Sustainable Living with a Garden: All Posts

In my own opinion, an essential and deeply satisfying strategy for sustainable gardening is putting the plants to use at every stage of their life-cycle. Saving seed from open-pollinated varieties enables me to grow a variety I like year after year - and even select for traits that fit my own garden - without necessitating a big yearly seed order. (Choosing to make a wintertime seed order because it's a Hell of a lot of fun is another matter.) Composting kitchen vegetable scraps enables me to capitalize on those nutrients, which will be made available through decay, that I worked so hard to put in there, in the first place - and ultimately provides me with a balanced, natural soil supplement. Also don't underestimate the seedlings you thin out from the seed flat: they might just make a mean little side salad. "Getting Fresh" blog posts cover these and other ways to enjoy making your garden more sustainable, reuse stuff in garden DIY projects, and taking advantage of natural or readily available sources of what your plants need.

The Seeds of Something Bigger

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

Why I garden, really.This article that predicts a widespread seed shortage hasn’t left my thoughts since I first read it weeks ago. It hadn’t occurred to me that the home gardening boom could go anywhere but benignly forward, until I read Sharon Astyk’s article and thought more critically about producing my own food.

I’ve been as guilty as (or guiltier than) anyone, when it comes to jumping on the green bandwagon, preferring anything with an organic classification, and following trends that, upon closer examination, are case studies of marketing savvy rather than environmental responsibility. Especially when shopping with a tenaciously impatient toddler, I gravitate towards labels with that veneer of wholesomeness.

When it comes to gardening, in particular, I like to learn by doing, and in this case, that means gardening from seeds to harvest. I remain convinced that the best way to learn about healthy food is to dive in and try making it from the earliest starting point one can muster, especially given that growing conditions seem to differ from one inch to the next, and what works in my garden might not in yours. Lately, however, I have been reconsidering what it means, exactly, to learn by doing. Enthusiasm is one thing, and commitment is something entirely different. I’m in this gardening thing for the long haul, and, given the current state of the economy and the environment, that means I have the opportunity to do something profoundly meaningful for myself and my family, here, as long as I keep my critical capacities about me.

In short, I don’t want there to be more “doing” going on than “learning.”

What this means — concretely, right now — is that I’m choosing seeds more judiciously, with the infinitesimal growing conditions I have closest at hand. I love the ease and smug freshness of salad, so I grow more greens than prettier crops that I don’t actually enjoy eating very much (hot peppers, for example, don’t currently make the cut). In my opinion, there’s a lot of bang for my buck in a bunch of red lettuce, particularly because the red lettuce I buy anywhere else, no matter how “fresh,” seems to slime up if I just look at it funny. Add to that that I love the economy, self-reliance, and (let’s face it) nurturing aspect of saving seeds, so I’m seeking out vegetable varieties that can literally last lifetimes. Try growing a lettuce variety to seed; it’s fireworks on a miniscule scale.

And, boy, would I love to figure out a better system of collecting and producing compost than taking multiple cross-town trips with a tiny, stinking can.

Enthusiasm, meet commitment.

Will Farm for Food: Work Exchanges Abroad

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Every once in a while, I dream of being an organic farmer — romantic notions that disperse when I realize the level of commitment and unforeseeable changes that lifestyle would demand. I usually sum up my daydreams the same way I might an exotic vacation spot: It’s a nice place to visit, maybe, but not to live.

But what if I could combine the dream with a vacation? Wrangle dirt all day, follow a meal from field to fork, work my heart out for a week or so…

Well, a while ago I bookmarked the site Help Exchange, in a folder called “Vacation.” It’s a directory of hosts who will put you up (and usually feed you, too) in exchange for farm or garden work — on a goat farm in Tuscany, for example, or in an olive orchard in Greece. A lot of places offer exchanges year-round, and, although the issue of work visas can come into play, there are ways of getting around it, by tacking on a period of work exchange to a regular vacation stay, for example. Sounds like a great way to extend a vacation, to me.

And then you get to garden, too. Work can be play.

Lights of the Future

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009
Grow vs. Snow | Kate OdenDeep winter, northern New England, and I keep circling around the same subject: How can I grow more things to eat — right now, indoors, six months before the last frost date? I mean, this is the 21st century, and it must be possible (so my thought process usually starts…and ends, hours later, after I’ve concocted yet another wild design that might just reflect, intensify, or bend the natural light effectively enough). I’m willing to bet that I’m in good company, that many Northern gardeners are enjoying the same sort of winter escapism right about now. Once again, it’s grow vs. snow.

Well, here’s a new nugget of hope for all of us who fantasize about growing more edibles mid-winter: Future advances in LED lighting, up to 500% more efficient than CFL’s, that could generate full-spectrum light over a much longer lifetime, without the heat output, and which could revolutionize agriculture, not to mention indoor gardening. And they’re predicted to be on the market within the next decade.

Needless to say, this sent me on an hours long flight of fancy over the Internet. There’s a cadre of gardeners bolder than I who’re making their own LED arrays, and even some who’ve posted experimental results — in short, existing LED products don’t beat out fluorescent lights for growing plants, but there’s a lot of promise here, and it’s pretty exciting. Just the sort of technology that I’m hoping the Obama administration will encourage.