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.

an illustrated guide to 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.

artichoke harvest

Growing artichokes is very much like a long friendship of the sort that, once established, requires little and gives a lot.

I longed to grow these gloriously elegant, edible flowers. I did try, in London – not enough sun, too many snails. And in Sussex – another failure, do start the seeds in late January! One must be patient with an artichoke’s youth, though if you really have started early enough to catch some cold weather, you may see flowers that summer. Finally at our lakeside garden, the seedlings sprouted very well, and grew into tender adolescents.

A year later they took off with impressive splendour and soon we harvested the giant buds. To prepare them, we cut the base flat, and stand them in a bit of water, covered, to steam for a very long twenty minutes, during which there is plenty of time to melt butter and squeeze lemon into finger bowls.

When a low leaf pulls softly away, it is time. With our largest mixing bowl ready in the center of the table to catch the great leaf-pile, and tiny bowls of lemon butter at each place, we pluck petal after petal from the outside of the artichoke, dipping, scraping teeth over leaf to graze the softest bit. More patience required, but the sweetest kind. This is most definitely a seductive food. I help the children when they reach the heart, prickly on one side and still protected under tiny leaves on the other. If you pry at a slight angle, with a sharp knife, you can separate the itchy prickles from the artichoke heart without much trouble. Then a buttery, lemony chin is inevitable, as is a bit of rapture.

All this for a bit of water, a haircut in late summer, a mulch before winter. Resilient plant. These artichokes may be our companions for twenty years! What a pleasing thought.

plant labels

We’re sowing seeds to catch the early springtime in a coldframe set upon the sunny deck. I wanted a robust and beautiful method for marking our seedlings as they grow and move out into the garden. We’re trying out a couple of natural materials.

stone-labels

First, bound for planters and pots, smooth stones with a bit of white ink. I’m fond of calligraphy, but simple printing would look lovely as well.

chamomile-label

Some offcuts of cedar are just the thing for marking a veg patch, for they’ll last many years in wet weather and will develop a silvery patina along the way. Nothing toxic near the edibles, I say. Or anywhere else, ideally.

tomato-labels

I like how the shape of this wood lends itself to displaying information. On one plane, ‘tomato’ and the next, ‘jaune flamme’ or ‘indigo rose.’ Latin plant names might be quite lovely too.

labeled-frame

All our little seeds tucked up in bed.

planting blueberries

Luck was on our side when we heard that a blueberry farm in Victoria was changing hands. The new farmers invited local folk to dig up several varieties of mature blueberries and take them home, for just a few dollars each. (Send me a note, Victorians, if you’re reading this in early May, and I can give you their details to get your own. There’s a few left.)

blueberry-farm

Just the sort of day for a blueberry farm adventure. You’ll want to get at least two or three varieties, as they produce more berries when they have friends.

blueberry-dig

You can get away with planting, or transplanting, a blueberry most of the year in this coastal climate. Dig down at least the length of a spade, all the way round, leaving a sizeable root ball.

blueberry-lift

When it has worked loose, get the spade right under and push hard to lift it.

blueberry-carry

We were so sore from carrying a dozen of these beauties, with all their earth. We lined the cars with tarps, but you could bring a large bag to move a plant this size too.

blueberry-farm

Best to bring a picnic on this sort of trip, not unlike blueberry-picking journeys in midsummer.

blueberry-transplants

The little blueberry and strawberry plants I’d put in on a sunny spot welcomed a few more plants. There’s Reka, Bluecrop, Duke and Liberty in this mix. I dug quite deeply and widely, mixed in some rich compost and a bit of homemade bone meal, and mulched with pine needles to give them the acidity they like. The heavy spring rains have kept them well watered in. Fingers crossed for a big crop!

We are delighted to have berries put in at the lake. We may always pick at a local farm for preserving, yet it’s such a basic pleasure to eat fresh fruit from our own garden. Do you have a berry patch?