May 26 2011

Good Read: “Grow The Good Life”

rebetsky

I just did an amazon.com book search on the keyword “gardening” and it returned 46,951 results.

The way I see it, the vast majority of those 46,000+ gardening books fall into one of two categories: documentary and how-to. The documentaries showcase great gardens and garden styles, and many that I’ve browsed are a joy and inspiration. On the other side, there’s a how-to on just about everything: tomato books, flower books, small garden-big garden books, compost books, etc., etc. If it grows or shows, there’s a book about it.

I recently and happily added a new book, though — a “why-to” book — to my garden collection: Grow The Good Life, by Michele Owens, one of the founding mavens of the hugely popular blog, Garden Rant. (If you’ve never checked it out, you should, at www.gardenrant.com.) I’m a big fan of the Rant’s inclusive, eclectic topics and good-natured, irreverent, sometimes boisterous style. Much of what I like about the Rant carried through to Owens’ book, only more so, and better so.

Owens’ book is an entertaining and informative read for everyone from the “live to garden” die-hards (ahem!) to armchair types whose garden is a single potted plant on a windowsill. It’s a worthwhile read for soil-deprived urbanites, too, as well as for people totally devoid of interest in growing anything, but who nonetheless share the basic human need for food and at least some dim flicker of desire to have a habitable planet at least for a lifetime or so.

“Thanks to my garden, I can take a stand against everything I find witless, lazy, and ugly in our civilization and propose my own more lively alternative.”  — Michele Owens

Owens makes a methodical, chapter-by-chapter case for the (mostly American) vegetable garden, going at it from the angles of money, superior flavor, health (exercise), beauty, right on up to (or down to) fundamental happiness. She brings in enough scientific and anecdotal data to make her arguments convincing, and in signature Rant style, the pace is lively and the language at once personal, clever and to the point — styled enough to be enjoyable without any excess.

There’s hardly anything Owens doesn’t touch on, wrangling connections near and far like a pumpkin vine gone awry. She reaches into history, biology, folklore, urban/suburban planning, big ag and big chem, the government, physiology and exercise science, her mother’s upbringing, you name it — all to make a compelling case for the backyard vegetable garden. And from cover to cover, the emphasis is on sustainable, organic practices. Even if you’re not a gardener, you’ll come away with renewed appreciation for your CSA, or find yourself giving more business to the organic growers at your local farmers market.

Now, Owens was not born a gardener, and the zealousness of the convert shows. Even though the book is a “why to” and not a “how to,” like any gardener, she can’t resist slipping some of her favorite tips, tricks and techniques in the back door. I found many to be welcome ideas.

Much of Owens’ practical advice tracks four general principles: “First, take care of the context in which it all happens, the soil. Second, diversify to avoid disaster. Third, pay attention to timing. And fourth, be a little Zen.”

My strongest endorsement of the book is that she really got me thinking about my own approach, which is pretty well-developed after some 40+ years in the dirt — I think I’ve had some sort of garden in just about every place I’ve lived, without exception, even when I lived off-campus in college.

Thanks to Owens, though, this spring I made much lighter use of my mechanical tiller, forgoing it altogether in a large portion of the garden. I’m more committed than ever to my mulch system, though I was surprised that, evidently based on advice of her upstate-New York gardening neighbors, she forgoes grass mulches. I cover every exposed inch of my garden with grass clippings, heavily; it does a fabulous job of keeping the weeds down and continuously enriches the soil. I’ve never felt that it’s made the weed population any worse.

The other thing she’s gotten me focused on is timing, which is always a challenge for me. I started our peppers indoors too late again this year, as usual, though my tomatoes were right on schedule. Everything else is late, thanks in no small part to an interminably long and wet spring. Our second season, planting for the Fall, is always late, too, but this year I’m determined.

It’s all a process, this growing your own food, from how you care for the soil to picking out the seeds, to timing the planting, to feasting in summer and canning for the cold weather and starting all over again. And Owens celebrates the process, in a big-picture way.

Woven through the book, in every topic, is a sense of gratitude for being able to grow food and enjoy it, tremendous respect for the ecosystem that makes it possible, and an acceptance of responsibility to leave the earth better, or at least no worse, for our use of it.

Those are values that resonate deeply with me. This is a book that makes us all better gardeners not necessarily in a technical sense, but dare I say in a moral or spiritual sense. It is a good life, indeed, when we tend our gardens — and thereby ourselves and our human family — with care, respect, and deep affection.

In the final paragraphs of the final chapter of her book, Owens succinctly and eloquently captures the spark that lights my own passion for gardening: “…there is a lot of pleasure to be had in reshaping the little piece of earth that is under our control. Thanks to my garden, I can take a small stand against everything I find witless, lazy, and ugly in our civilization and propose my own more lively alternative…There are few things lovelier than a vegetable garden at dusk, and few things more satisfying than going out in the evening to pick the food you’ve grown before dinner with family and friends. To share the fruits of your labor is to give your love to the people you care most about.”

Sorry. I’ve given away the ending. But like a true classic, this is a book that can be savored even if you know how it ends.


Dec 25 2010

Terracycled Christmas

Natalie

Christmas was terrific, as always.  My family gathered and exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve.  Grandma Shirley has added the “Christmas Walk” to the agenda to get some of the energy out of the kids who are older now and like to “horse around” in the house.

Susan gave all of us a recycled shopping bag (a Terracycled Doritos bag) filled with Earth-friendly gifts sverigeapotek.se.  There were microfiber clothes, washable sandwich and snack bags, a bud vase from a recycled bottle, a plant pot made from recycled materials and Chico bags.

The washable sandwich and snack bags are dishwasher safe and made by 3greenmoms.  Maybe I’m the last to know, since the women were featured in Oprah’s magazine.

Look out, LHS, we’re going to be Terracycling in the new year!


May 2 2010

Wool, Sheep Herding & A Hidden Cemetery

rebetsky

It was a busy day for country things here in greater Sykesville, where the weather felt more like mid-August than the second of May. We started the day at the annual Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival at the HoCo fairgrounds, billed as the nation’s largest. We saw every imaginable kind of raw wool, felt, and yarn in every imaginable form, including a number of beautiful finished products.

We browsed the livestock barns and watched part of the parade of breeds. The highlight, though, was the herding demonstration with border collies. Simply amazing beasts that were able to move a mini-herd of four sheep with precision wherever the handler directed. Great, smart, focused dogs. We’re thinking maybe we need to buy a sheep farm for our Blue.

I bought a super-duper tomato cage I couldn’t resist. It’s really heavy duty, an ingenious hinged design, and I got the “extender” so that it can be, like, 8’ tall. I love a challenge! Don’t dare ask me what I paid for it.

We had met some friends at the festival who stopped by the house for a quick cold drink. Then, after a brief nap, we kept a hiking date with some neighbors we had met at the Howard County Hospital emergency room (all ended well for all of us). They live directly adjacent to Patapsco State Park, and had promised to show us a small family graveyard they had found there.

Most of the hike was places we had already been, but we did go up to an old barn we had only seen from afar, which was an amazing log construction now frequented by teens who favor Budweiser. The graveyard was not far away, and had three impressive headstones, including one that was hand-chiseled.

Blue and our neighbors’ three dogs had a blast swimming in the river, chasing deer and generally romping in the woods. Blue was totally hot and tired. Near the end of the hike, he decided to lay down, yes, lay down in a little swamp pond. I thought we were going to be lucky and finish the hike with a relatively clean dog, but no luck. I had to give him a bottom wash when we got back.

Out in the garden, things are beginning to hop. We have peas, kale, spinach, lettuce, green beans, lima beans, turnips, beets, radishes, cucumbers, blue potatoes, hyacinth beans, zinnias, and gladiolus coming up. Tonight, we had our last salad with store-bought lettuce for a while. We have some beautiful Red Tiede, Cos, and Simpson Elite just about ready, and a bunch coming along behind them. I plan to put out tomatoes and peppers the second weekend of this month.

I have to admit, seed starting was a bust this year. I don’t think I’ve ever had poorer germination. Less than 50%, I dare say. Perhaps the basement was too cold, and I started too late in the greenhouse. In any event, the seedlings are small, but we should still have everything we need to plant.


Sep 13 2009

Is It Safe To Drink The Water?

Roger

Bottled water is stupidly expensive and environmentally irresponsible.  Most “city” water is supposed to be safe, but how do you know?  And what about those, like us, who are on a well?  We’ve had ours tested and supposedly it is fine.  I am going to test again with a home kit I picked up, just for peace of mind.  We use a lot of water — just ask CJ about our coffee drinking habits.

In the first eight years of this century, we in the United States seem to have lost a lot of ground in terms of environmental safeguards.  A recent report in the New York Times uncovers just how bad our water safety situation is.  Link here to their interactive map to see your local polluters:

Find out who’s polluting where you live: New York Times interactive

Fortunately, there’s nothing too close to us or too, too alarming.  I hope you, gentle reader, are as fortunate.

The interactive feature in the Times lets you zoom right in on your neighborhood.

The interactive feature in the Times lets you zoom right in on your neighborhood.


Aug 3 2009

Plenty (of Local Foods)

Natalie

Roger and I have started reading Plenty, a book about a couple who attempt to eat locally (within 100 miles) for one year.

plenty_book

Although I am not prepared to give up sugar and coffee, I was inspired to use the vegetables from our garden to create dinner.  We had brown sugar carrots, rosemary baked beets and zuchinni pancakes topped with cheddar cheese.  Surprisingly, the zuchinni pancakes got rave reviews from C.J., who has a severe case of vegetaphobia.    The recipe was simple:  grated zuchinni (well-drained), chopped red onion, egg, and bread crumbs, salt and pepper fried in a little olive oil and topped with cheese.  I think next time I will add some garlic powder and spices to give it even more flavor.


Jun 16 2009

Hung Out To Dry

Roger

Natalie’s happy, she’s got her clothesline.  We tested it with just a few pieces hung out last night.  That clothespin bag is her handiwork that she whipped together last evening.

clothesline


Jun 14 2009

Lettuce and Clotheslines

Natalie

Yesterday, we put in the base poles for the clothesline.  Roger says that we can start hanging clothes by Wednesday!!!  We ate this beautiful lettuce for dinner.lettuce-06-14-09