The Milkweed Diaries

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thoughts on the Season

I've been collecting thoughts on the season that have been accumulating around the edges of my consciousness for the past few weeks.

Here are a few of them:

"Last year, Americans spent $450 billion on Christmas. Clean water for the whole world, including every poor person on the planet, would cost about $20 billion. Let’s just call that what it is: A material blasphemy of the Christmas season."

"But I can’t escape this: we have cut ancient trees to give the children big houses. We poison the fields to give them bread. We manufacture toxins to give them plastic toys. We kill village children to give our children world peace. For the sake of the children, we amass wealth by ransacking the world where they will have to live. What kind of love is this?"


In spite of all this, we still celebrate the return of the sun, the passage of the darkest days of winter and the hope that exists in dark, sad times for the return of light and life:

"Hope is not a prognostication — it's an orientation of the spirit. Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can't delegate that to anyone else. Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It's not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope."
~Vaclav Havel, from an essay I have returned to several times over the years, including on the occasion of Havel's recent death, "Never Hope Against Hope."

I've returned too to my ruminations on the solstice from two years ago ... 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.

And finally, my favorite recent variation on the theme of pagan origins of modern seasonal traditions, "Santa is a Wildman" by Jeffrey Vallance.

Happy Christmas, happy Solstice, sweet bright blessings for these dark days.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

On the economy of plants and hard virtues

I am at home. Don't come with me.
You stay home too.

From "Stay Home" by Wendell Berry

On Wednesday night, I went next door to Warren Wilson College to see Wendell Berry with Christopher and my parents. The crowd at the college chapel where Mr. Berry spoke was so huge that we ended up watching and listening with a couple of hundred other people on a live feed from another building on campus. In his deeply humble and entirely unpretentious way, Mr. Berry read one of his short stories, At Home, and then answered a few questions from students.

At Home is a story of small details, a beautiful embodiment of Wendell Berry's ethic and way of life. His reading was slow, deliberate, and quiet. For me, listening to the story required a disciplined effort to slow my mind down and be still and patient. The pace of the story, and of Wendell Berry's whole way of being, was so radically slow compared to the pace of computers, cars, and smartphones in the world in which I usually live. Berry's words were so evocative and his pace so meditative that I almost felt like I was dreaming.

"He could not distinguish between himself and the land," Berry writes of the central character in "At Home." I emerged from "At Home" with a deep calling to my own home and land, to which I have been gradually becoming more and more inextricably connected over the past five years. Will there come a time when I can no longer distinguish myself from the land? I hope so.

After the reading was finished, Mr. Berry responded to questions from students - I first wrote "answered questions" and then realized that he was reluctant to provide "answers" in most cases, but instead gave subtle, thoughtful responses, often lightened with wry humor.

I was jotting notes as he spoke, still moving somewhat slowly after being immersed in the world of Berry's short story, but here are a few of my favorite moments:

In response to questions from students about how we can find our way out of the ecological predicament we have created: "Problem solving is not applying the maximum force as relentlessly as possible. It requires patience, resignation, and other hard virtues." And later, "No one knows the answer. Don't trust anyone who says they do. The answer will have to be lived out." And finally, "We are working from the inside, necessity is working from the outside. The world is not going to continue to yield what we have come to expect of it."

In response to a question about how "people of faith" might be involved in the environmental movement: "It's hard to think of a person who doesn't have faith in something. The human mind is by nature faithful."

He encouraged students to "Get your language right. Call things by their right names." He talked about health in communities, referencing Aldo Leopold's concept of "land community" (a concept he fleshes out in more detail in his essay "Conservation and Local Economy").

When asked about Occupy Wall Street, he reminded us that "great public movements must be accompanied by local, small, private acts." He also noted that when we are told, "inform yourself," we should remember that "to inform is to shape inwardly."

He talked about making local food economies "that will be the kindest to the home landscapes of the world."

At the end of the evening, Mr. Berry repeated twice what he called one of his "articles of faith": "Things aren't going to get so bad that someone who is willing can't make it a little better."

That is the kind of hope, small and persistent, that I can feel resonating in my heart and bones. Thank you, Wendell Berry.

More from Wendell Berry:

"We must see that it is foolish, sinful and suicidal to destroy the health of nature for the sake of an economy that is really not an economy at all but merely a financial system, one that is unnatural, undemocratic, sacrilegious, and ephemeral. We must see the error of our effort to live by fire, by burning the world in order to live in it. There is no plainer symptom of our insanity than our avowed intention to maintain by fire an unlimited economic growth. Fire destroys what nourishes it and so in fact imposes severe limits on any growth associated with it. The true source and analogue of our economic life is the economy of plants, which never exceeds natural limits, never grows beyond the power of its place to support it, produces no waste, and enriches and preserves itself by death and decay. We must learn to grow like a tree, not like a fire."

Friday, October 28, 2011

Occupy the Pantry. . .

. . .and the fridge, and the cupboards, and the stovetop, and the plate. And while we're at it, let's occupy the pasture and the hen house and the dairy barn and the vegetable garden.

Watching the Occupy Wall Street movement crop up, proliferate, and bloom over the past few weeks has been good for my soul.

Enough has been written about corporate control of food systems and how it serves the 1% while harming the planet, our health, and workers. I don't need to add my own long diatribe here. Suffice to say that the multinational for-profit food industry is part of the problem that OWS is rallying against. Industrial agriculture and the food policy it has spawned by way of corporate control of our political process contributes to hunger, pollution, and the destruction of small farms and farmland.

So taking control of your own food supply and working for community food justice is part of the solution. And it feels good to be aware of doing that one small part while a bigger movement grows all around us. I like thinking of planting lettuce in our winter gardens and gathering eggs in the morning and canning tomato sauce as actions in solidarity with the Occupiers all over the world.

Some of my favorite posts on related notes:
  • Occupy Your Kitchen (great post with lots of tips for wresting your food supply from corporate control by Laura Everage/Family Eats)

Along the same lines, check out this great Ted Talk on gardening as a revolutionary, subversive activity:

Roger Doiron reminds us, among other things, that "food is a form of energy...but it's also a form of power. And when we encourage people to grow some of their own food, we're encouraging them to take power into their own hands. Power over their diet, power over their health, and some power over their pocketbooks. And that's quite subversive because we are also necessarily talking about taking that power away from someone else -- from other actors in society who currently have power over food and health. You can think about who some of those actors might be." I also love his statement that "gardening is a healthy gateway drug to other forms of food freedom."

To wrap it all up, here's a great quote from the ever-amazing, Frances Moore Lappé, one of my heroes, whose recent article in The Nation I highly recommend:

‎"At its best, [the food] movement encourages us to “think like an ecosystem,” enabling us to see a place for ourselves connected to all others, for in ecological systems “there are no parts, only participants,” German physicist Hans Peter Duerr reminds us. With an “eco-mind” we can see through the productivist fixation that inexorably concentrates power, generating scarcity for some, no matter how much we produce. We’re freed from the premise of lack and the fear it feeds. Aligning food and farming with nature’s genius, we realize there’s more than enough for all."
~Frances Moore Lappé, "The Food Movement: Its Power and Possibilities"

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Seed Saving Season

My kitchen is piled high with seeds drying on screens and sheets of newspaper at the moment, along with the end-of-season glut of imperfect peppers and tomatoes. We had our first killing frost on Friday night, and everything that needs to be kept warm and dry is now crammed into our tiny seven-hundred-and-something square foot house. Being surrounded by seeds feels very comforting somehow, though. All of that potential under one roof.

Look out for lingering pollinators

Red Zinger hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as red sorrel or roselle) drying for seed and tea

Texas Sage seeds drying (although why I bothered, I don't know - they self-seed so prolifically that saving seed is really gilding the lily, so to speak...I'll have some seed to give away and trade).



Zinnia seeds drying on a screen

Those beautiful Red Zinger calyxes again

Monday, October 24, 2011


I harvested amaranth this week and it was so gosh darn photogenic that I just had to post some photos. I can't get enough of its beautiful colors and textures.

I blogged about growing, harvesting, threshing, and using amaranth last year around this time but this year I'm just going to post these photos.

Luscious. The varieties we grew are Mercado, Golden Giant, and Burgundy, all heirlooms.
Something about these photos just really does it for me. They just feel like the essence of this beautiful Fall to me.

If you are not into the full-on supermodel of homescale grain production photoshoot, just click over to the more practical post from last year here. But here are some more photos for those of you who feel me on this.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Pickled Peppers Two Ways

Even with hoophouse protection, pepper season is over. It was a great year for peppers in our garden, probably the best pepper season in the past five years, but all good things must come to an end. We had our first killing frost last night, and the temperatures dropped low enough to blitz the last of the peppers and tomatoes that had been barely hanging on in our unheated high tunnel.

So it was time to pick the rest of the fruits, lay the unripe ones out to finish ripening on the kitchen table in the sun, and preserve the rest. I usually fall back on my tried-and-true Sweet Pepper Hash recipe for preserving peppers, but I had already put away such a tremendous stockpile of Sweet Pepper Hash this year that it was time to diversify.

I tried out two new pickled peppers recipes, both of which look very promising. Both recipes are based on ones I found in "Stocking Up," a classic Rodale publication by Carol Hupping Stoner of which I have a treasured 1977 edition. (The entire book is amazingly available online here: Stocking Up: How to Preserve the Foods You Grow Naturally, Carol Hupping Stoner, Rodale Press, 1977.)

Here are the recipes:

Pepper Pickling Method #1:
Pickled Whole Peppers
  • 4 quarts whole, ripe long peppers (these can be hot peppers like Hungarian or Banana, or sweet frying peppers - I used Jimmy Nardellos)
  • 1 1/2 cups salt
  • 4 quarts plus 2 cups water
  • 2 Tbs prepared horseradish
  • 4 cloves garlic
  • 10 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup honey

Jimmy Nardellos after soaking in salt water for 18 hours, ready for packing into jars.

  1. Cut two small slits along the long sides of each pepper
  2. Dissolve salt in 4 quarts of water. Pour the salt water over the peppers and let stand for 12 to 18 hours in a cool place, covered.
  3. Drain, rinse, and drain again thoroughly.
  4. Combine 2 cups water and all remaining ingredients except the honey and bring to a simmer. Add honey.
  5. Pack peppers into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Pour boiling pickling liquid over peppers, ensuring that the 1/4 inch headspace remains. Adjust sterilized lids and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Whole pickled peppers after processing

Pepper Pickling Method #2:
Pickled Sweet Pepper Strips

Wash, stem, and core peppers, and slice lengthwise into strips. Steam blanch the strips for 2 minutes, then plunge them into ice water to cool. Drain.

Pack the cooled strips into hot, sterilized pint or half-pint jars. Cover them with a boiling syrup made from 1/2 part honey to 2 parts apple cider vinegar. Leave 1/4 inch headspace. Cap with sterilized lids and process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.

Red bell pepper strips ready for steam blanching, canning pot boiling on the woodstove

The finished product

The second recipe is much quicker, easier, and less involved than the first, so if you're looking for a speedy way to deal with a pepper onslaught, I recommend pickling them in strips. It turns out looking really lovely, too, especially when you mix red, orange, and yellow peppers. The pickled whole peppers didn't turn out looking as glamorous as I thought they would, I think because the horseradish makes for a little cloudiness. I'm sure the horseradish could be left out for a clear, pickling liquid that better shows off the pretty peppers.

We grew about 20 varieties of heirloom and open-pollinated sweet peppers this year, plus a few seasoning peppers and hot peppers mixed in. My long-time favorite sweet peppers are Jimmy Nardello, Corno di Toro, and Kevin's Early Orange, and they did not disappoint. But Chocolate Bell and Quadratto di Asti Rosso were standouts this year too, and we will grow them again.

Peppers are a great lesson in patience in the garden, starting out from seeds indoors as early as February and only really coming into their prime in September or even early October. The big, ripe bells always feel like treasures to me after all the months of waiting.

Having enough peppers to preserve for the winter feels like such abundance. Store-bought out of season peppers are such a luxury item, pricey both in terms of cost to the customer and cost to the planet. To have a few jars of peppers stashed away on the shelf feels like real wealth--what better riches than beautiful, bright, sweet peppers on a dark winter day!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bean Season

I spent the afternoon shelling dry beans with my sister Mary. The heirloom varieties we grew are just so lovely, so I had to post a few shots.

Calypso beans

Lina Cisco's Bird Egg beans

Ireland Creek Annie's beans

And our old standby, Cherokee Trail of Tears beans

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Up-Cycled Freezer Contents

Homemade ketchup from last year's frozen cherry tomatoes

It's a time of transition here on the farm, appropriately enough in this Equinox season. Two friends who have been living here for the past year are moving away, two new farm residents are arriving, the garden is winding down, we have only one more tailgate market day in the season, and everything is starting to feel cooler, slower, and quieter.

Our new neighbor-friends suggested going in on a bulk meat purchase from the WWC farm next door, which has motivated me to clean out our freezer. Since I went way overboard preserving vegetables last year when we had more produce than we could possibly sell or consume, the freezer was still full of jars of whole cherry tomatoes, wild blueberries, salsas, pestos and etc. It got to the point with the cherry tomato overload last summer that I was just rinsing them and stuffing them in half-gallon jars whole. And there quite a few of those jars still hanging out in the freezer by the end of tomato season this year (that being now).

This is what 10 quarts of frozen cherry tomatoes looks like:

Soooo, it was time for "out with the old." I made some super-delicious juice from all of the wild and tame blueberries piled up in the freezer, and am chipping away at the pesto, but what to do with gallons and gallons of thawed cherry tomatoes?

How could I use them without having to deal with all of the skins? I sure wasn't going to blanch and peel them all - that would have been a full-time job for a few days. Maybe something involving a trip through the food mill to get rid of all of the skins and seeds...something like ketchup!

Last year in the final throes of tomato overload, I made a big batch of green tomato ketchup, which we savored all through the winter. It made an especially delicious dressing for salad or fish when mixed with a little homemade mayonnaise.

All of those jars of cherry tomatoes got me thinking that the different flavors of all of the varieties -- smoky White Currant, sweet Sungold Select, tangy Black Cherry, and tomato-y Peacevine would make a delightfully complex and savory ketchup. Plus, I could throw in some last-year's frozen salsa to spice it up - all of the ingredients in the salsa (onions, peppers, parsley, garlic) are frequently included in catsup recipes, so all the better. More freezer space freed up, more flavorful ketchup.

The tomatoes and onions starting to cook

So here's the recipe:

Cherry Tomato Ketchup

  • 10 quarts cherry tomatoes (fresh or frozen)
  • 2-3 cups chopped onions, to taste
  • Sweet and/or hot peppers, parsley, oregano (optional) to taste
  • 1 Tbs black pepper
  • 1 Tbs dry mustard powder
  • 1 1/2 Tbs high-quality salt
  • 1 quart apple cider vinegar
  • 1 cup honey
  1. Combine tomatoes and onions in a pot with everything except the honey.
  2. Pour the vinegar over the vegetables and cook for 4 hours over low heat, stirring occasionally.
  3. Put the mixture through a food mill.I use a secondhand Foley food mill which works like a champ.
  4. Return to the pot and bring to a boil again, and allow to boil until ketchup has achieved desired thickness. Be forewarned: This takes a LOOONG time! It's good to start the ketchup in the morning and let it cook down on low heat all day long, stirring and keeping an eye on it through the day. A good project for a rainy day.
  5. Add honey.
  6. Pour into hot, sterilized jars and process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

Cooking down, down, down!

The final product - yum! It came out very smoky and spicy, almost verging on barbecue sauce, but still with the classic ketchup balance of sweet and vinegary.

Viola. Freezer space freed up, delicious condiment stockpiled for the winter.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Fall Garden

Even though it was still in the 80s today, the garden looks like fall and the fall projects are in full swing. Here are a few shots from today.

Autumn Joy Sedum in bloom, with a few Red Spider zinnias mixed in:

And being enjoyed by the honeybees...

All Blue potatoes:

Keyhole bed put to sleep for the winter:

Seashells Cosmos in bloom ... I am in love with the frilly, tubular petals:

Winter squash bonanza...

...Neck Pumpkins...including a 9-pounder on top...

...and top to bottom: Uncle David's Dakota Dessert Squash (buttercup), Paydon Acorn, and Zeppelin Delicata...

Red Zinger Hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa, also known as red sorrel):

Tried and true Sensation cosmos:

Sunflowers and friends:

Marshmallow in bloom, with one honeybee per flower:

Cosmos Mona's Orange and Memories of Mona:

Ready for radishes to emerge:

Shungiku chrysanthemum, zinnias, cherry tomatoes and basil still going strong, and sunflowers:

Texas Sage and Tithonia:

Silverwhite Silverskin garlic processed, graded, and ready for sale, planting, and eating.

Fall garden seeds...

Mullein and sumac drying...

And a couple of my favorite fall gardening references:

Happy fall, and can I get a "hell yeah" for the forecast for the next week -- highs in the high-60s/low-70s and RAIN!