storage crops

In the daily reckoning of what it takes just to feed ourselves well without creating destruction in packaging, pesticides, chemical fertilisers, questionable additives, social injustice, unethical treatment of animals and the climate-destroying one-two punch of tillage and transporting food long distances, it can be exhausting just to get food on the table. On the other hand, when we prepare food that eludes all of that, it’s a victory for the world we want to see, and a three-times daily victory feels pretty gratifying. Frankly revolutionary.

Given how precious the food we grow or buy is when it is produced in alignment with our values, we don’t want to waste it.

Storage Crops

One of the ways we’ve been shifting our thinking in an effort to reduce food waste is to learn about traditional storage crops. While it takes some time to put up the jams, jellies, chutneys, butters, vinegars, booze that fill our pantry, it takes little time, effort, space to put away storage crops. Autumn is the moment for this. Whether you have a garden or not, whether your potato and sweet potato crop failed (yes, they did) or your squash production can meet your needs (not yet), whether your land or your neighbourhood has nut trees bearing (yes!), whether you grow enough carrots, beets, parsnips to sustain your family all winter (not quite), you can still connect with farmers and put away food. These are foods that thrive when stored properly. This is not like buying too much food and seeing it molder at the back of the fridge.

Farm-to-Table

About now, middle November, a local farmer (who uses no-till, beyond organic practices) will bring us sacks of squash and root veg to store away. Squash sits on the staircase. Beets, carrots, parsnips go under damp sand in a box somewhere cool, potatoes in a sack go into a cool dark corner. Garlic is already hanging in a dry spot. We’ve cleaned and cured the walnut crop and it could last all year in the shell if they weren’t too good to resist.

Whole grains and the Winter Potager

Our grain mill further extends our storage since whole, unmilled grains last, stored dry and away from creatures, for years. We can leave cool, hardy greens like cabbage, kale, tatsoi, winter lettuce and our root veg standing in the garden til we need it, and in colder climates those could live under a low tunnel, or two, so there’s nothing wasted there.

There’s simplicity in creating meals this way. It’s a great relief.

dividing comfrey

One excellent way to become more self-reliant about improving soil fertility and the health of the homestead is to grow comfrey. Comfrey is a perennial herb, related to borage, also known as knit-bone or boneset…also known as a terrible weed. Amazing how terrible weeds like dandelion, nettle, comfrey, are actually so terribly good at taking care of our needs. Comfrey’s taproot plumbs the depths of the earth, bringing up more minerals and well-balanced goodness than a hen can poop. Certainly more than chemist could mix. Once you’ve got comfrey, you can just make more, for so many purposes.

dividing-comfrey

The dynamic accumulator

Comfrey’s deep taproot makes it a dynamic accumulator, so we plant it around our fruit trees to pull up nutrition from deep in the soil; then cut back the leaves from time to time (say, when they’re a couple of feet tall) to mulch the tree. Best to bury those leaves under some other mulch to retain all the nutrients. Their broad leaves shade the tree roots, too, thank you, and pollinators love the flowers.

The super-nutrient feed

We feed comfrey to our chickens, ducks and goats too. I cage smaller plants to keep them from getting browsed to death!

The fertiliser

We make a comfrey fertiliser to feed to other plants, as you would with nettle – simply cover with water, or not, put a lid on it, and allow to decompose til liquid. Then dilute to use. Smelly yet effective.

The healer

If anyone in my family shatters a bone again, boneset makes an excellent poultice. As a salve I swear by comfrey for aches and pains, it works extraordinarily well to reduce inflammation. A homesteader’s salve most definitely.

Make more comfrey

Now, we like to have plenty of comfrey plants, but one must tread the line carefully. Common comfrey will self-seed until there’s nothing in your garden but its offspring (unless you have goats to control it!) and once established, that root is determined to stay. On the other hand, Bocking 14 doesn’t self-seed very well, so it stays put – then if you want more comfrey, there’s nothing to do but dig it up and divide it.

Luckily, that’s easy. Have a look.

To propagate comfrey, dig up a healthy plant over a year old. Pull apart and even cut your root pieces, plant them just below the surface of the soil, and keep them watered til they are established. At the lakehouse, some creature regarded this as a root vegetable buffet, so it may be worth laying an old screen on top for a bit if you’ve got voracious squirrels or other root thieves lurking.

Then let everyone thrive on your useful weeds.

rhubarb crown

Rhubarb, like so many things I adore, requires more patience than work. You can plant a rhubarb crown through March – though November or December is best – so we squeaked in a quick bit of transplanting.

rhubarb crown © elisa rathje 2013

My mother’s well-established rhubarb is coming along nicely. Next door to this raised bed, we needed to move some rhubarb to another spot.

rhubarb crown

We gently dug it out, just as you would if you were dividing it. I can see what it is called a crown, the roots are majestic.

rhubarb planting

The crown needs to be planted with the growth at or just above the soil level, and some good compost tipped in first will help it get a good start. Here’s where the patience comes in. Aside from watering in well, the rhubarb isn’t harvested in its first year, and only lightly in the second. Yet for a good ten years, the rhubarb should provide nicely, without much attention at all. A bit of fertiliser in midsummer perhaps, and then cutting back the leaves in autumn when they’ve died off. Not much to it.

rhubarb crown © elisa rathje 2013

It seems happy enough, though it might have preferred moving earlier in the year. One day I’ll be settled enough to put in my own rhubarb and look forward to years of pulling rhubarb for kiiseli, rhubarb tarts, rhubarb anything. Perhaps I shall give in to a Victorian impatience and try forcing it with a rhubarb pot! I anticipate it each spring as the first local fruit of the season.

beekeeping

Early in October, when autumn was convinced it was summer, we visited my dear friend Sarah and her children in the city. In her beautiful kitchen I stumbled upon the most beautiful and unexpected object.

honey frame

A frame from their beehive, thoroughly sculpted with honeycomb, heavy with honey. I had no idea Sarah kept a hive in the garden! I fell over. Such an astonishing, amazing thing. How much would I love to do this! Like keeping chickens, beekeeping takes some studying, a well-designed structure, a good spot in the garden and a bit of bravery – and learning from watching someone else helps so much. Now I have a beekeeping friend to watch, with keen interest.

honeycomb

I’ve admired the hives on Old Plawhatch Farm near our old cottage in Sussex, and listened to a fascinating talk there by the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Sarah and I talked about how she’s caring for the bees, instinctively following principles I’ve become so interested in. What if the hive isn’t opened often, so it stays warmer, the way the bees need it? What if honey is only taken when the hive is particularly heavy, so the bees have their natural food through winter?

<beehive

The hive strikes me as an unimaginable treasure. The intoxicating scent of beeswax, and so many wonderful uses for the beautiful stuff; the exquisite particularity of flavours of a local honey, and its extraordinary healing benefits; the tremendous contribution a beehive imparts to the health of the neighbourhood’s flora; the utter delight of watching the grace and beauty of bees at work. I love it, I am completely inspired. Thank you, Sarah.

hand-tied bouquet

Would you like to learn to hand-tie a bouquet? I spent a beautiful day studying floristry at the Blooming Green flower farm, and made a little movie for you to see how it’s done. Jen showed us some very simple directions to follow, to stunning effect, using gorgeous flowers and extraordinary greenery, freshly picked on the farm.

You’d like some more detail? Let’s take it slowly:

hand-tied-bouquet

After cutting your plants and standing them in a bucket of water for a good soak, begin by conditioning the flowers. Simply strip the lower leaves off the flowers to keep them from decomposing in the water. Wear gloves if you like.

hand-tied-bouquet

Lay out your flowers and greens and have a sense of how many you have of each. Odd numbers are often the most pleasing to the eye.

hand-tied-bouquet

Begin with a fluffy, well-structured bit of greenery, to support the flowers that will surround it. Fennel is quite wonderful.

hand-tied-bouquet

Lay your first blossom at an angle to the green.

hand-tied-bouquet

If you have three blossoms to add, turn the bouquet a third, add another at the same angle, turn another third, and add the last blossom. Have a look at the movie to get a sense of how Jen turns the bouquet and adds more flowers.

hand-tied-bouquet

Continue to work in this way, choosing greens and flowers and paying attention to multiples, so if you have five lengths of weeping willow, turn the bouquet in fifths, always adding at that same angle to creating a tight, spiralling structure to the stems.

hand-tied-bouquet

Now and then turn the bouquet to have a look from the top to see if you’ve got a rounding, arching shape to the bouquet – though if there are longer sprigs that naturally want to spray up and out, Jen likes to let those have their way, too.

The tie Jen uses is quite wonderful. Simply fold a length of twine in half, loop it round your thumb as you hold the stems in place. Wrap the two ends around the stems and back to the loop, and slip them through it. Then you can pull the ends in opposite directions, wrapping as many times as you like around and tying a firm bow when they meet. I’ve forgotten the name of this tie, it’s charming!

hand-tied-bouquet

Snip the stems cleanly at the end, leaving enough length to support the flowers.

hand-tied-bouquet

A well-made hand-tied bouquet will have enough structure to stand alone! Let me know if you have a go. I’m so pleased to have had a lesson in hand-tying, such a satisfying thing to be able to do yourself. Thanks Jen! If you’re in England and looking for ecologically, locally grown flowers to buy online, or better yet, you’d like to pick your own for an event, visit Blooming Green in Kent. They are such a delight.

If you like studying traditional skills this way, have a look at the old school movies. They come with beautiful patterns, guides and materials, available in the appleturnovershop.

flower farm

Not so far from our little cottage is a flower farm. We drove across Kentish countryside full of bluebells and blossoming orchards, to visit the land where Blooming Green grow row upon row of gorgeous flowers. We’ve something very special happening this week, and we wanted to pick flowers ourselves, ones that are in season, local, and grown with as much care as the organic food we eat.

flower-farm

flower-gatherers

flower-harvester

flowers-picked

One day I shall grow my own cutting garden, inspired by this gorgeous bit of England. If you have something special you’d like to pick your own flowers for, do visit Blooming Green Flowers, they are so wonderful. Thank you ever so much, Jen & Bek!

flower-buckets