Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Planning the Garden

Each of the past 2 years I have had a small garden at the house. The first year was OK for a year-one garden, but last year was terrible. I got cucumbers and some early lettuce, but pretty much everything else was awful (it would be fair to say that the tomatoes were a crime against gardening... it makes me embarrassed just thinking about it).

This year I am determined to have a successful garden. I am putting more planning into building soil structure, what will be planted, when it will be planted, and then maintaining the garden through to harvest.

First, I must give thanks to the December ice storm. That's right, the storm that wiped out power to our house for 6 days (making us homeless nomads), damaged my precious deck, and destroyed trees on our property (and all throughout central mass), did have a silver lining. By destroying trees, the ice storm opened up a lot more light to the garden! Based on this new light, I added 100 square feet to one end of my garden last weekend (on the left side of this picture).

I also have started a garden journal of sorts. I feel like calling it a journal is odd when I have only this years plan written in it, but its a start.

We also have started a few seeds and put it in a light box. My wife started 4 varieties of her tomatoes (one is in the mail) and tonight I started the celeriac. The celeriac is definitely an experiment since 6 months ago I had no idea such a thing existed. We got a couple from the CSA last summer and I think it is tasty and interesting. We'll see how it goes.

Now, I am off to collect the ingredients to build the soil structure for my "new" garden. I want this to be as much of an organic garden as possible, but I don't think that will be all that easy. When I called the garden center one town over and asked them about some of the stuff mentioned in the organic gardening book I have, I might as well have been speaking mandarin. So I may have to do a little extra hunting to find this stuff, but the adventure should be fun!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Late Winter Project: Maple Syrup

In the waning weeks of winter, I noticed that we were running low on maple syrup so decided to buy some more for the house. With my focus on buying local I figured New England (VT, Maine, NH if I could not find Massachusetts) based syrup would be good enough. So I went to the local grocery store and found nothing but Canadian syrup. Now I have nothing against Canada. My dad was born there after all, but we have maple trees all around us, so why don't we have local maple syrup? I was informed by several people that the Canadian government subsidizes maple syrup production, making it cheaper for them to ship and sell.

Now, I know that at this point a normal person would have simply found some locally made syrup, plunked down a couple of extra bucks to stick it to those Canadians, and moved on with their life. I felt like this was not good enough. Being a biologist, I could ID maple trees even in the winter. I found out that the local hardware store sold those maple tree spigot-thingies (called a spile... who knew). So off I wen with my 6 year old son to tap trees.

And low and behold the sap began to flow...

I collected it all, boiled it down on the grill, and made some syrup (this is an early batch)...

In the end I made about 24oz of syrup. When you figure that I spent $10 on spiles, $6 on extra buckets, $30 on propane, and $3 on cheesecloth for filtering the final product. Since syrup cost about $1 an ounce to buy, and it cost me $2 an ounce to make, I can see why this is not a very popular practice. On the other hand I learned a whole lot and had some really nerdy fun during the process.

I don't think you can put a price on that!


I guess the best place to start is to discuss the tipping point. The event that caused me to go from a casual foodie to someone willing to cook goat stew, tap maple trees in my backyard, and drive all over central Mass to find farms who supply this and that. Well, if you believe my wife (which is a pretty safe bet... since she is almost always right), the sea change occurred when I read Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma." The book was great, but more than anything else, it made me think about where my food comes from. It's hard to explain why it did this, but when I discuss the book with others who have read and enjoyed the book, they don't seem to think my behavior is all that strange (of course I haven't started hunting wild animals or gone mushroom foraging yet... so I have some room to grow.)

I guess what it boils down to is that when you start with a great question like "Where does your food come from?" with the personality of someone who loves to search out answers to questions, and the fact that we need to eat every day, slight obsession occurs.