Alternasourcing and Getting Back to the Garden

Hello fellow revelers,

I’ve been taking my time getting back up to speed on things in my garden and life since a much needed hiatus that involved throwing myself in heart, mind and soul in a writers’ workshop in the wilds of Vermont, with one phenomenal group of compadres, led by the magnanimous Crescent Dragonwagon, cookbook author extraordinaire (as well as children’s book author, poet, instructor, all around phenom, and etc.).

A rapid fire survey of the grounds this morning reminded me that a garden needs tending well past the browning of the last cuke on the vine.  I’m not much of a fall gardener, but I still have the steadies going: my hot peppers upstairs, the various herbs, the last of my heirloom tomatoes, and that mysterious bush out back that I never did determine conclusively was dogwood or elderberry (the issue became less pressing when the local herbivores devoured the few fruit it produced this year).  The pumpkins that I got after a friend’s show at a restaurant in New Haven last year gave the scene bountiful color with its vibrant squash blossoms springing from every vine wound relentlessly up, down, over and under every spare inch in my yard.  Alas, I don’t think they’re going to give me a single jack-o-lantern by Halloween.  My neighbor from Bangladesh watched as I cut back the wild rose bush that likes to keep sticking its neck over into her territory where her kids like to play.  As we were talking, she saw me cut off one of the many pumpkin stems squirreling around the yard.  She asked me why I cut it, since it had a small blossom that looked ready to bloom.  I didn’t really know.  I guess it was because we were in conversation, and as I said before, I don’t really like to talk as I’m gardening.  It’s not the kind of multi-tasking that makes me feel like I’m accomplishing something.  If anything, when I’m persuaded to talk while I’m gardening it robs me of that little bit of time I get away from the rest of the world.  But this is a good neighbor, and I like her company, so I didn’t mind much this morning.  But the point is that the talk made me absent-minded, and I plucked a perfectly good vine I likely wouldn’t have otherwise.  She asked me for it, and said she’d like to cook it.  I thought she meant the squash blossoms but she was talking about the leaves.  I remembered a few years ago she gave me a plate of food she had made for Ramadan, and it had fish cooked with leaves from the squash she had growing out back.  It was tasty and I’d meant to ask for the recipe then, but never did.  This morning, after a few more minutes commiserating over a sad season for fruit trees (she has plum, peach, apple, and cherry in the back to my peach and cherry), she decided she wasn’t going to have time to cook today and handed me back my needlessly interrupted vine.  I tossed it in with the other clippings to be put to the compost out back.  We agreed that in the next couple weeks, we’ll make a day of picking and cooking the leaves that are now so overly abundant in the yard.

Something I heard several times last weekend at the workshop/retreat was one of Crescent’s sayings, inherited, I believe, from her father, Maurice Zolotow: “nothing is wasted on the writer.”  The same, it seems, is true of the gardener.

As I mentioned before, the extent of tending my front yard last year was to toss whatever seeds I had aging in my basement to see if any would take root.  As you likely know by now, my approach this year is slightly more steady, measured, and, hopefully, responsible, since that is a goal I’ve set for myself.  I am moving toward living a more responsible life overall, one where little to nothing is wasted.  Toward that end, I am supplanting my gardening with the exploration of additional paths to self-sufficiency since self-sufficiency is, in and of itself, responsible.  Of course we don’t all have the means to “Thoreau” it all away and Walden our days away.  For those of us who are revelers of the brick and mortar set (though not limited to this demographic), I am exploring, in various arenas, a practice I have coined “alternasourcing.”  As I use the term (and invite others to collude), alternasourcing is the obtaining of goods and services from non-traditional sources, which, in its optimal functioning, provide sometimes less expensive and frequently more environmentally and socially friendly products.  Alternasourcing is not just about where you get your goods.  It is also about the how you obtain the things you need to live (as well as the things you want, hopefully with an eye to questioning needs/wants in a new way).

Alternasourcing may include, for example, minimizing the groceries you buy from the corner megastore, and supplanting it with regular visits to your local farmers’ markets, using your own space for herbs or whatever you have space for, learning how to forage for naturally grown wild edibles, or getting a plot in a community garden.  (An aside: my uber-awesome neighbor/friend/co-gardener I mention frequently, and her partner, were on a three-year wait list in our not-super-hip ‘hood just to get a small triangular not-so-enviable plot in the local community garden.)   So, while you’re waiting in line for a patch of dirt down the street, consider new ways to tick those items off your grocery list.  It may include participation in a CSA, a venture I undertook this summer for the first time.  For those of you who have been following, the journey has had its ups and downs, but summer’s not over, nor are the remainder of my bi-weekly shares.  I’ve been chronicling it here, but thought it was time to bring in another voice (of reason, I believe) who has had a more hands-on CSA experience, and whose insight has helped answer nagging questions I’m left with after bagging up my produce (at that same community garden, btw).  Long after I’ve bagged up my goodies and have unloaded them on my table to shoot, the questions linger.  They usually concern the demeanor of the volunteers (disabusing me of the Pollyannaish notion that all gardeners are revelers).   For the answer to this, and an inside peek at what goes on behind the other side of the table….read on my friends in the next post, for a spiffy piece comped by our friend, former neighbor and fellow reveler, Matthew Donoher, who, btw, I ran into on Church Ave. right before Irene hit, as I was vying with the other stragglers to get the last of the should-have-had-a-long-time-ago items, such as flashlights and batteries and radios.  Matthew, to his credit, was cool as a cucumber, in search merely of a new baking sheet to try out an oatmeal cookie recipe.  I have been blessed in my life with good neighbors.

How about you?  What are ways that your life has changed in response to global climate changes, or economic turbulence, or just your own desire to live more efficiently/responsibly?

Go ahead… gimme the dirt!

Wild Edibles – Tour Highlights

I missed a Steve Brill/wild edibles tour in Prospect Park today but will try to catch one again in August.  Like most things gardening related, I imagine it requires more than once to get the hang of it and put what you’ve learned to good use.  Just one tour, like many things the first time around, can be fun and kind of thrilling, and leave you with plenty to mull over, but it gets better the more often you do it.  The Wildman, himself, warns that you shouldn’t be putting things in your mouth you aren’t certain of and that if there’s any question, better to leave it alone.  Sound advice, imho.  (I just realized that what precedes this could be misinterpreted by a certain contingent of my readership — if that’s you, get your head out of the gutter and put your hands in the dirt).

Since I missed the tour today, I thought I might finally get around to ticking off my to-do list a post that I’ve been meaning to bring you for awhile.  It’s highlights from the last tour I went on in June.  To anyone who might be considering it, I would highly recommend the tour.  Set aside about four hours and $20.00 for it — the $20.00 is just a suggested donation anyway (although I certainly suggest donating the full amount — it’s money well spent).  In addition to spending several hours wandering through gorgeous nature, meeting several very cool people, eating some yummy wild food, and beginning to learn how to identify that yummy wild food, Steve Brill is pretty entertaining and keeps the tour interesting.   He’s a funnily curmudgeonly type, eager to make kids laugh and adults chuckle with some well-practiced lines.  (One of his jokes did go amusingly awry when, drawing the listener in with an increasingly hushed voice, he delivered the punchline in a booming voice without realizing that just behind him was a baby who quickly stole his thunder by breaking into a wail that only a seriously stressed baby can deliver).  Who wouldn’t love a man who saves the corniest of jokes to ply you with as you’re eating your way through a forest.  (Yes, pun intended — and a nod to the Wildman, since this is exactly the type of groaner you might hear on one of his tours.)

If you’re not up for the stream of one-liners that are tucked into some very useful information the Wildman dispenses on the journey, you can keep your own pace (which is another thing I appreciated about the tour, and which sets it apart from most other tours).  It’s recommended you bring a whistle in the event you get separated from the others; lacking a whistle (and being laughably bad at whistling without one), I brought a harmonica but didn’t end up needing it.  There are some helpful pointers on the website and in his book Identifying and Harvesting Edible & Medicinal Plants, that helpyou prepare for a foraging tour, including, for example, spraying your clothes with insect repellent and wearing white, which repels bees – this is why beekeepers wear white – and makes ticks more visible.  The book, and I’m sure pointers from those who have gone on a tour (see QUESTION below), also help you know what to bring and how to get the most from the tour.  I brought several plastic baggies, a few hard plastic containers, and post-it notes, a pen, a notebook, and my phone for snapping pics of the plants.  I found the hard plastic containers to be pretty useless and wish I would have saved the space.  I did end up using the plastic baggies (I should have brought many more, since I ended up having to store several different plants together and if the post it at the base of them came loose, I didn’t know chickory weed from jewel weed).

The tour is popular.  I shared it with about thirty other people, ranging in age from 6 months up, representing what appeared to be a broad cross-section of Brooklyn’s population.  There were couples, a few single individuals, and a family or two.  The group gathered for a sign-in that took about twenty minutes (a long time, I know, but it involved Wildman doing a roll call, having people sign waivers, and offering for sale and/or autograph his own impressive collection of books that he’s authored and which he, equally impressively, has illustrated).  He is a self-taught both as a botanist and artist, which is especially encouraging since it can seem impossible at the outset to ever be able to master the task of distinguishing an edible plant from a deadly one.  Although he is quick to caution the eager tourists, he nonetheless makes it seem a reachable goal to sustain yourself, if need be, on a diet of wild edibles.  He also offers quick advice on how to prepare each plant he covers, some of which I’m sure are in his cookbook (which I don’t have but someday may, once I’m able to tell the difference between a chickory weed and jewel weed without to the book, and the app (“Wild Edibles”), with its “important disclaimer” that I’m pretty sure I can guess what it says, or the pack of Wild Edible cards that I picked up in the shameless promotion start of the tour (disclaimer – Wildman did say that someone else made the cards).

In addition to the specific plants we reviewed, I picked up a few tidbits that are generally good to know.  In this category:

1.  Birds are flying dinosaurs – berries are brightly colored so birds can find them and help themselves.

2.  Just about all plants have some level of toxin in them.  That toxicity is to ward off predators.  To humans, it’s only dangerous if we eat it in massive quantities that no one ever would.

3.  It’s wise to cook all mushrooms – wild, raw, or not.

Some of the plant varieties we plucked, tasted, and took home include (disclaimer – the links that follow are not from Wildman, except for the one on chickweed, but are included to show some additional sources of info on the topic): quickweed, hedgemustard, mugwort, wild cherry tree, wood sorrel, honewort/wild chervil, chickweed, … more to come …

 

QUESTION: have you ever eaten anything in the “wild” and gotten sick?  What was it?  How old were you, and did you learn your lesson?  Or do you still pop random weeds when you think no one is looking?  Go ahead .. gimme the dirt!

Weeding the Garden

I’m emptying my basement of everything in it.  I figured it was getting to be a fairly expensive storage space, given what rents go for today.  I hate that there is so much I’m throwing away but I also recognize that to repurpose, reuse, sell, or even donate all the items I no longer need would require additional time that I’d really rather spend doing other things – like gardening.

Although I may freecycle a few items (I’ve used it before for other things I let go of, and was fairly happy with its usability).  I clutterbust somewhat regularly though.  It’s a healthy purging, I find.  Inevitably good things (note, not “stuff”) come from it.  So usually I just set as much out in front of my house as I can, without using any space on the sidewalk.  This can get tricky because there’s not a lot of excess real estate in Brooklyn, even down to front gate space.  That’s why I love things I can hang on the fence, like hangers!  At about midnight, I put a small store’s supply of various plastic and wooden hangers, no wire ones (yes, mommy dearest), and within minutes a neighbor appeared out of nowhere.  As we started talking, she collected up the plastic hangers, stringing them across her arm.  As it turns out, she is married to a gentleman down the street who has been very encouraging about my little garden plot, stopping by every so often to ask and admire.  I’ve loaned him a wonderful little crazy rake I have that tills the ground in no time.  Once again, I found myself talking with someone who I have lived near for more than ten years and had never met before.  I hate to say this but I honestly don’t even remember seeing her before — I feel like I’ve been wearing blinders for a very long time now.  Gardening is showing me that good things happen when you just put a little effort into it.

There is no question in my mind, as I sit here sweaty and spent, that gardening and all that goes with it is absolutely like raking through the things in life – concrete and otherwise – that bog you down.  This has been a difficult process because my mind was trained to think I “need” more than I do.  It is helpful though, too, as I’m thinking about what more I want to do (and, more importantly, not do) with my garden for the remainder of the summer, and am also feeling grateful that once this is done it will be one less thing to pull me away from my gardening.

QUESTION: Do you have to give something else up to make space for something new?  Will you be adding or subtracting anything from your garden this season?

World View

If I can extrapolate from a moment on my front porch, I venture to say that I think world views are beginning to change.  We had a get-together not too long ago to celebrate something of a big birthday for me.  I found myself in a group of friends, some old, some new, eating things we were pulling up from the ground.  The folks ranged from very young to let’s just say young at heart.  On saying our despedidos, one of the literally young ones admired the jasmine growing in the cement planter that is a permanent fixture of every home on the block.  And I wondered, how did she know it was jasmine?  Of course it smelled great, but this kid was only around 9.  I could climb a tree like nobody’s business when I was 9 but I wouldn’t even been able to recognize a jasmine plant, or most any other for that matter (save the lilacs which grew in a long row parallel to our gravel driveway — Lucinda William’s song “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” always remind me of home).  As for this little 9-year old budding botanist, I’m not sure where she’s getting it from.  I don’t think that schools have radically changed their curriculum since I was last familiar with it.  I’ve seen this awareness in other kids, too, that didn’t seem to be there before.  It looks to me like there’s renewed interest among the young and old in this world we’re living in.

QUESTION: is it just me or do you agree?  Is anyone else seeing the same thing – this increased interest and awareness in nature and how to use it?  Am I just a person that starts driving a Jeep who suddenly sees all the other Jeeps that were always there before?  Or is it a Prius, and a lot many more folks are getting behind the same wheel?

This Week My Honey”s Lavender

Ah, New York, my sweet.  What’s not to love?

My partner started making ice cream this summer (poor me, right?).  The first stash from the CSA had some lovely lavender that constituted the flowers portion of our pick up.  All I had to do was stick it in the fridge instead of a vase, and the next thing I knew, voila, dessert!  This last visit to the CSA landed me some gorgeous deep purple blueberries now in the icebox waiting for the fairy dairymother to whisk them away.  So many reason to love New York this week.

But with some good news comes some bad.  Heard in the media-stream this week is that grocery stores are pushing back on consumers’ increased use of coupons with greater restrictions on coupon use.  The whole CSA experience, while a wonderful experience, may still not be the best value for folks looking to disrupt their regular food sourcing.  I’m still wanting to do a comparison of the options, from the traditional grocery store to home gardens to farmers markets and foraging.  While I can understand a company’s need to plug the bucket, so to speak, now might not be the best time to kick the consumer where it counts, considering that our flirtation with alternasourcing seems to be deepening into a more serious relationship.  Grocery stores may have even more competition ahead from innovations to their traditional model by store owners starting to think outside the box (Austin is expected to have the first packaging-free grocery store in the near future).

As for me, I will continue to report on my CSA experience, and hope that someone takes me up on my invitation to compare theirs (looking for someone signed up in the City with a different CSA, and someone from outside NY – maybe one of my Madison friends?).  (I am doing the full half-share, which means I pick up a full share – vegetables, fruit, eggs, flowers – every other week @ $550 for 24 weeks, which works out to be about $45.00 every pick-up, but would like to do a comparison with anyone doing a CSA this summer, regardless of what you’re signed up for).  I’m also looking to hear more on another …

QUESTION: how have your food collection and sourcing habits changed?  What percentage of your meals comes from sources other than the traditional grocery store?  Are you getting any staples from your garden?  Of the home gardeners, do many of you can to make your stash last after the season’s over?  How many of you are keeping the garden going indoors over the winter?  What have you got growing indoors after season?  Anyone else out there who’s getting their groceries outside the box?  Of those who forage, would you say that you’ve incorporated the wild edibles onto your every day plate?   With apologies to any skin-thinned freegans, have we got any garbage eaters out there?  Any other urban foraging?  Anything I’m leaving out?   Go ahead …  gimme the dirt!

What I Do Right, Wrong and Delusionally

Three Things I’ve Learned I Can Live Without and The Earth Is Better For It:

– my car

– foreign fruit

– blood diamonds

Three Things My Descendants Will Just Have To Hate Me For:

– flushing too much

– my Post-its addiction

– my Kindle resistance

Three Things I Think I Do Right That Probably Just Fucks Things Up

– buying and using Foodtown reusable bags made of polpropylene

recycling

– blogging

Rising Food Prices: Don’t Have a Catniption – Stick That Grocery Bill Where the Sun Don’t Shine

Hi all you fellow revelers,
I had a GREAT time on the wild edibles tour in Prospect Park, Brooklyn on Saturday with Wildman Steve Brill (who, btw, prefers to be called, simply, Wildman … when you have a criminal record concerning eating dandelions, who’s gonna call you anything else?).  That aside, I also met some great folks and fellow gardeners, including Ralph, who posted this comment today.  I’m still working with the Word Press format and trying to figure out, among other things, how to not have all these great comments hidden.  Until then, I thought I’d excerpt some of it here, including some comments on culinary herbs and an inventive way to stick it  da man (and cut your grocery bill by a scallion) …
Ralph ⋅  JUNE 19, 2011 AT 10:10 AM  …. I restarted gardening a few years back starting with containers and slowly reclaimed about a third of my back yard to plant. The rest is just doing it’s own thing for now. Most of what I’ve been able to use from the yard so far is herbs. Basil, mint, scallions/ bunching onions, sage, catnip, arugula, parsley, red clover, and oregano which is still too small to use. About all I’ve used them for is to add into salads. Small strawberries which survived outside through the winter go into salads which give a nice little burst of flavor in your mouth.

The scallions I started from seeds last year came back after being outside all winter. The ones inside grew all winter long on a window sill. A few of the outside ones grew flowers this year and I got some seeds from them. A quick way to get a few growing without the seeds is buy a bunch of organic scallions in the store. Pick a bunch with the largest roots still on that look healthy. Cut the tops off so you have the roots and bulb with about an inch or two of stalk to stick out of the soil when you plant them. You can plant them close together since they grow straight up. Within a couple days you will be able to see the growth, and soon after a new shoot will appear. I use the shoots rather than pulling up the whole thing to use the bulbs. I cut the largest shoots off the ones with the most shoots and they just keep growing back. I believe that like onions they help keep bugs away too. For a dollar or so invested you can have fresh scallions for over a year.

  • Hey, thanks for posting that. There’s a lot of good information in here I’m planning on putting quickly to use. A couple follow up questions: how did you come to find out about catnip? I saw somewhere recently that humans may like it too but I never considered eating kitty food before.  Doesn’t it make them high?  You know that leads me, of course, to the question … how’s the taste on a scale of 1 to 11?  How did you decide to start growing catnip?  Is it a cat magnet? (I have a neighbor cat that likes to saunter through my herbs when my dog is either away on a date (she has a lively social life) or when she’s in the basement being lazy.  I’ve been wondering how to keep the feline away – maybe distract her with some kitty cannabis?).

    Second question: what a great idea for the scallions! Where do you do your grocery shopping? Is there a market (super or green) you’d recommend for this kind of thing?

    Last question/comment: hope you don’t mind I find this useful enough I want to share with more folks — I’m making it my daily comment and inviting some feedback on the above and the following ….

    QUESTION: what other ways do we know of to extend the usefulness of groceries purchased in a supermarket, green market, CSA, or other? In other words, does anyone have more suggestions to add to Ralph’s excellent suggestions for getting the most of your scallions? What are some other ways to keep the grocery list, bill and god-awful end of the day visits short?  Hey, maybe we could use the bill for compost!!  Think that’s soy-based dye they’re using?  Go ahead … gimme the dirt!

Ew, Gross.

20110612-103021.jpg

Since, here, we are kind of starting to drift off beyond the garden and into talking about trying to live responsibly, loosely speaking, I’ve been thinking lately about sponges. These aren’t real sponges but that’s what we pretend they are. And I know they’re filthy yet we pretend to “clean” our dishes with them. Here is the culprit, in the sink next to the dishwasher that rarely gets used because of my efforts, as I said, to try to live somewhat responsibly. That said, how responsible can it be to wash my dishes with a dirty sponge. Of course I rinse it out and squeeze it before using it each time but still I can almost feel the bacteria seeping through its pseudo-pores. My partner keeps a dish of soapy water next to the sink and uses that instead of wasting loads of water each time we need to clean dished. Even with that, I’m sure there’s bacteria that accumulates there as well. I used to put a drop of bleach in it to ward off the little bastards but now that I’m getting into the living somewhat responsibly, the thought of bleach, the plastic it comes in and all its nasty chemicals makes me shudder.

I’ve been on this earth, let’s just say, awhile now. And one of the things that continues to stump me is ….

QUESTION: what tis the best way to clean dishes (in a way that isn’t really just a foolhardy practice of moving germs around), without using nasty chemicals or wasting water? Also, does dish soap really do any dish or anyone else any good? Is a dish soap that’s marketed as an eco-friendly one either eco-friendly or effective? Go ahead (even though I’m sure there’s plenty already on my dishes) … Gimme the dirt!