The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, March 30, 2009

Just when you think you have enough seeds...

Christopher, LJ, and MF tucking in seeds.

The whole world seemed to be swimming with seeds on Saturday. With help from our friends MF and LJ, Christopher and I mixed up four wheelbarrow loads of starter soil and planted 3,500 vegetable seeds.  An old friend from out of town arrived midway through the seeding frenzy, and pitched in to tuck in some pepper seeds.   As the day flew by and the seed packets kept on coming, I was beginning to feel that I had crossed some sort of threshold -- going beyond ordinary gardening passion into certifiable gardening madness.  I had clearly gone way beyond overboard with the seed catalogs.

It rained most of the day, and when the rain let up for a bit I walked down to the river with my old friend and her partner.  Our boots made sucking sounds as we mucked across the wet river valley, down past the pond and through bramble thickets to the banks of the Swannanoa River. The river was swollen and beautiful, and as is usually the case when there's been a big rain, trash was scattered along the water's edge, having washed down from somewhere upstream.   

I bent down to gather up the pieces of trash at my feet, and picked up a piece of plastic about the size of an index card.  I was about to tuck it in my pocket when I noticed words printed on the plastic: 

Cosmos flower seeds.  
Plant these seeds and watch them grow!  

The piece of plastic was actually a seed packet from a promotional event sponsored by a business association.  The packet was still ziplocked shut, and the seeds inside looked perfectly dry.  

Just when seeds were spilling out into every corner of my life, the river had brought me even more seeds!  

The gift of seeds from the river felt like a blessing on our day of planting.  I took it as a reassurance that the abundance of seeds in our lives was a powerful goodness.  I'll scatter the cosmos seeds in the garden later this Spring, and see if they turn out to be viable after a trip down the Swannanoa River from who-knows-where!  

Waiting for the first seedlings in the hoophouse to show their bright green heads, I am feeling deeply grateful for community, for growing things, and for unexpected gifts.


Mixing starter soil using the fabulous Sugar Creek Farm recipe ... the masks are to avoid breathing particulate minerals and dust.

Filling the cell packs.

Pepper seeds.

This is almost all of the flats full of seeds...I think we did another 7 or 8 trays after this shot.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Kick It Root Down: Planting Potatoes

Potato varieties.  Click to enlarge.

We planted the first of the potatoes today--four 40-foot rows plus a bit more.  Five varieties went in the ground today: a very old fingerling variety called Ozette; another fingerling, Rose Finn, a tasty favorite of mine; the famous and ubiquitous Yukon Gold; a beautiful pinky-white heirloom called Early Rose; and the silky-skinned Maris Piper.  All were ordered from Ronningers out of Colorado.  These varieties (pictured above) added up to 12 pounds of seed potatoes -- only 28 more pounds to plant!

Full-throttle garden season is about to begin.  Bring it!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Food Not Lawns at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave!

Today Michelle Obama and twenty-three fifth graders will begin digging to create a vegetable garden at the White House. 


It gets better: 

Raised beds. Compost. Bee hives. The whole family pulling weeds. 

Read my previous posts on the subject here and here.

Happy Equinox, and here's to a planet in balance and life in balance.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's Growing in the Garden Now


Fava Beans





Not pictured, but growing strong: multiplier onions, regular onions, and various perennial herbs.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Hoop(house) Dreams

Well, our hoophouse was was finally finished Sunday night and is now ready to house our thousands (!!) of spring starts.  

The photos above are from several weeks ago, when C. began work on building the east and west walls, wearing his stylish insulated onesie.  As the snow was coming down, it was great to imagine the warm little cocoon that the hoophouse would provide for greens through the winter months and seedlings in the spring. We'll also grow tomatoes in there this summer, rolling the sides up as it gets hotter, with the plastic above protecting the plants from rain to prevent blight.  

The hoophouse is 40 feet long by 16 feet wide.  We built its side walls with sustainably-harvested lumber -- 2 x 4's from the Warren Wilson College sawmill just across the river from us -- and salvaged plywood from several years of construction-site dumpster diving and various other salvage endeavors.  The hoops and plastic we got super-cheap from friends who had to quit farming several year ago.  Back in 2007, we had a hoophouse raising on my birthday, and friends and family helped us put up the main body of the structure.  With a free salvaged door and a soon-to-be-purchased exhaust fan, the hoophouse will be grow-ready for about $500 total.

As the hoophouse walls went up, we participated in a time-honored February tradition among gardeners: dreaming of luscious summer vegetables while slogging through cold, wet weather waiting, waiting, waiting for Spring.    Now that our first greenhouse is finally ready, we'll fill it up with flats full of seeds next week and commence to growing. After seed-starting season is over, we'll build raised beds inside that will be used for tomatoes in the summer and greens and brassicas over the winter.  

Here's to the hoops!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Prize-winning Moussaka

At left: seasonaly-appropriate Greek goddesses Persephone and Demeter with recipe-appropriate mushroom 
held aloft between them.

So, I emerged triumphant from last weekend's Casserole Cookoff , taking home the "most original" prize and tying for "best overall"--brag, brag.  One of my co-competitors asked me to send him my recipe, and once it was all typed up I thought I would post it here as well.  So here is my attempt to reconstruct my non-traditional Vegetarian Potato Mushroom Moussaka. 

Moussaka is a Greek dish usually made with eggplant. Mine has no eggplant and incorporates a fake meat product, to which I am normally diametrically opposed.  The extra chewy spicy layer created by the fake pepperoni in this recipe is worth an exception to my usual no-fake-meat rule.

Here is an approximate recipe:

Mushroom sauce and white sauce adapted from Mollie Katzen recipes.

You will need:

• A bunch of potatoes (8? 10?)
• 3 large portabella mushrooms
• A bunch of fresh parsley (flat-leaf is best!)—about ¼ cup chopped leaves
• 8-12 cloves garlic, crushed and chopped
• Tbs dried oregano
• ¼ cup dry red wine
• ½ cup or so basil pesto
• ½ cup or so bread crumbs
• 8 oz Swiss cheese, grated into thick shreds
• 2 oz finely shredded Parmesan cheese
• 8 eggs
• ¼ cup flour
• 2 ½ cups milk at room temp
• Vegetarian fake pepperoni slices (or I suppose you could use real pepperoni)
• 6 oz tomato paste
• Butter
• Salt, pepper
• Olive oil sufficient for frying

1. Cut the potatoes into thick rounds. Heat olive oil and butter in a skillet, sprinkle with salt, and fry the potatoes lightly until brown, flipping to give both sides a little bit of crispy, greasy, browning effect. They don’t need to be completely cooked through, because they’re going to be baked. Grind on some pepper if you want while they’re frying.

2. Beat 4 eggs. Set aside.

3. Make the mushroom sauce:  de-stem the portabellas and slice or chop the caps coarsely; crush and chop the garlic. Sauté the mushrooms and garlic in butter in a big, heavy-bottomed soup pot. Once they are nice and buttery and sautéed, add tomato paste, parsley, oregano, ½ tsp salt, a few grinds of pepper, and the red wine. Simmer until the liquid is absorbed. Then, add bread crumbs, about ¾ of the Swiss cheese, and the 4 beaten eggs.

4. Generously butter a large casserole or cast iron dutch oven. Cover the bottom with a layer of fried potato slabs. Add a layer of pepperoni or fake pepperoni. Then top that with half of the mushroom sauce. Add another layer of potatoes, followed by a layer of pesto, another layer of pepperoni, and then the rest of the mushroom sauce.

5. Make the white sauce: melt ½ cup butter over a low flame. Slowly whisk flour into butter with a constant motion, making a roux. Once you have the roux made, whisk in the milk. Cook, whisking, until thick. Then separate eggs and beat in 4 egg yolks.  

6. Pour the white sauce over the assembled layers. Sprinkle on extra bread crumbs, the rest of the grated Swiss, and the Parmesan.

7. Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes, covered. Then remove lid and bake for an additional 15 minutes.


I am not sure what made this "original" --fake meat? eggplantless moussaka?--but CF thinks it was considered original because it was cooked on/in a woodstove.  I can't promise that yours will taste the same without the magic of cast iron and wood-fired cooking, but have at it!

Here's to Spring, when we move away from such thick and fatty wintery foods to more delicate fare ... I promise my next recipe post will be lighter and include green vegetables!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

On Refrigeration

At left: our strange and wonderful fridge.

Refrigeration Revalations

In building our little house over the past two years, CF and I have nerdily obsessed over many things, logging hundreds (thousands?) of hours of research in choosing the most ecological options within our limited budget. One of the things we decided to spend some serious money on was our refrigerator.

Our goal is to be on a solar/photovoltaic (PV) system in the near future. With that in mind, we have been working to get our energy load as low as possible so that our whole house can soon be powered by a small and simple solar array. In the meantime, we want to buy as little as possible of Progress Energy's power, which mostly comes from the Evil Twins of energy: coal and nuclear.

As a sidenote here's an energy-saving tip: I have found that when you refer to your appliances and gadgets as the "coal- and nuclear- fired whatever," it tends to help motivate you to reduce desire to use it. For instance: "I'm going to go get the wrinkles out of this shirt with the coal-fired iron" kind of puts ironing in perspective.

So back to the fridge. Refrigeration is a big energy suck. Almost 100% of American households keep a relatively large amount of food chilled and frozen 24-hours a day, which requires a lot of electricity. In a typical US household, refrigeration can account for up to 20% of the total energy load. In our household, we calculated that refrigeration would be a lot larger percentage of our total since our total load was so small relative to the typical US household. So we set out to see how little energy we could expend keeping food cold.

The refrigerator we finally decided upon after much agonizing is pictured above: the Conserv by Vestfrost. Tall, elegant, efficient, and made in Denmark, Vestfrost fridges are styley enough that some people buy them just for looks. But they are brainy as well as beautiful.

Here are some of the very cool features of Vestfrost refrigerators:
  • No CFCs used to manufacture or run the appliance; CFC-free refrigerant and foam
  • Freezer on the bottom because cold air sinks and warmer air rises. Duh! Why are all fridges not designed this way?
  • Smaller footprint (see "downsize your fridge," below)
  • Less than 1 kwh/day to run, which is way ahead of the standard "Energy Star" rated fridges widely available on the US market. More information on the inadequacy of "Energy Star" ratings here.
After much consideration, we ordered our Vestfrost about a year ago from out of Brooklyn, which had the lowest price and best deal on shipping that we could find. Oasis Montana also sells them, and has a lot of good information on Vestfrost fridges here.

Our Vestfrost was shipped as freight and was definitely more complicated to acquire than a standard fridge from the local bigbox. It was also considerably more expensive up front (just under $1,000), though it will pay for itself in electric bills, no doubt.

These fridges are known to be reliable over many years, and are not complicated to repair. We know a family in our community who has an older model Vestfrost that they've been running for more than a decade, and there are lots of reviews online from satisfied long-term Vestfrost owners.

Typical American super-sized fridge full
of crapola.

Downsize Your Fridge

One way that the Vestfrost saves energy is by being smaller than the typical super-sized American fridge. The average capacity of a standard fridge in the US is 18-26 cubic feet. The Vestfrost has about half that: 7.1 cubic feet of refrigerator space and 3.4 cubic feet of freezer space. In terms of energy efficiency in refrigeration and freezing, it is better to have less space and have it packed more tightly than to have lots of empty cooled space.

"But what if we don't have enough space for all of our food?!?" Despite our decidedly counterculture leanings, CF and I obviously had some level of buy-in to the "BIGGER! BETTER! MORE!" mentality that pervades American culture. We found ourselves asking this question with an edge of panic in our voices as we discussed refrigeration options.

If a Big Mac is better than a regular cheeseburger, then a Big Fridge must be better than a small one, right? In addition to the status-symbol factor of fancy appliances (see Dwell, Natural Home, or any number of fancy home magazines), I think that our culture places a high value on having a large fridge full of lots of perishables at all time--it's a kind of false security. It's as if we believe that a big, packed fridge will make us safe in an unsafe world. So CF and I decided to let go of the false sense of food security that is engrained into us by mainstream American culture and--gasp--downsize our fridge.

In other parts of the world, people don't think that everything has to be kept at 38 degrees all the time. And they don't think that they need a large quantity of refrigerated stuff to be happy and secure. In my travels throughout Europe and Latin America I have observed that people tend not to refrigerate everything, and also not to stockpile food the way folks do in the US.

When I lived in Ireland, I noticed that no one refrigerated butter or eggs. In many countries, it is more typical to buy fresh produce at the market, bread at the breadshop, and a small bottle of milk daily or several times a week than to fill up your giant fridge with gallons of milk, dozens of eggs, and stacks and stacks of processed food products that need refrigeration. My guess would be that cultures that buy food more frequently and stockpile less are wasting less food, too.

A beautiful old root cellar

Alternatives to Refrigeration

When storing quantities of food is necessary, there are lots of ways to do it that don't require ongoing use of electricity, and in some cases don't require any electricity at all. Many of these preservation methods are ancient culinary traditions that produce delicious foods.

Alternatives to refrigeration include:
  • Brining. Examples: pickles, sour kraut, relishes.
  • Salting (meats). Examples: Cured ham.
  • Drying (meats, shell beans, herbs, vegetables, fruits). Examples: raisins, dried apples, sundried tomatoes, dried beans.
  • Souring or culturing (dairy). Examples: cheese, sour cream, buttermilk, yogurt.
  • Canning/heat processing. Examples: tomato sauce, canned fruits and vegetables.
  • Cellaring/Cool storage. Examples: potatoes, cabbage, apples, and all manner of root crops. This can be as simple as storing potatoes in a cool, dark basement or as complicated as building a root cellar.
  • Buying or harvesting food fresh more frequently and storing it for less time (see my comments above on what people in other parts of the world do).
  • Eating in season fresh from the garden. The taste beats the hell out of refrigerated food, too.
On Upsides and Compromises

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a total refrigeration Luddite. I am grateful for the technology of mechanical refrigeration. It improves my quality of life, and I know it has many important functions (such as preserving medicines and medical supplies) that are invisible to most of us. If nothing else, I am grateful to have a constant supply of mayonaisse available to me without a lot of effort, thanks to my fridge.

So, I am not suggesting that we all revert to root cellars, kraut crocks, and spring houses alone, but I do think that it is worth thinking about refrigeration and how much energy we spend keeping things cold.

Lastly, there are ways to make regular old inefficient fridges MORE efficient. If buying an over-the-top fridge of the future like the Vestfrost is not in your budget anytime soon, here is some great advice from Chelsea Green on how to make the most of your current refrigeration technology:

So there you have it. A whole post on refrigeration. Who would have thunk?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Invoking Spring

The snow is melting today, pussywillows are beginning to bloom, and the redwing blackbirds have returned.   The expectation of Spring is so thick you can taste it!  

It feels like time to summon Spring.  

by May Sarton

Come out of the dark earth 
Here where the minerals 
Glow in their stone cells 
Deeper than seed or birth. 

Come under the strong wave 
Here where the tug goes 
As the tide turns and flows 
Below that architrave. 

Come into the pure air 
Above all heaviness 
Of storm and cloud to this  
Light-possessed atmosphere.  

Come into, out of, under  
The earth, the wave, the air. 
Love, touch us everywhere  
With primeval candor. 

May Sarton



Sunday, March 1, 2009

Food Justice For All

"Food justice is everyone having enough to eat; healthy food for our children; food that doesn't contain harmful things that we don't know about; freedom to grow our own food; ability to buy food directly from farmers; fair wages for those who grow, cook and work with food." 

~ The Urban & Environmental Policy Institute 

Photo credit: AP/David Adame

Lately, in food and gardening circles, there has been more and more talk of food justice.  Even before the severity of the economic meltdown began to be apparent, local food, clean food, and slow food movements were being pushed from within and from without to address issues of access to healthy food and justice for farm workers.  At the big Slow Food USA gathering in September, lack of attention to labor rights, food elitism, and food justice in general were rightly called out.  These issues were finally brought to the Slow Food USA table last fall, but people have been organizing around them for many years around the world.

I think that I first became aware of the concept of "food justice" when I read World Hunger: Twelve Myths by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins for a class in college.  ReadingTwelve Myths was one of those pivotal experiences in life -- it provided a lens through which I have seen the world ever since.  Beginning to understand the ways that food and social justice are related was similar for me to acquiring the lens of feminist theory: it gave me tools which with to understand the world around me and forever altered the way I would process information. 

Growing up in a family where Cesar Chavez was a household hero meant I had some awareness of farmworker rights from early on.  In the time I spent working as a union organizer, I began to understand labor issues around food -- namely the systematic violations of the basic human rights of the people who grow and harvest the food on our plates.

Twelve Myths, and the work of Food First: The Institute for Food and Development Policy, with which Lappe has been associated for many years, are still critical sources for me when thinking about the politics of food.  Farmworkers' rights organizations (several of which are listed in the resources at the bottom of this post) continue to expand my understanding of labor and human rights issues related to food.

My participation in the local food movement has been largely driven by a kind of personal "triple bottom line" -- wanting to eat the healthiest food possible; wanting to make the most ecologically responsible food choices; and wanting to know the people who grow and harvest my food and value their work, which produces the food on my plate.  

It has been encouraging to see the new attention being paid to food justice issues from within the local/slow/organic food movements lately.  Coincidentally or not, several "food challenge" projects have also cropped up lately to document the difficulty of feeding the family in the economic system that we live in -- particularly in light of the declines in wages and employment coupled with ever-escalating food prices.  Two that I'm aware of are:


These food challenge diaries expose the injustice of hunger in lands of plenty (Canada and the US) and draw attention to the economic realities that so many people are up against in their day-to-day food lives.

It seems that the recent economic downturn, which we're told by President Obama could well turn into an economic catastrophe of Great Depression-proportions, has created an environment where the value of growing food, community food security, and food justice are on the tips of tongues all over the country.  

Some good reading along these lines: 

Four Food Groups of the Apocalypse on Food Justice Blog

Other reccomended food justice resources: