Sometimes I think all of this homesteading/sustainable stuff is just a little too precious for words. I mean, I just read a review for a restaurant that recently opened in San Francisco that is extremely farm-to-table, and some of it is just so over the top. I mean, using a perennial wheatgrass that is specifically known for its carbon-capturing capabilities for the bread? And I thought grinding my own wheat was crunchy.

And I'm too old to be a hipster. None of the stuff I'm doing is in the name of 'cool.'

But there are times, even whole days, when I derive such an immense sense of satisfaction from doing things this way, I just kind of want to burst with the 'rightness' of it. Today has been one such day. 

Tom's brother is here for the day, and it's so fun. He helped Tom put up the hop vine trellis (which involved ladders! yikes, you never know what you'll be asked to do around here) and now they are brewing beer. I knew we'd want to have good meals for him, something from the garden and something from the larder.

Choosing something for dinner was easy, with the new smoker - put a piece of meat on for the day, make some baked beans, and later, biscuits, and we're done. But I wasn't sure about lunch...

Today was bread-baking day, so I already had fresh bread. I had some ricotta left over from the other day - I had made fresh ricotta to go on homemade pizza dough. I also had a couple of tablespoons of pesto left over, which I froze last summer and have been taking out of the freezer when needed (like for pizza). I went out to the old herb garden and cut some chives, marjoram, and oregano. I opened up the last jar of pickled garlic from last summer. I put the ricotta, some olive oil, the pesto, the herbs, and a couple of cloves of garlic in the food processor and blended it all up with some salt and pepper. This gave us an herby cheese spread for the bread. 

I sent Tom to the store for prosciutto, and went out in to the garden for carrots, turnips, broccoli, beets, peas, and asparagus. I made a vegetable plate with these items from the garden.

I got out the last jar of pickles, a jar of dilly beans, and the olives and pickled jalepenos from the fridge. All together, these items made such a nice lunch, with a mandarin orange to top it off. And it was just so darn satisfying to have all these items on hand to make a lovely, homemade lunch. 

It's been a while since lunch, so soon we'll have an afternoon snack with our coffee - angel food cake and blueberry compote. I had a ton of egg whites left over from projects earlier in the week, so angel food was a great way to use them up. How fabulous to have our own delicious, nutritious, home-grown eggs to use in all these wonderful dishes. How amazing to have all these vegetables in the garden, just ready to eat. How terrific that I thought to put up all these items last summer, so they'd be on the shelf when I needed them. How lovely to have fruit from our own fruit trees, vines, and bushes. It's all just so darn satisfying, I can't think of any other word for it. It has nothing to do with the environment (although it helps there, too) or the water shortage (though it helps there, too), or make us look cooler, but it sure does feel (and taste) pretty good. 


Thoughts on 2015

It's natural to want to look back over the year as it starts getting close to January first. But, as I also have a birthday early in January, it's doubly so for me. As I was moving mulch this morning (the pile is getting smaller every day!), I thought a lot about 2015 and how it evolved, in every area; personally, professionally, and in the garden.

This was a big year for our yard. Very early in January, we were told we would be part of the Institute of Urban Homesteading's Urban Farm Tour. This lit a much-needed fire under our collective asses to get a lot of work done, fast. Our first project of 2015 was the chicken coop, which was also my birthday present. Soon after that was finished, we got our chickens. Not long after that, we got our replacement colony of honeybees. Then, we built the North Garden.  Tom replaced our old sprinkler system with a drip system. I successfully planted and maintained two year-round pollinator gardens which attracted more critters than we've ever had before. We planted three new fruit trees and countless fruit shrubs and vines. We managed to have a decent summer harvest despite the severe four-year California drought. We bought more rain barrels and built more compost bins. And we successfully raised the fence, to keep out the hungry deer! We learned to pickle and can food, we made bread and sausage and cheese, we fermented beer and wine and cider, and continued to eat well every day, mostly out of the garden. I'd call our year in the yard successful, for sure.

Professionally, this is the year I began to feel more confident in my abilities as a teacher to cognitively-affected children. It's taken four years to get to this place, and it feels good to know that I can help kids feel safe and loved, and maybe even help them to get to a place where they are able to learn. But it's also the year when I realized that this is a younger man's game. There's a reason everyone I work with is half my age. In a mainstreamed situation, with a child who is cognitively more higher-functioning, it's no problem physically. But at this particular school, we are extremely physical every day with kids who are alternately running away, needing to be tightly held or picked up, getting up and down off the floor numerous times a minute, quickly - I'm just not that good at that aspect of the job. I'm old, slow, and chubby, no matter how you slice it. My hands have stopped working right, due to severe arthritis. My feet are similarly destroyed. What this tells me is, no matter how much I love the kids and my co-workers, that I'll be looking for something else come June. I have an idea for a new business, but it's going to take more thinking and planning before I can tell you about it. Be assured, I'll write about it here as it comes to fruition. I'd like to work outside, and regular exercise is a benefit. I certainly don't want a desk job!

Personally, I feel quite fulfilled by the events and happenings of the past year. I fervently wish life was easier for Tom (the difficulties at my job may be physical, but the difficulties at his are interpersonal and political, which is far harder), with his job and his commute. Money continues to be tight which makes things stressful. Living as we do in a very affluent area, the cost of living continues to be quite steep and goes up all the time. We often dream of selling our place and buying a large piece of property elsewhere, for much less. With college expenses coming up in the near future for our kids, this will remain a dream for a while.

Speaking of the kids, what an interesting year it has been for them. I started out 2015 being extremely concerned about Kate's social life, but I end the year feeling very hopeful for her, as she has matured quite a bit and has even rekindled an old friendship. She continues to fascinate with the way she thinks and writes. We're looking in to a performing arts school for her for grades 8-12, which we hope will surround her with like-minded people, but she is an introvert and will always need a lot of alone time.  Adam has grown in both size and personality and is truly a young man now. He got a shaving kit for Christmas and was just invited to a party by a girl, so things are changing for him. He's had great moments of academic anxiety this year that manifested in physical discomfort, which was scary, but I think we've got a plan for high school that will help keep him engaged and interested and challenged. His mind is far sharper than mine has ever been, but he's like me in that he likes to learn fast. Public school is often not exactly fast.

So, on to 2016, with hope and vigor! Here's a few things I'd like to accomplish in the next few months, but it is by no means a complete list:

* build a raised bed area in the part of the yard we just sheet-mulched, but build it in a different sort
   of pattern, and plant herbs, citrus, and other perennial edibles.

* make an insect hotel.

* grow new-to-us plants, like horseradish and rhubarb.

* continue to think about ways to increase water storage in the garden, as El Nino moves through.

* keep my bees alive, and harvest some honey!

* grow a new business which combines my love of children and the outdoors.

This list will continue to change and evolve as the year proceeds.

I'd love to hear more about how 2015 was for you, and what you are planning for 2016. Please share!

Feelin' Like a Real Farmer

This morning I had to put on my woolens,

grab my adze,

go to the troughs,

and break through the layer of ice so the livestock could have fresh water.

Well, not really.

I did however have to throw on a sweater, bite my lip, and break the ice in the chicken waterer with my bare fingers.

Damned if I didn't feel like a real farmer.

Strawberry Jam; or Who are You, and What Have you Done with Elizabeth?

When I was a kid growing up in suburban Maryland, we used to spend a significant amount of time picking produce, either from our own garden, or from a local farm called Butler's Orchard. From our garden would come tomatoes, beans, lettuces, peas, cabbages, corn. We didn't have fruit trees or vines, so we picked things like strawberries and peaches at Butler's Orchard. While the produce from the garden trickled in and mostly got eaten fresh (except for large amounts, like tomatoes), when we went to the orchard it meant hours of picking, with the result being flats and flats of berries, or buckets of peaches.

Mom would make jam from the berries, and can the peaches. She also spent a significant amount of time canning tomato products and making sauerkraut. I think I liked going to the orchard and picking, but the steamy afternoons in a very hot kitchen, blanching tomatoes and taking the skins off, put me off canning forever (or so I thought). My folks didn't believe in using air conditioning, so those humid sweaty days just seemed like torture to me. Still, I enjoyed going down to the basement and bringing up a can of peaches or tomatoes in the dead of winter. I appreciated what Mom was doing. I just knew I would never do it myself.

Hence my surprise at myself this morning, up and making strawberry jam before breakfast. As I stood over a steaming pot stirring foamy berries, I suddenly wondered what the hell was I doing. Pickles are one thing; but JAM? And was I actually enjoying the process? Hmmmm.

This isn't the first time I'd asked myself this question lately. Um, yeah, horse manure? Dad used to get loads of steer manure from the nearby farms and add it to his garden, and I used to roll my eyes and pinch my nose. Yuck, was my teenaged opinion. So how come suddenly I'm doing the very same thing he used to do? And how come I'm making jam at the crack of dawn?

I called my mom and asked her a few questions. Why, I asked, did you put up vegetables and fruit and make jam? Did you LIKE doing it? Or did you just feel as though you HAD to?

Well, she answered, it all started because of Dad's garden; we had SO MUCH produce, I just had to put some up. And I liked going to the orchard and picking, and I liked making jam. I knew that making stuff at home would taste better and be healthier than what I could buy in the stores. And yeah, I looked forward to that summer canning time.

Phew. Talking to her relieved my mind a little, I mean, I guess I was worried that maybe she felt coerced into doing it or something, like it was a chore she dreaded. I'm glad it wasn't. Because very surprisingly, I'm enjoying myself too. I like looking at my burgeoning canning shelf. I actually read Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry cover to cover and stayed interested. I think I might do more of this canning thing.

Making jam was fun. Tom made peach jam  a few weeks back, and I rediscovered that I like eating jam. Yesterday Kate mentioned that she'd like to make a layer cake with jam as the filling, and I thought, there's that pectin I made a while ago, and strawberries will be out of season soon. Next thing I knew, I was cutting up berries to macerate them in sugar overnight.

I have plenty of jam ready now to eat and use in the layer cake, or spoon over pancakes and ice cream. And I have four lovely jars up on the canning shelf for winter time, when we'd like a taste of strawberry. Also, the house smells incredible and has all morning. Win-win-WIN.

The shelf is starting to fill up. Soon, tomatoes!

The Annual Load

It's becoming a once-a-year tradition to borrow Dad's truck and make a trip to Sienna Ranch for aged horse manure. They have more than they know what to do with; therefore, the property manager is more than willing to fire up the front loader and fill up the truck with this ultimate soil amendment. The hardest part of the trip is shoveling the manure out of the truck and on to our driveway. After that, it's just a matter of adding a wheelbarrow at a time to the garden, and hardly a month goes by around here that we're not adding a wheelbarrow of something to the garden, so that's no big deal. Anyway, it's beautiful stuff, if you like that sort of thing. Clearly I do. And the garden does, for sure. Every time I amend with manure, everything sort of gets a new surge of growth.

It's important to pile the manure right next to your front gate, because really, nothing says 'welcome' like a large pile of horseshit.

We took a trip up to Petaluma yesterday; we obtain all our grass-fed and pastured meats from Tara Firma Farms, and as members we were able to join them for some roasted pork on Father's Day. We enjoyed walking through the hills and fishing in their pond on a beautiful sunny day. We made some side trips to the Marin Cheese Company (stinky French cheeses for Dad, check) and Cottage Gardens (plants for Mom, check) as well as an extreme side trip to Oakland to Pollinate Farm and Garden (canning rack for me and Tom, check). 

Ok, out to the garden for me - that pile o' poo won't move itself.