The Milkweed Diaries

Monday, January 26, 2009

Grow Food

I love the idea of creating these Obama-esque images to replace the cult of personality/idol worship aspect of Obamamania with power-to-the-people.  What excites me most about the Obama presidency is the increased potential for power to spread out among more of us, for all of us to be agents of change, for all of us to put hope into action.  I am not counting on Barack to fix everything or even to do the right thing all of the time.  I am counting on us to hold him accountable and wield our own power to make positive change in the world.  

At an anti-Prop 8 rally, my friend K. and I inadvertantly ended up holding a banner that said "People of Faith for Just Relationships." We laughed about it because we are people of faith, deep faith, but not necessarily in the way that the words on the banner were meant. I have faith not so much in a "higher power" but in a deeper, broader, more universal power--the power that resides in all of us and in all life.  I have faith in the power of community, of creativity, of the earth and her living systems, of people coming together. I believe in the healing and redemptive power of love, compassion, and active hope. I have faith in our power to heal and to regenerate, and in the planet's power to heal and regenerate.  

So here's to being a person of faith ... and to an ethic of shared power and power-from-within replacing the ethic of power-over.

And more power to ya!

Seed Potatoes

Purple Peruvian, a very old fingerling potato variety available from Ronningers.

I just placed our seed potato order from Ronninger's Potato Farm.

Ronninger's offers an amazing variety of reasonably-priced seed potatoes, including certified organic and also what they call "naturally grown" which they describe as follows: "These are grown the same way as our certified organic potatoes, however, to save on time and costs, they were not inspected for their organic status."

Our 40 pounds of seed potatoes will be shipped on March 1, and we'll plant them in mid-March. 

Here are the varieties we're growing this year:

  • La Ratte  
  • All Blue
  • All Red  
  • Carola  
  • Early Rose  
  • Garnet Chili
  • German Butterball
  • Huckleberry
  • Maris Piper
  • Yukon Gold
  • Purple Peruvian
  • Rose Finn Apple
  • Ozette
So the first of the 2009 seeds have been ordered--to paraphrase Maurice Sendak, "let the garden rumpus begin!"

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Inaugural bread-baking in the woodstove

Here's the first bread baked in the wood cookstove yesterday on President Obama's first day in office:

Nantahala Herb & Onion Bread

This bread is a nostalgic favorite of mine.  It used to be made fresh daily at the Nantahala Outdoor Center resturant.  Maybe it still is, for all I know!  
  • 4 c water (I substituted whey leftover from raw milk cheese-making)
  • 1/4 c active dry yeast
  • 4 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp dried dill weed
  • 1 tsp dried rosemary leaf
  • 6 T sugar (I substituted honey for half of the sugar)
  • 1/4 c butter, melted
  • 1/2 c powedered milk (I omitted this. It's not necessary, especially if you're using whey instead of water)
  • 1 c onions, chopped
  • 10-11 c flour (i used 1/2 spelt and 1/2 whole wheat pastry flour)
  1. Combine water/whey, yeast, salt, dill, rosemary, sugar/honey, melted butter, powdered milk if you're using it, and onions.  
  2. Allow yeast to activate until mixture is bubbly, approximately 10-15 minutes
  3. Add flour.
  4. Mix by hand until uniform.   Turn dough onto floured surface and knead for 10 minutes.
  5. Put the dough someplace warm and allow it to rise until doubled, approximately 45 mintues.
  6. After dough rises, knead well.
  7. Shape into at least 3 loaves (you can also make more smaller loaves, but don't do fewer than 3 or you'll have a doughy center) and place in greased bread pans.
  8. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-55 minutes.  
  9. Brush tops of bread with butter after removing, and allow to cool or eat warm!
The smell of herb and onion bread baking in the oven is orgasmic. And breathing in that aroma as it fills the house to the soundtrack of newscasts about Obama's plans to close Guantanemo and reverse the global gag order qualifies as peak experience in my world.

Below: The Obamas greet visitors at the White House open house on President Obama's first day in office.



1.  occurring at or characteristic of a formal investiture or induction; "the President's inaugural address"; "an inaugural ball" 

2. marking the beginning of a new venture, serving to set in motion; "the magazine's inaugural issue";"the initiative phase in the negotiations"; "an initiatory step toward a treaty"; "his first speech in Congress"; "the liner's maiden voyage" 

Friday, January 16, 2009

Are Monsanto seeds in YOUR favorite seed catalog?

The various and sundry evil deeds of Monsanto have been thoroughly documented and much discussed in a variety of media over the past decade. The sprawling corporation is an agent of harm in so many diverse and horrifying ways that their name has become synonomous in many circles with profit-driven destruction of living systems.

Monsanto is considered by some to be the single most unethical and harmful investment possible. They are known, among other things, as the corporation that sues farmers for inadvertantly growing food contaminated with gene drift from Monsanto's GMO crops. If Monsanto's genetically modified seed cross-polinates with a farmer's crops, the farmer becomes a victim of GMO pollution, and then to add insult to injury Monsanto sues the farmer for theft of the corporation's intellectual property. The absurdity is almost laughable if it weren't so scary.

If you need any MORE evidence of Monsanto's evil: they are the world's leading promoter of "frankenfoods" - genetically modified food plants, as well as so-called "terminator technology," Roundup, Roundup Ultra (sprayed indiscriminately in the drug wars in the Andes and Colombia), and Roundup Ready plants. They are also the proud owners of rGHB, the bovine hormone that contaminates most commercial milk and dairy products. I could go on.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that Monsanto seeds are being sold in a number of my standby seed catalogs, including: Territoral Seeds, Cooks Garden, Burpee, Johnny's, Shumway, and more. Here is a great thread on Freedom Gardens with information about all of the seed companies that carry Monsanto seeds--this thread is a really informative discussion with lots of factual information about which companies and which varieties are coming from Monsanto, and what we can do to avoid buying them.

For more information about why we should avoid buying them, here is the Fedco Seeds backgrounder on Fedco's decision not to carry any seeds from Monsanto subsidiary Seminis. I will be buying all of my seeds from Fedco, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), Baker Creek, and Seeds of Change this season. Southern Exposure, Baker Creek, and SSE are always my main sources, but this year I'm cutting out any catalogs that do business with Monsanto.

"No to Monsanto" crop circle cut in protest of Monsanto by farmers in the Phillipines.

Image courtesty of Vanity Fair

For more information on the evils of Monsanto, and organized resistance to their actions and policies:

"Millions Against Monsanto" campaign of the Organic Consumers Union

"Monsanto's Harvest of Fear" Vanity Fair article, May 2008

A great post on Monsanto from "We don't buy it", an excellent blog about "one family's quest to quit buying new stuff."

And finally, here is the fabulous Vandana Shiva on Monsanto and intellectual property:

"When seed, for example, becomes patented by Monsanto, when a farmer saves seed on their own land--a duty in an ecological world view--that saving of seed is now an intellectual property crime. It is treated as theft. And it fact it is because of this extremely outrageous action that I started to save seeds. . . .Seed exchange is treated as theft. If I give you seed so that you can grow a nice vegetable in your garden, that is treated as theft of intellectual property.

But what is worse: . . .when your genetically engineered seeds are introduced, you know, they hybridize, they pollinate, so they contaminate with the genetic traits. Now in environmental law, when I spread pollution, I must pay. . . .But when you have patents on seeds, when the genes spread, you don't have to pay, you in fact own the other person's crop now. This is what happened to a Canadian farmer called Percy Schmeiser. It has happened to 1,500 American farmers who have been sued by Monsanto after Monsanto contaminated their crops."

~Vandana Shiva

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Firing Up the Wood Cookstove

Over the weekend Christopher finished installing our wood cookstove. 

C. was in charge of all of the work of installing the stovepipe, cutting holes in the roof and ceiling, running pipe up through the attic and out the roof, and hooking up the stove. I catered, deejayed, and photographed the event and otherwise provided support.

Christopher on the roof as the chimney takes shape...

...and the hole in the kitchen ceiling.

It was about four years ago that we bought this stove, made by an Amish stovemaker in Canada (ordered via Lehman's).

It was our primary heat source back when we lived in the old, drafty 1600 square-foot house in town before we moved to the ruburbs.* We learned back then that this stove can really pump out the heat. In those days we were living with two friends, and many was the winter night when we all stripped down to tank tops and shorts for a night of hot, sweaty dominoes as the stove blasted away.

Our intention all along was for this stove to be the heat source for our house here on the farm, and also our stove for cooking.  We used it to cook occassionally back in town, but cooking by wood was mostly a novelty at that point.  Now its a way of life.  

The cookstove differs from a typical woodstove in that it has an oven (with temperature gauge) and a large cooking surface on the stovetop. It is also built to accommodate a waterjacket for heating household hot water.  

This summer, our plumber friend will hook the stove up to our hot water system so that when we're using wood heat and cooking on the stove it's also  filling the hot water heater.  Our solar hot water panel will heat household water in the warm months when we're not using the stove for heat, and our plan is to turn off the electric hot water heater all together, using it only as a thermos for water already heated by wood and sun. 

Heating water for household use with electricity is one of the biggest energy hogs in a typical household, and by eliminating this power drain, our electricity load will be reduced to the point that we will be ready to go to a relatively small on-site photovoltaic (PV) system for our main power source.

I love using a woodstove for heat and cooking and hot water. When I lived in Ireland, I cooked on a stove very similar to this one, and I remember loving the simple tactile pleasures of stoking the fire, feeling the air around me gradually grow warmer and drier, and holding my palms above the surface or in front of the open oven door.  

Getting up in the morning, stirring the coals, and putting the kettle on feels like a beautiful natural rhythm to me.  It's so much more grounded, sensual, and humanely-paced than rushing out the door and grabbing a coffee to go.

Another thing that is so satisfying about using the stove is the idea of "stacking functions," a permaculture principle.  The principle of stacking functions means that every component of a well-designed sytem should serve more than one purpose.  

Here's a great description of what it means to stack functions: 

"To stack functions, one designs strategies that meet the most needs with the least effort. Thinking this way helps one become a problem solver: creative, adaptable, effective and abundant. One’s entire life can be based on these principles; they can be implemented with every decision that you make."
- Jennifer Dauksha-English, Financial Permaculture.

The wood cookstove, which heats our home, cooks our food, heats water, and can even dry our clothes (hung on a rack) is a great example of stacking functions.  It feels easy.  I've already found myself thinking things like, "the stove going to be fired up all day today anyhow, I'll put a pot of beans on and they'll be cooked by dinnertime...and maybe I'll make a pot of ginger tea, too."

The final stacked function of the stove that we have discovered is cat happiness. Having a fire in the stove makes Frankie the 
cat very, very happy (here she is sprawled out in the heat about four feet away from the back of the stove).  One downside, however, is that the dry wood heat has apparently made her very thirsty, and driven her to uncharacteristic water theivery.

*ruburbs=rural areas around a city

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

How to Eat Local in the Wintertime

Eating local food is easy in August...but how about in the middle of winter?  

For the seed swap and dinner party that we hosted here last weekend, I challenged myself to cook a meal with as many local ingredients as possible to serve to our dozen or so guests.  Coming up with this much local food in January with nary a farmers market in sight and the garden long-since frozen initially seemed a difficult task.  

It turned out to be easier than I thought, thanks to drying, canning, freezing, fermentation, and some long-storing root vegetables.  

We had a delicious, spicy-sweet wintery feast.  Here's the menu for the almost-100%-local meal that we shared:

  • Crostini with dueling pestos
  • Black bean mole topped with spicy salsa and sweet pepper hash
  • Creamy mashed sweet potatoes and potatoes with roasted garlic, fresh raw buttermilk, and homemade butter
  • Slow-cooked collards
  • Brine-pickled okra
  • Warm apple & pear compote served over homemade raw milk ice cream
  • Blackberry and quince meads & crabapple scrumpy

I served two pestos, both made from greens from our garden back in the summer, frozen, and thawed for this meal. One batch included magenta spreen lambsquarters, sorrel, and beet greens; the other was a classic basil pesto with sundried tomatoes from our garden. The bread was from Farm and Sparrow, a local off-grid wood-fired brick oven bakery.

The black bean mole was made with dried shell beans from our summer garden, slow-cooked with mole paste made in the fall from our Pasilla Bajio peppers.  I froze most of the mole paste and now I can unfreeze a few tablespoons of this potent blend and, viola! Spicy summer peppers on the wintertime table!  Along with the beans and mole paste, the other ingredients in this dish were all local: onions from the last farmers market of the year, garlic from our Summer 2008 harvest, and dried oregano from our garden.  

The salsa was made and frozen in the summer with our own tomatoes, onions, garlic and sweet and hot peppers.  I canned the sweet pepper hash with the last of the peppers from our garden back in October (see "Fall Kitchen and Garden Projects" for the recipe), and we cracked open the first jar for this occassion.

The collards were fresh from our garden, where a few intrepid greens are still growing under season-extending floating row cover.

The okra was also from our garden, preserved in the summer using the ancient process of brining.

The sweet potatoes came from Flying Cloud Farm, just over the ridge in Fairview, and the potatoes were a mix of varieties from various local farmers.  I bought the potatoes and sweet potatoes at the last farmers market of the year, and they are still holding up in storage.  These were mashed and creamed with raw buttermilk from Katy, the cow next door, and my first-ever homemade butter, also thanks to Katy.

I made the fruit compote from dried local pears and apples that we dried in the fall.  The fruit was slow-cooked with local honey and spices.  A little (very non-local) Nicaraguan rum that Melissa brought back from her travels made this steamy dessert concoction even more warming on a winter night. The hot compote was perfect on homemade ice cream (from still MORE of Katy the cow's milk), churned on site by Dana-Dee.

To drink, we had home-fermented Quince Mead, Blackberry Mead, and Crabapple Scrumpy.

Hurrah for local food!

Local food cheerleaders in Australia (more info on the radical cheerleaders of Adelaide, Australia here) ... note the fabulous artichoke, fork, and knife team logo on their team t-shirts...ah, thanks be to google image...

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Seed Swap!


Last night we hosted a seed exchange for gardening friends, and a fabulous time was had by all.

Seed saving and swapping is an ancient tradition, one I imagine must go all the way back to when humans first began to cultivate plants for food and other uses.  Seeds have been valuable commodities in many cultures, and I see seed circles like the one we had last night as a way to envision and begin creating a culture that again values and appreciates seeds as critical to sustaining life. I see sharing seeds as an act of hope.

Last night, as friends gathered in our home bringing offerings of all kinds of seeds of beloved plants, I imagined our little seed sharing circle as part of a long chain of  seed history.  These tiny little bits of plant matter spread on my coffee table contained the potential for an array of medicinal and culinary herbs, flowers, vegetables, and fruits that enrich and sustain our lives.  Many of the plants that will grow from these seeds have been cultivated and stewarded by our ancestors for millenia.   Sharing seeds is a way of connecting with community, with our ancestors, and with the web of life on the planet.  And it's also fun.

As we pored over the assembled packets, jars, and bags of seed, we drank a variety of home ferments -- blackberry mead, quince mead, and crabapple scrumpy -- and talked about gardening, food, politics, and all sorts of other things.  Once the seed frenzy was over, we feasted on a meal of all-local foods, a topic for another blog post sometime soon.  

Once everyone had unloaded their seed offerings, there was an amazing array of vegetable, flower, herb, and native plant seeds. Everyone left with lots and lots of seed and no one spent any money. Hurrah!

Some highlights were: bronze fennel, milkweed, and angelica from Jeanie; salsify, paw paw, cockscomb, tulsi basil, nicotiana, and Tennessee vining pumpkin from Dana Dee; and all kinds of amazing flower seeds from Shane, including an heirloom edible black hollyhock variety called "The Watchman" and some very enticing zinnias, asters, columbines, and canterbury bells.

We also processed a bunch of saved seeds from the garden, including marigolds and Mexican sunflowers, and the much-loved hibuscus sabdariffa - red sorrel - the "red zinger hibiscus." 

If you are interested in swapping seeds, the most grassroots way to go is to get a group of gardeners together in someone's home. Locally-grown seeds are going to be better adapted to your growing conditions than ones from far away, and don't require cross-country shipping.  Visiting with other gardeners as you share seeds gives you the chance to learn about different varieties, and I always come away from local seed swaps with valuable tips, ideas, and stories from fellow seed swappers. Often I discover plants I never would have found in a seed catalog, and seed swapping enables me to try out a few seeds of a new plant without having to buy a whole packet of seeds.

In addition to local seed sharing gatherings, there are also regional and national networks of seed swapping, and a number of online seed swaps.  You miss out on the conversation and community by swapping seeds online, but you do often have access to a much greater variety of seeds.

Here's a link to a list of some seed exchange networks and here are a few good online swap sites:
Finally, if you want to get involved in the biggest seed swap out there today, you can join the Seed Saver's Exchange (SSE).  Members receive the Seed Savers Yearbook with thousands of listings from people all over the US (and a few in other countries) offering saved seeds for sale or trade.  I highly recommend becoming a member of SSE for anyone interested in heirloom seeds, food security, gardening, or food history.  Just skimming through the Yearbook is a valuable way to learn about the incredible diversity of cultivated plants available to gardeners--far beyond the very few varieties that make it to supermarket shelves today.

Sharing seeds is one small but powerful act in the big project of creating sustainable community. Seed networks are part of a culture that values life, a way of living that honors traditions of the past and imagines a verdant future.  I'm grateful to be connected to the web of seed savers and gardeners and plant lovers out there digging and cultivating and sowing and harvesting plants handed down for generations.  Long live the seed swap!