Three Sisters and a Cousin

I have several goals when gardening.  I want it to be pretty, easy to work with, not to time intensive, cheap and attract fun bugs.  But the most important goal however is I want lots of food to eat.

I try to grow plants in such a way that I have the maximum number of healthy, high yield plants in the smallest space possible.   In order to do this I used biointensive methods (http://www.growbiointensive.org), raised beds, compost, natural fertilizers and companion planting.  Companion planting is when you plant two or more different types of plants together so that the properties of one can be beneficial to the other.   Like perhaps one plant is prone to a bad bug that is going to eat it all up, but there is another plant that the bad bug hates the smell of.  You put these two plants together in one area and they help each other.   You can use this method to repel bad bug, attract good bugs, make use of shade, manage nutrients, give structure and protect against disease.

This year I have been the most successful I have ever been by using the most time tested method I know, The Three Sisters (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Sisters_(agriculture)).

The idea here is that corn need to be spaced a bit away from other corn in order to have room to grow and nutrients.  Corn also needs lots of water.   The leaves of the maize plant are not good at creating a canopy and shading the soil.  So if you plant corn alone you will have to water it all the time.  This is where the squash is helpful, squash stays much lower to the ground than corn, and has gigantic leaves. If you plant your corn and squash together correctly then very little light will ever touch the ground, so no evaporation. Added bonus, no light means few weeds.

Corn is also a heavy feeder, it loves to gobble up nitrogen.  Beans have this neat bacteria, rhizobia, which hangs out in the nodules of its roots.  Rhizobia produces nitrogen compounds.   This is called nitrogen fixing, you should look it up if you want more info.   So now there is extra nitrogen and the corn says “nom nom nom”.    Beans like to climb up other things, and the corn makes a perfect structure for them to climb on.


You also see a few pretty red/orange flowers and lily pad looking leaves in here.   That is nasturtium, which is a lovely flower that I heard helps squash.  I have not actually looked into this, so it may or may not be true.  I just really like this flower so I am going to pretend it helps even if it doesn’t.   It does help fill in any gaps to the canopy that the squash might miss. In the last month I have not watered this bed.  We have been getting rain about once a week, and in a bed with this much canopy that is all you need.

But here is the best part.  Lets say your corn packets says each seed needs to be planted 12 inches apart.  I take that to mean from other corn not other plants.  So the first thing I do is lay all the corn seeds out in a honey comb.  The first row all of them 12 inches apart, the second row is 6 inches away with each seed being in the center of where the last row seeds were, next row 6 inches away lining up with the first seeds.   After that I put in a few squash seeds.  Once the corn is up, I plant the beans about an inch away. The nasturtium is planted along the edge.So, to sum up.  You have squash on the ground, corn straight up and beans on the corn.

Using this method I can harvest a massive amount of food from a tiny space.   The bed in these pictures is 28 square feet.  Planted in this bed right now I have 30 stalks of corn, 5 large squash plants, 5 nasturtium and about 20 bean plants (should have been 30, but some did not get enough light and did not thrive).   This garden bed is about the size of a queen sized sleeping bed.   That is not very big at all.   Being conservative this season I should get about 90 ears of corn, 150 lb of squash, 75 lb of beans.

Do you companion plant?  Tell me your favorite combos.

Homestead Food 4

We made this meal on Sunday.   I am a little late blogging about it because I have been super busy with gardening and animal projects. But I figured I should post about this one before I make the next one.

Ingredients:

  • Roasting chicken from GrassRoots Farms (GA, one bought item)
  • Olive oil (Exempt)
  • Smoked Salt (Exempt, Gift from Lori)
  • Bee Balm (Garden)
  • Onion (Garden)
  • Oregano (Garden)
  • Carrots (Garden)
  • Chard (Garden)
  • Blueberry Honey (Exempt, Local)
  • Radishes (Garden)
  • Lettuce (Garden)
  • Butter (Exempt)
  • Strawberries (Garden)

…This meal started with a trip to the farme’rs market on Saturday.  We decided we wanted to have some local meat in this meal and the Decatur Farmer’s market (http://decaturfarmersmarket.com/wordpress/) is a good place to find lots of local foods.   We got several things other than what is in this meal, like goat cheese, milk, and a sunchoke.   We also had delicious falafels for lunch there.   We should go more often.

The chicken was prepared by rubbing it with a mushed up mixture of olive oil, bee balm, oregano and smoked salt and filling the cavity with an onion.  Bee balm is a very good herb that is seldom used in cooking anymore.  The Native Americans used it to flavor meats like poultry and venison, and for good reason.  The flavor is great on meats.  It is a very easy to grow plant,  a good companion to tomatoes, brings all the bees to your yard and has interesting looking flowers.

There is still no end in sight to the chard, but the garden has offered up a few new foods, as you can see – radishes and strawberries.   With the lettuce, radishes, and carrots we made a simple salad.  The chard was sauteed in butter and over cooked.  We finished the meal with a few tart strawberries drizzled in blueberry honey. I picked the strawberries a little early because I wanted them so bad, and even not quite ripe they were delicious and added so much to the meal.   In the next meal there should be lots more, and then pretty soon blackberries.   I wish I had a tree that grew shortcakes!

Flower Power

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When I first started gardening seriously I was not very nice to flowers.   I was in fact almost offended by them, the way I still am with grass.  If I talked about flowers at all it would have been to say they are a waste of space and that only flowers that are beneficial companion plants are allowed in my garden.   I had marigolds and of course anything that made a flower in order to grow the veggie or fruit, and that was about it.   But over time that changed.   I realized that those strawberry flowers and peach blossoms made me happy.  Not just because they were the harbinger of delicious noms to come, but because they were lovely all on their own.

A few years ago I threw a few handfuls of beneficial insect attracting wildflower seeds into a little unused space in the front yard.  My stated reason would have been to get more good helpful insects to increase the food production, but there was more to it than that.  I wanted flowers.  When they came up and I saw the little buds forming I was so excited.  I had no idea what flowers were in the mix.  Would this new one be pink, blue or purple? Would it be a single flower, or a cluster of little ones?  Would it have a nice smell?

I have never been one to be given or go buy cut flowers.  It always seemed like a waste of money, but I admit I like to stop and look at them in the flower part of the store.  Flower arrangements were a decadent thing that I just could not have in my life.  But that all changed as those wildflowers started to bloom.   It was like a magic trick, this one part of my yard was a joy for the senses; a riot of colors and shapes, a busy buzzing blur of bees and butterflies, and a delicate blend of new smells.

That is when I realized flowers are a perfectly reasonable crop for a hard-working homesteader.  They might not feed my tummy, but they feed another part of me that is just as in need of nourishment.

 

Homestead Food 3

So I said I was going to do this every Friday or Sunday.   You might notice that today is Tuesday.   Friday it got put off because a friend wanted to come, but the friend ended up not able to come.  It got put off on Sunday because I just did not want to do it.  And that is a good thing in a way.   The goal of this is to make me sort of understand what it would be like if this was my only food supply, and on Sunday I got a bit of an idea about that.  I ended up having a salad from the garden that day but instead of a full garden/local/community meal I had steak and mashed potatoes.  Because I wanted it and because it is so easy to go to the store and get anything I want.   Had the food in my yard been the only food supply I would have been very unhappy.

There is so little to eat right now, so very little variation.  On Sunday when I put it off I got this crazy idea in my head of doing it Monday and it would be better.  Then on Monday I went out for tacos, about a mile away.  So today I said enough stalling.

The Ingredients:

Omelette:

  • Eggs (Gift from Erik)
  • Salt (Gift from Lori)
  • Chard (Garden)
  • Oil (Exempt)
  • Sauteed Onion (Garden)

Grits:

  • Local Grits (Farmer’s Market, single bought item)
  • Water (Tap)
  • Salt (Gift from Lori)
  • Butter (Exempt)

Peach Chutney (Exempt, canned by us)

  • Local Peaches (picked and processed by us)
  • Raisins
  • Some other fruits (I don’t remember what)
  • A ridiculous amount of vinegar

I did not want eggs and chard again. Temper Tantrum Did Not Want.  This is very similar to what we had last week, but switched around a bit.  When I look out in the garden there are unripe strawberries, little tomato plants, small peaches, tiny blackberries, and 2-inch high corn.  I want those things to be ready and I want to eat them.  I want foods that I like better, like squash, green beans, and black eyed peas.  It is also a little annoying that I can’t just throw in some French bread or beef broth whenever I want.   I have some pretty strong food insecurity issues because of a very poor childhood, and having to eat only what I have is really making me have to deal with those issues.

Knowing I was going to have to eat eggs and chard today has made me so motivated to work harder.  I know I could not do anything about the dinner tonight, but I am sure going to try to have a better one this weekend or next week.  The last few days I have done lots of planting, weeding, and transplanting.

I am also thinking about community more.  I am actually thinking about people I want to invite to dinner;  not just Erik, who did not join us tonight because he fears grits.    I am thinking about joining some meetup groups and actually going to their meetings.  I am thinking about how to be nice to the friends and family I do have so they will please bring me food.  I am thinking about how I can help the people around me survive, and how they can help me survive.  Yes I know that sounds very dramatic.  I am a rather dramatic person.

Another upside to my annoyance at today’s dinner is that I know that my pleasure with each new food as it becomes ready to eat will be even greater than normal.  My mouth is watering thinking about how amazing some fresh strawberries would be right now.  I could deal with more eggs and chard if I could just have a bowl of berries to go with it.

Now with all of that drama out of the way, the meal was actually pretty good.   The egg part of the omelette was delicious and the chard was OK at the beginning.  By the end the chard tasted a bit too bitter to me, and I did not want to keep taking bites of it.  The grits tasted like grits and butter, so there is nothing wrong with that.  The peach chutney was better than I remember it being.  The peach flavor was very bright and fresh; the pepper was just right, giving only a hint of spice, and the vinegar was not quite as overpowering as I remembered it.  The chutney matched well with the omelette.

Garden Update

It officially became spring a few days ago, but my garden had decided it was spring weeks ago. This is the best garden I have ever had this early in the year. I love that I am able to be home right now so that I can work on it everyday. I have so many pictures that I want to share with you that instead of doing a standard post I have made a gallery with captions. You can look at them all at once like you are now or you can click on the first one and use the arrows to see them all.

I can’t explain the joy I get from my garden. It is sort of like feeling proud and powerful, because my years of research, experimentation and manual labor is what you see here. I plan it, plant it and care for it. So just like my stories this 1 acre piece of land is a reality I created, it is about as close as I get to art. If I had done nothing it would just be a plain yard full of scratchy yellowish grass.

I also feel sort of in awe and little when I look at it, because the seeds and elements really do most of the work. Seeds are freaking amazing. The way a little tiny uninteresting thing can grow into food or beautiful flowers. If you have never gardened you really should give it a try. Just a few pots on the patio and you will see what I am talking about. I will refrain form getting all spiritual here. 🙂

My garden makes me feel this weird urge to share too. I am not much of a people person and there are many things in my life that I get great pleasure from that I don’t want other people to join me in. I like to dance alone and read great books without a book club. I sometimes write things I don’t want anyone to read, I knit for myself, hoop for myself and now I even sing for myself. I guess the way I used to feel about singing is the thing most like the sharing feeling I get in my garden. When I feel this huge surge of ecstatic joy I want other people to feel it too. This feeling is much to good for me to keep all to myself.

I also feel peace. Very few actives are as calming as sitting in the sun surrounded by my garden. I am thinking of building a yoga area between the house and the garden beds. There is plenty of room, but I don’t know if my neighbors could handle yet another weird thing from me right now.

Food Challenge 1

We made our first dinner tonight for our food challenge.  See the last post for details.

These are all the ingredients:

 Salad – three type of lettuce (garden), carrots (garden), Hawaiian salt (gift -Lori)

Main dish – cowpeas (garden, preserved), onion (garden), oregano (garden), thyme (garden), butter (oil exemption), smoked salt (gift -Lori)

Dessert – organic Greek yogurt (single store- bought item exemption), strawberry jam (local, canned by us), blueberry peach syrup (local, canned by us)

Drink – mint (garden), honey (exemption)

We both had fun with it.  We ate at the table and talked instead of watching TV, which was novel. The lettuce was crunchy. The carrots, though small, were super sweet and delicious. Mint tea was refreshing.   The beans were surprisingly good, seeing that they are over a year old, and the salt gave them a hint of smokiness which gave the illusion of meat flavor.  You can’t go wrong with strawberry preserves and Greek yogurt.

Dried beans are amazing. This year we are going to try to put away a lot more beans.  And lots of other things as well.  I am regretting not canning any tomatoes this past year. It would be nice to get a pressure cooker and can things other than jam, tomatoes or pickles.

It was odd to have such a simple meal.  Our dinners are pretty complex on average, with lots of ingredients and several different dishes cooking at once. It was a little weird without pasta or potatoes.   I love carbohydrates, so I miss them anytime they are absent.   I should really try harder to grow potatoes this year.

This meal was also way more healthy than we normally eat.  Much lower fat than normal, since the only fat was less than a tablespoon of butter and the full fat yogurt.  So many different veggies too; I bet we got lots of vitamins and minerals.

For the next one, I hope someone wants to join us.  This would be much more fun with friends, and there would be more food!   I don’t have any worries about next week”s since we have a different sort of dried beans, but after that it will pretty much just be salad.   Next month the salad will start getting better, since radishes and celery should be coming up any day now.

Having this much good fresh and preserved food at the beginning of March makes me feel pretty good about the work we have done in the last few years, and it encourages me to try harder for the future.

Homesteading/Community Food Experiment

We have decided to start a new food challenge.  For one meal a week, we will have a meal of food that we grow or food that I can legitimately say comes from our “people”.

I guess I need to describe this idea first.  I don’t live in an actual community.  I live in a neighborhood, and I give food to my neighbors when they come over to see what crazy thing I am doing.  Last night I let neighborhood kids pet my chickens and I gave them each a carrot.  It is always Halloween at my house. But we are not a community.  I don’t help them with their tasks. They don’t bring me food or offer to help with my tasks.  I don’t know most of their names.  I try to interact like I did yesterday.  But it is sort of hard because we don’t have much in common, most of them don’t want to interact, and I have social interaction issues.

But there is a small group of people who I consider my community.  Close friends that I care about, who I would be happy to help with planting, harvesting or burying the body.   Most of these people are in the Atlanta area, but not all of them.

So here are the rules:

Baseline – All of the major components of the meal have to be from our yard or be grown, raised, or made by people we are friends with.

Examples:

-Anything that is growing in our yard right now.

-Any of our own harvest we have preserved.  We have pickles, dried cowpeas, sunflower seeds, and dried beans.

-Pork from Issa (http://lovelivegrow.com/) and Joshua.  We ordered a pig from them. It will be several months before this part gets added in.  Any other food we buy from actual friends is good too.  I need to make friends with someone who has a milk cow. 🙂

-The eggs our chickens will make, or eggs given to us by a friend.  *cough, cough..Erik*

-Herbs in our yard

-A simple thing a friend grows, processes, or makes and then GIVES to us (not like buying the pork, it has to be a gift).  This could be a loaf of bread –even if it has more outside ingredients than we would be allowed ourselves.   I am trying to simulate what it would be like to be mostly self sufficient in a community.   People in that community could give us things that we don’t have the ability to create.   But this can’t be something like a friend brings us a whole meal, or taking us out to dinner.  It has to be a reasonable farming community item.  Something they could have grown or made themselves.  Examples could be bread, muffins, wine, mead, meats they cured themselves, foods they have grown or raised.

Exceptions:

-Salt. We have no ability to create our own salt.  I guess we could go to the ocean and try to figure it out.  But for now salt from the store is allowed.  I am thinking I will only use salt Lori gave me for Yule, as that would fit with the idea more.

-Oils. At present we don’t grow any oil crops.  We could, and I plan to in the future. But for now olive oil, butter, coconut oil, etc. are all allowed.

-Things we harvested and preserved from local sources.   We have strawberry and blueberry jam from fruit we picked ourselves but did not grow.  We also have peach salsa, peach chutney and some pie filling. But we can’t just go buy something from a farmer’s market.

-Honey. This one is only for now.  Once we have bees, then we will only be allowed our own honey.  But right now I can use local honey or honey my stepfather gives me (He has bees in middle GA. He is kind of like my people, sort of.)

– In each meal there can be one ingredient that does not fit the rules.  Like I could use chicken broth if I want to make a soup.  Or I could add a store-bought meat to something, or local grits.   Whatever the extra ingredient is, it must be explained.  It also should be as local and/or as cruelty-free as possible.   This is one ingredient, not one item.  So for example I can’t bake my normal bread.  The bread I like to make is flour, butter, yeast, milk, eggs and salt.  So that is three ingredients I don’t have – flour, yeast and milk – four if I have to buy eggs.  But if a friend gave me a starter (like sourdough),  then the only thing I would need would be flour for some breads.

I am going to try to make this meal happen around the same time each week. And then post a picture and explanation of the meal.  Any friend who wants to donate is also invited to eat with us.

 

The world I am hoping to weave here is one where I sit down with friends over a meal wrought with our work.   We laugh, talk, and learn a little about each other.   I want to grow a tighter community with people who are passionate about this. I’ll be grateful for the gifts my friends give me and feel good for what I give them.  Eating together is an ancient and beautiful ritual that has been lost in our fast-paced world.  We have so little connection with where our food comes from and there is so much food.  I remember food meaning more to me when I was a child living in pretty serious poverty in coal country.  The venison my father hunted,our garden, the maple syrup we harvested and made all felt so important.

I’m hoping this fosters a sense of urgency about my homestead.  Sometimes I don’t work as hard as I should. Seeds get in late, weeds grow, and bugs run wild.  Food has been lost because I just left it sitting.  A few sparse meals will help. I also think this will increase my own sense of accomplishment about what I do.  The fact that I think I can do this means I must have confidence in my homesteading.