The Milkweed Diaries

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snow Melts, Revealing Food

There is still snow on the ground here in the valley, leftover from The Big Snowstorm (12+ inches fell on December 18). Last evening Christopher harvested some hardy greens from unprotected garden beds, our first harvest since the snow.

These collards (pictured above and below, photographed today) were covered with a foot of snow for more than a week, and they are definitely not as lush-looking as collards in the height of summer, but they taste so sweet from the cold! Apparently, plants convert starches to sugars with cold temperatures, so winter greens in the brassica family are often far sweeter than those harvested in summer.

A heavy straw mulch helps with the cold hardiness. We grow two heirloom collard varieties, Morris Heading and Georgia Southern, both of which have overwintered in our garden in years past with only heavy mulch for protection. With one layer of row cover in addition to the mulch, collards easily overwinter in our climate. We're taking the lazy approach with the remaining summer greens this winter, foregoing the row cover and just letting them go as long as they will with mulch.

Brassicas and chard leftover from summer are about the extent of our winter harvest these days. But in related news: the hoophouse is almost ready for our first Eliot Coleman-style attempt at starting cold-hardy greens in winter for an ultra-early spring harvest. Eventually, the goal is 4-season harvest of a wide variety of salad and cooking greens, root crops, and some of the other more cold-hardy vegetables.

In the meantime, we have collards in late December, thanks to the power of mulch, the natural fortitude of the collard plant, and farmers and gardeners long ago who selected these varieties over time for cold-hardiness.

Winter greens are such a welcome treat. My old friend Andrew was in town last night and we shared a hearty winter meal of fresh sauteed collards, black beans that we grew and last summer, and Flying Cloud Farm sweet potatoes, all seasoned with a healthy amount of Creole garlic cured last July. Yum.

Morris Heading collards, above, form a loose cabbage-like head which falls apart when harvested, offering up pale, tender, blanched inner leaves.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve Gratitude

"When you boil it down, I am a sap." - My sister Mary, 12/24/09

This evening, I pulled some of our homegrown winter squash out of storage to cook for Christmas Eve dinner. I was cutting into a butternut when I started to tear up. Scooping seeds and pulp out of beautiful orange butternuts and creamy yellow Thelma Sanders Sweet Potato Squash, I just felt overwhelmed by gratitude.

The moment of opening up a winter squash--this hard, dry object--and discovering luscious, nutritious, soft, smooth food inside is incredible enough. Even though I have cut into thousands of winter squash in my lifetime, it just never stops amazing me. And knowing that we midwifed this food into the world in our very own garden and carefully kept it in storage for a midwinter feast just feels like a profound gift.

As I stood there at the chopping block scooping seeds with my eyes teary, Vienna Teng's "City Hall," which gets me every time anyway, came up on Pandora, and it was all over. I just cried and scooped, scooped and cried.

While it is probably not winter squash and gay marriage ballads that do it for most people, 'tis the season for gushy emotion, gratitude, and loving sweetness. For me this time of year is about rituals of connection with the family I've chosen, with the family I was born into, and with the family that extends out to all living things on the planet. It was great to let the emotion flow and know that there's a big pool of this sort of gushy love and gratitude out there right now.

CF and I are headed over to my sister's house in a bit for Christmas Eve dinner with my family, and we'll be bringing that emotion-infused winter squash and other concoctions featuring cabbage from Flying Cloud Farm, onions, garlic, and celery from our garden, carrots from Gladheart Farm, and Spinning Spider goat cheese. I'm so grateful for the family I was born into and the family I've found and formed in my life so far. Though I don't celebrate Christmas in any sort of Christian way, I am deeply grateful for the gift of nourishing food grown with care, passed down from food-growing ancestors, and for rituals that celebrate our connection to each other.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Welcome Sun!

Left: Newgrange passage on Winter Solstice

In honor of the Winter Solstice today, here's a video that gives us the opportunity, albiet in 2x3 inch form, to witness a Winter Solstice event created by neolithic farmers:

The video shows the sunrise on Winter Solstice at Newgrange, a beautiful neolithic structure in Ireland engineered to observe and honor the Solstice.

More about Newgrange here:

I have been lucky enough to spend time at Newgrange several times in my travels in Ireland over the years. It is awe-inspiring -- the structure is 5,000 years old and its design is brilliant both technically and artistically.

Sidenote for you natural building aficianados out there: its a south-facing bermed structure with a living roof that hasn't leaked in all those thousands of years.

Newgrange is a beautiful symbol of the winter solstice, and resonates deep, deep down for me -- maybe it's molecular, maybe it's the collective unconscious.

Winter Solstice has always been a significant time for my family -- sometimes full of joy and other times marked by profound grief and loss.

It is the longest night, a time to notice and know darkness, a time to honor the dark, a time to honor the dead. It is a time to sit with the painful and the difficult things, with loss, with despair. It's the dead of winter.

And: it is the birthday of the sun--the birthday of light in the midst of the darkest time of year. A turning point, the return of the light, a time of transformation, a time of hope, and a time of rebirth.

In many ancient traditions, Winter Solstice is a time to honor the way that life emerges from death, light emerges from dark in the cycles of the natural world. A time to look forward to Spring and Summer and the bright, hot months when everything will be in fruit and flower, imagining what will come to be.

Solstice morning on the farm

For gardeners, this time of year is a time of planning the garden, deciding what seeds you will plant, what food you will grow. On a metaphorical level, the Winter Solstice is a time for the same sort of setting of intentions, dreaming, imagining good things to come.

The seed is a beautiful symbol of the Winter Solstice to me -- a tiny dormant thing, seemingly lifeless but full of potential, full of life that will sprout, grow, bloom, and fruit as the cycle continues. Today, I will excavate some vegetable seeds from the jars where they live in the back of my fridge, and lay them on my altar, imagining all of the growing things to come!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Seed Shopping, Seed Saving, and Seed Sovereignty

"In Hindi, seed is bija or 'containment of life.' . . . Seed is created [by plants] to renew, to multiply, to be shared and to spread. Seed is life itself."
-Vandana Shiva, February 2009

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable."
-Neil Harl, agricultural economist, Iowa State University

Above: processing and sharing seeds at a seed swap last winter

'Tis the season of seeds. Seed catalogs arrive daily in my mailbox with their titillating images of flower and fruit. The seed catalog season kicks off just when serious withdrawal is beginning to hit and we are desperate for a fix -- grey overcast skies and icy temperatures sharpening the craving for the summer garden's sensual pleasures.

With seeds, as with most things that we value, the profit motive corrupts and predatory capitalism corrupts utterly. The most egregious example of this corruption is the Monsanto corporation. It is mindboggling to imagine what Monsanto has done: they have taken the wholesome, life-giving, generous nature of the seed and hoarded it, pressed it into ownership, and manipulated it for profit.

The idea that the genetic material in seeds could be "intellectual property" belonging to a corporation violates everything I hold sacred. But it is not only plant-loving dirt worshippers who should be concerned about what Monsanto is doing. A recent AP article explains: "Declining competition in the seed business could lead to price hikes that ripple out to every family's dinner table. That's because the corn flakes you had for breakfast, soda you drank at lunch and beef stew you ate for dinner likely were produced from crops grown with Monsanto's patented genes." Read the full article here.

In terms of food justice, the issue of who owns the means to produce food is critical. For gardeners and farmers who care about seed sovereignty, food justice, the future of food, and the sanctity of seed, the question quickly becomes how to avoid Monsanto. Far easier said than done. Monsanto is everywhere. Especially in the world of seeds. Let me repeat one of the quotes with which I began: "Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics)." Shopping for seeds and trying to avoid Monsanto is like shopping for anything else and trying to avoid "Made in China."

Seed may be organic, heirloom, and sold by a hippified little seed company, and still be ultimately sourced from or owned by Monsanto. I discovered a while back that Monsanto seeds were being sold in a number of my standby seed catalogs, including Territoral Seeds, Cook's Garden, Burpee, and Johnny's. I wrote a post [which you can read here: "Are Monsanto Seeds in YOUR favorite Seed Catalog?"] including a link to a thread on Freedom Gardens with information about all of the seed companies that carry Monsanto seeds--this discussion on the forum is very informative and contains a ton of factual information about which companies and which varieties are coming from Monsanto, and what we can do to avoid buying them.

My number one recommendation for seed shoppers looking to avoid Monsanto is this:

Fedco, a consumer- and worker- owned cooperative company that carries a staggering variety of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds as well as plenty of modern hybrids, made a decision three years ago to drop all Monsanto varieties from their catalog. This was a major risk, given that their largest supplier at that point was Seminis, which had just been acquired by Monsanto.

Fedco has a great overview of how and why the company's owners (workers and consumers) made the decision to eliminate Monsanto seeds, and how they've implemented it here. Their explanation of their seed sourcing policy is really worth a read -- they assert that "too many of us have allowed seed to become just another industrial input rather than a life force" and offer a thorough, studied view of the seed industry as a whole and how to make ethical seed choices.

I highly recommend Fedco as a seed source -- not only do they guarantee no Monsanto varieties and no GMOs, but their prices are significantly lower than most other sources. Sometimes they will sell a variety for a third of the price of some of the big corporate-owned companies like Seeds of Change (now owned by M & M Mars).

Seeds changing hands at the Heritage Harvest Festival.

Seed exchanges by their nature refuse the paradigm of corporate seed ownership. Even better than buying from Fedco is exchanging seeds outside the money economy all together, or buying from individual seed savers.

From local seed swaps to the grandmother of them all, Seed Savers Exchange, seed trading networks are an excellent alternative to Monsanto. Seed Savers Exchange publishes the incredible "Yearbook" -- a listing of seeds available for sale and trade from thousands of members all over the world, and also has a nice, glossy catalog that can compete with any seed catalog garden porn, if you're into that sort of thing (I am). Another small company that I recommend is Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is particularly great for gardeners in the American South wanting to grow heirloom varieties from our region.

If you are going to buy from companies other than these (I still buy a few things from Baker Creek, for instance, a militantly anti-GMO heirloom seed purveyor) make sure at the very least that the company you're buying from has signed the "Safe Seed Pledge" assuring that your seeds will not contain GMOs. The pledge was created ten yeas ago by a group of seed companies led by High Mowing Seeds and states:

"Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities."

One final thought:

In the face of growing corporate ownership of seed genetics, saving and sharing seed is a radical act of resistance, and an embodiment of the world we want to create. My mantra is: buy seed now if you must (I must), and save and share seeds as much as humanly possible!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

All Hail the Mighty Fava!

Q. The fava bean is:

A) a cover crop
B) a delicacy
C) a soil aeration tool
D) an ornamental plant
E) a fertilizer factory
F) all of the above.

If you guessed "all of the above," congratulations. Yes, the fava is all that. And more.

Like many McDonalds-eating teenagers, I had never heard of fava beans until I saw "Silence of the Lambs" in high school and heard Dr. Hannibal Lecter's now-famous "with a nice chianti" remark. I didn't taste favas until sometime in my twenties, and ever since I have eaten them every chance I get. Fresh favas are juicy, buttery, and silky; dry favas are fat, nutty, and meaty, sticking to your ribs in a deeply satisfying way.

Technically, favas are not really beans, at least botanically speaking. Favas, vicia faba, are a legume in the vetch family, and one of the most ancient cultivated plants. But from a cooking and eating point of view, they look, feel, taste, and are cooked like beans -- savored fresh in the shell stage or as "gigantes" -- giant dry beans for winter eating.

From a gardening point of view, the non-bean status is clear, though. While beans can only be planted when the soil is warm and grow fast and furious in the heat of summer, favas like a long, cool growing season. We plant them in December, and harvest them in the Spring. They fill a great niche in the garden, growing when nothing else does, in the coldest months of the year.

And all that time they're growing, favas are making nitrogen and storing it around their roots in the soil. As nitrogen fixers, they literally produce fertilizer out of thin air. And their fiberous root systems grow and spread all through the winter and early spring, breaking up hard soil and aerating the garden beds. By the time you chop up the plants (in late May or early June here), the place where the favas were planted is full of the nitrogen-rich, loose and deeply aerated soil that gardeners dream of. Perfect for planting warm-season crops as soon as the favas are done!

Favas are such a good cover crop that some large-scale farmers use them solely for that purpose, tilling them under as green manure without even harvesting the beans. That would be a tragic waste to my mind.

We're planting five pounds of fava beans this month as a winter cover crop. They'll provide one of the earliest spring harvests from our garden and we'll eat them, dry them, and sell them fresh at the tailgate market.

Favas are one of the crops that we're experimenting with in our no-till system -- we've never tilled the rich and loose soil you can see in the photo above. We have been able to put worms and plants to work for us --starting out with cardboard/straw sheetmulch and allowing worms to breaking up the soil, then aerating with a broadfork, and then planting crops that loosen and aerate the soil with their root systems.

As if the food value and soil-building value of favas were not enough, the icing on the cake is their ornamental value. To my eye, their black and white pea-like flowers are elegant and lovely. Favas are one of the earliest plants to bloom in our garden, their flowers little bright spots against the vigorous, bushy green leaves of the fava plant. All of that green is a welcome sight in early spring, too, when most of the rest of the garden still looks fairly drab.

So here's to the fava, gourmet delicacy, garden workhorse, spring garden jewel, and sustenence-provider since ancient times. Viva la fava!

Favas planted last December, growing in early March of this year.

Favas in the garden in May

Big old juicy pods on the fava plants in May

Favas ready for shelling, May 2009.

More on favas at Foodista:
Fava Beans on Foodista