth sorting them. Unheard of. Normally we eat whatever we can, and freeze whatever remains before they can go bad. The frozen berries get used in smoothies and baked goods throughout the year until the next crop. This abundance despite the fact that a skunk has taken up residence under our shed (sigh) and helps herself to several berries each night (deeper sigh).

When sorting, I save the biggest and ripest for eating. These sit out on my kitchen counter, where they lure the children into eating something healthy. (Yay, fresh fruit!)

The smallest and lumpiest berries I put aside for the freezer. Berries with too many seeds as well. Since these will get cooked into desserts or blended into smoothies, their size and awkward shape matters less.

Strawberries for Eating (left), Freeze Drying (center), and Freezing (right)

Strawberries for eating (left), freeze drying (center), and freezing (right)… the lighting really doesn’t do justice to the colors!

The third category – new for me this year! – includes the berries of decent size which just aren’t quite ripe enough. Picked when not quite at their flavor peak… picked a day or two early to ensure the skunk doesn’t get them first! These are getting sliced then processed in our Harvest Right freeze dryer. Because the freeze dryer removes all moisture from the fruit, the weak, watery flavor of less ripe fruit becomes concentrated into delicious thin, crispy wafers.

Half the batch gets saved for long term storage (up to 25 years, if the ads are correct) and the other half gets scarfed down even faster than the fresh berries. (While drinking plenty of water, of course.)

Point being, if I had let last year’s disaster discourage and derail me, if I had quit following the loss of the whole harvest, I wouldn’t be enjoying the bounty now. Of course, who knows what next year will bring! Good ol’ Maryland!


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Garden End, Winter 2018-2019

In the face of arctic cold, with snow blanketing the ground, I brought my 2018 – 2019 winter garden to a close.

This year, I coddled three different beds with a variety of cold-hardy crops, all the way into mid-January. We’ve never made it this long.

In exchange for my diligence in covering the beds when the cold- threatened, and peeling back the protective layers when the sun returned, yesterday I harvested:

  • Several small daikon radishes
  • Broccoli rabe
  • A singular carrot
  • Two parsnips
  • A variety of kale and chard leaves
  • Three small cabbages
  • More salsify than I know how to use
  • A few random hakurei turnips
  • A teensy little spinach

Winter gardening lessons I learned this year:

  • These crops all survived when temps unexpectedly dropped into the nid-20s one night. The straw tucked around them kept them alive even though the beds were exposed. (The forecast only called for lows around freezing… that’s what I get for believing the weathermen.)
  • Temps in the upper 20s / low 30s barely phased these plants.
  • Daikon radishes and hakurei turnips actually germinated and grew despite the cold.
  • I need to plant only in the centers of the boxes because the soil freezes at the sides.
  • I need to invest in better cold frames and low tunnels.
  • Winter gardening is tricky because most cold weather plants won’t germinate in the summer heat; but by the time it’s cold enough to germinate, it’s too late for them to reach a decent size to survive into the winter months.
  • I hope I like salsify! I planted it because I couldn’t find any grocery stores that carried it – now I have a ton of it! And by a ton, I mean around a pound. Which is a lot when you don’t know how a vegetable tastes!


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Garden FAIL

You guys … I think I need a new blog. Or maybe a new series on this blog.

“How to totally suck at gardening and still feed your family.”

potato_fail

About half my potato plants are dead. And they were growing so beautifully too! *sobs*

I planted the seed potatoes in a 12″ deep, 4′ x 4′ garden box (with metal wire mesh across the bottom to keep the voles out), and hilled dirt around the stems as they grew. And then I added more and more soil as the plants got taller and taller. We eventually added a second 12″ tier to the box, and kept adding dirt. Potato tubers actually form on the stems, so the more stem you bury, the more potatoes. Right? Right!

Well, unless in the process of adding dirt, you damaged the stems, and then when you piled on more dirt, it compacted everything around the original injury, and then it RAINED LIKE NOAH’S FLOOD, crushing the dirt further and rotting the poor potato stems.

At least, that is what I guess happened. It could also be bacterial wilt due to the very wet conditions over the past few weeks. Or some other mysterious potato affliction I have never even heard of.

Yeah, I think I have mastered “how to suck at gardening”. Now, if only I can figure out the “and still feed your family” part!


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Welcome Weeds, Week Ending May 27

I’m not going to debate climate change with you.

Either you believe that the earth is warming, leading to increasingly erratic global weather patterns – in which case I don’t have to convince you.

Or you don’t believe it – in which case nothing I can say will make you believe otherwise.

After all, the climate change debate inspires more devout and feverish faith than dietary preferences. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, make some room for me under that rock of yours!)

What I do know is that the Maryland weather this spring has had more mood swings than my 15 year old daughter, which REALLY says a lot. April averaged cool and dry, punctuated by occasional days with temperatures in the 90s. May brought with it more warm and muggy temperatures – it was like we skipped straight from late winter to summer – complete with flooding and a hailstorm that shredded everything green and leafy in my yard.

To be blunt, my spring garden is in shambles. Which is why today, I am showcasing the weeds to which I find myself turning in the absence of the vegetables I should have been harvesting by now. (Yes, I’ve covered many of these before, but it doesn’t hurt to showcase them again!)

Yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris) – used raw, it makes a tasty, peppery addition to salads. Bonus: high levels of vitamin C.

Yellow Rocket

Yellow Rocket

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is just starting to come up. Yes, in my garden beds. No, I will not remove it … yet. Purslane is also an excellent salad edition – leaves stems and all – and is a great plant source for omega 3 essential fatty acids.

Purslane Seedling

Purslane Seedling

New colonies of chickweed (Stellaria media) continue to crop up around my garden despite the heat, and continue to find their way into my salad bowl.

Chickweed

Chickweed

Lamb’s quarter (Chenopodium album) (or lambsquarter if you prefer) – another nutritional powerhouse. Currently my go-to green for cooking, since something fluffy, brown and hopping decimated the kale that managed to grow despite the weather.

Lambsquarter

Lambsquarter

And of course, spring’s dandelions seeds (Taraxacum officinale) find their way into any available space. This little guy is small enough to still enjoy raw, but I might let him grown a little longer to use in sauteed greens.

Dandelion

Dandelion

Hopefully the weather calms down some … hahahahahahahaha! OK, I couldn’t type that with a straight face. What I meant was, hopefully wild edibles will continue to adapt to the crazy weather faster than I and my garden can, so there will still be local, fresh vegetables to enjoy!


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Weathering the Weather

This week, I should have been enjoying my first real strawberry harvest.

This year, one of my gardening goals was to take better care of my plants, making sure they had plenty of space and healthy dirt and fertilizer. Taking a more proactive approach to gardening, as it were, rather than always playing defense against my garden foes. For instance, aphids often infest my strawberry plants, but if the plants are healthy they can still produce decent fruit.

They loved the attention. My strawberries were healthier and happier and thrived.

Strawberry Bed

Strawberry Bed

And then the storms and rain hit last week. Tuesday night, the hail drummed our house for 45 minutes. The storm Tuesday night resulted in local waterways flooding, and Catoctin Creek literally washed away parts of the road I live on. (Luckily, we live further uphill so weren’t impacted by the flooding.) The streets of downtown Frederick, MD gushed with water.

My strawberry crop is, in a word, ruined.

Sad Strawberry Mush

Sad Strawberry Mush

In a brief break in the rain yesterday, I cleaned out as much of the damaged, diseased, and rotting fruit as I could. Removed leaves clinging to broken stems. Even plucked off unripe fruit that was already showing water spots. (PSA: half rotten mushy strawberries may be the grossest things to touch. Ever.)

I shouldn’t complain, right? My livelihood doesn’t depend on these berries; my family won’t starve as a result of a lost crop. And many people suffered much worse as a result of the weather.

But it’s still a humbling reminder that whatever humans might think we control in the world, we are still entirely at the mercy of – and ultimately dependent on – the good will of Mother Nature.


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Well… Chit

If you read my post yesterday (but missed my reply to Carolee, of the Herbal Blessings Blog), you might be wondering why I would ever have planted peas last Sunday, knowing there was a snow storm in the forecast.

In a word: chit.

That’s right. I said it. In my blog, no less.

After reading (most of) Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, I decided to try chitting as a way of jump starting seed germination. The approach is similar to sprouting seeds to eat, except when the roots are just becoming prominent, you plant the seeds in prepared soil. If you wait too long, the fragile roots grow increasingly susceptible to damage when planting.

Chitting takes three to four days, and in the Mid-Atlantic you NEVER know what the forecast will be in a few days, much less a week.  In other words, when the seedlings are ready to plant, you plant – oncoming winter storm or no.

… or you let them fully mature into tasty pea sprouts, and try chitting a new batch in another week! (That’s probably what I’ll do next time.)


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Happy First Day of Spring!

Spring Arrives in Maryland

Spring arrives in Maryland – bringing with it snow

Of course, I’d already planted something. Peas, last weekend when it was sunny and mid-50s. I recently learned that cold, wet seedlings are susceptible to a fatal fungal disease calling “damping off.” I’m sorry, pea seedlings.

One of my garden goals this year is helping my veggies flourish by giving them an optimal environment: more room to grow, consistent fertilizer, and ideal amounts of sun, warmth and moisture for their needs.

…ooops?