Category: Gardening

Hurrah for Teenage Cat

I planted a dwarf Montmorency cherry tree several years ago, and have been waiting eagerly for a year in which I could actually, y’know, pick some cherries. Previously, one defiant bird stripped all the cherries before they even had a chance to ripen, but this year, the tree not only had a bumper crop, but the birds mysteriously stayed away.

In the last week, we’ve harvested three huge bowls of tart cherries, probably around 10 quarts total. I was mystified at the good luck until Paul reminded me that a feral cat has taken up residence in our backyard — a slender, white-and-grey kitty with gangly long legs that we have taken to calling “Teenage Cat.” That seems to be the only differing factor this year — the topmost branches were picked clean as usual, but all the lower ones remained untouched — and it seems as likely an explanation as we’re going to get.

After pitting them in stages and freezing them (there’s only so much pitting one can do in a day before one starts getting aggrivated…) I’ve simmered the cherries down in the crockpot and whirled the results in my blender to make a kind of cherry butter. I’m more fond of jam with whole fruit, but this allows a nice thick jam consistency without a ton of extra sugar or pectin. I like it lots.

Thanks, Teenage Cat! We’ll have to leave you some extra food out this winter.

Gardening costs

Whenever people discuss frugality or ways to stretch your budget in this tough economy, one of the first things that gets suggested is starting a garden and then canning or freezing what you grow. I myself am a big proponent of both, as should be obvious to people who read this blog.

But really — how much does one save? Well, that depends on a lot of factors. Let’s take, as an example, the tomato sauce I made this weekend.

around a bushel of tomatoes (~50 lbs)
one large onion
a head of garlic
four bell peppers

Yield: about eight quarts (I like thick sauce; you could probably get ten if you like it thinner)
Time: six to eight hours, including processing time.

First, let’s assume best-case scenario: starting your own plants from seed and planting on land you have access to: your yard, or a neighborhood garden.

A packet of tomato seeds and a packet of pepper seeds would set you back about $5 total (and that’s using cheap, hardware-store seed, not organic seed). Alternately, healthy young plants cost about $2 each — you’d need at least 4-8 tomato plants depending on yield and at least one good pepper plant, for a total of around $15. Then you have to tend and water them for at least 3 months. Total cost, not counting time and water investment: $5-$15, plus $2 for lids, plus another $1 for a big onion and $1 for a head of garlic, best case scenario, assuming you already own canning jars; that’s somewhere between $1 – $2.40 per jar.

Buying direct from the farmer’s market, tomatoes cost around $25 per bushel. Best case scenario, if you qualify for SNAP and have a participating market, you might be able to get them for $12.50. Plus lids, onions and garlic again, you’re looking at $2 – $3.75/jar.

None of this takes into account having a functional stove, pots big enough to boil two gallons of sauce down, a food mill, the time to process the food, or the transportation to get a bushel’s worth of tomatoes back home (try that on the bus sometime). Even if you only “pay yourself” $1 per hour for your time, and ignore the transportation/gas/electric/water costs involved, those quarts are much closer to $5-$10 each. Throw kids into the equation (either watching, or figuring out babysitting during shopping/gardening and cooking) and the time cost gets exponentially steeper.

I grew my tomatoes from seed at a community garden, but bought the peppers, garlic and onion, and that made my material costs equal to about $1.50 /quart. I’m blessed to have inherited a seemingly endless supply of canning jars, as well as a Victorio Strainer, so I don’t have any equipment costs beyond lids. Giving myself $1 an hour, and factoring in a few external costs, I project my sauce actually works out to someplace around $5-$8/quart. Not much of a savings when you consider you can walk into Meijer’s and get Newman’s Own for $2.16. True, organic sauce at the food co-op costs $6/quart — but that $25/bushel at the farmer’s market is for conventional tomatoes. The cost goes up if you buy organic (again, unless you grow your own).

Here’s another thing to consider: I don’t have a yard suitable for growing food in. I did cobble together a couple of small garden boxes, but the light is weak enough that I’m pretty limited to what I can grow. That still gives me a much better setup than someone with an apartment balcony, and works out to about 16 square feet of dirt. I’m a pretty good gardener, can afford good seed, practice square-foot gardening, use trellises and can afford the odd bit of fish fertilizer. I also have space for a compost heap, which keeps me from having to buy more dirt every spring –again, not something someone could do in an apartment, or in most rental scenarios (though one of my landlords did let me keep a garden when I asked, so it’s not out of the question). All this means I have much more knowledge, space, and tools at my disposal than your average person off the street. That being said, here’s what my home garden yielded this year:

a pint of sugar peas
a dozen tennis-ball sized tomatoes
a quart of string beans
a pint of edamame beans
three small bunches of chard
about fifteen salads’ worth of lettuce
about a pound of runner beans

and that’s all. This was a legume-heavy year to prep the soil for nightshades or cucurbits next year — and while I could do another late planting of lettuce or kale, I’d only get maybe another two small bunches out of them. (Cold frames are off the table this year — I just don’t have the time, energy or tools to build them, and even if I found some storm windows to salvage, I’d still be looking at about $30 in lumber, parts, and gas.) And again, this is with a better setup than many urban gardeners could hope for.

Yes, gardening, cooking, and food preservation *can* help extend your food budget — and home- or locally-grown food is better for you in all sorts of ways — but they’re just not magic bullets. Unless you have a huge yard, save your own seed every year, and have the time and energy to throw into heavy-duty gardening, they’re a supplement, at best.

I am, of course, going to keep doing each of these things as long as I have the time, money, and location to do so — and I want somebody to come check me for a pulse if I ever stop — but I think it’s important to have a look at the total cost at the end of the season.

“It was I,” said the sparrow, “with my little bow and arrow”

The defiant cock-robin that lives in our yard ate every last one of my tart cherries. Every. Last. One. Three quarts’ worth at least, and most before they were even close to ripe, so I couldn’t pick them ahead of his appetite. Rotten little booger sat there and looked me in the eye as I attempted to shoo him off, making sure I saw him take another cherry with him when he flew away.

Next year it’s flash-tape and bird-netting, I swear.

Dang, garden.

Man, I go away for four hot days and the snap peas go from deflated little pods to brimming-full of fat peas, the strawberries are ripe except for their little green noses, and the cherries are blushing. Here’s hoping I get some of them before the birds do, this year.

White Privilege in the sustainable food movement

This is Good reading, especially for somebody who’s as dedicated to the Farmer’s Market/Food Co-Op/Community Garden plan as I am. I’m realizing more and more how much I need to challenge my assumptions about race and class in regards to food accessibility, and this is a good starting place.

EDIT: I forwarded this to the head of our Food Co-op and he said he’s passing it on to the board.

h/t to Delux-Vivens for posting about this earlier.

Community gardening!

So this last Saturday, I spent all day volunteering at two separate community gardens. The first is down at the end of my street in the Vine Neighborhood, and I was really thrilled to see all the folks who stopped by to help. I got to meet neighbors I’ve lived near for literal years and never met. I’m really looking forward to getting the majority of the plants in the ground over the next few weeks — it seems like a really dedicated enthusiastic bunch, and I’m sure I’ll have plenty of new friends afterwards. The Vine Neighborhood really needs more stuff like this to get us all out of our houses and interacting — it’s way too easy for us to just go to work and come home and never talk to one another. (On a side note, Paul and I have really been enjoying how many folks we’ve been meeting lately as we all use the park across the street to exercise our dogs. It’s good times!)

The second place I worked was at Peace House — and just like this awesome workday last year about a hundred local volunteers showed up from various churches, colleges and high schools. All the neighborhood kids volunteered too — and just like last year, most of them worked harder than the high schoolers, who seemed to prefer leaning on their shovels rather than using them. We built four enormous new raised beds and shoveled a dumptruck’s worth of compost into them, and added a huge sandbox to the playground. Peace House also just got some really good news — they received a grant to put in a fruit orchard of 18 dwarf trees! Soon they’ll have apples, pears, peaches and cherries to compliment their strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. I’m trying to convince them to put a grape arbor in, too.

Yay for community!

You know how I can’t shut up about how awesome our Farmer’s Market is?

Well, it’s for good reason. The People’s Food Co-op really deserves a massive shout-out for all their hard work on this issue, especially Chris Dilley and Elizabeth Forest. Unlike most other crunchy-granola organizations, they’re not about the food suppliments and high-end specialty items that only the well-to-do can purchase regularly — they’re about bringing healthy, affordable, local food to the community — and in Kalamazoo, making that food available with WIC/EBT/Bridge programs is essential. When the Coop had their first big outlay of seedlings this spring, I was delighted to see signs up next to them saying you could buy them with your Bridge card — so if you wanted to start a little window-box of lettuces and have fresh, cheap salad all summer long, you could lay out the $3 and be all set. How awesome is that? If you local folks have neighbors who might not know about this, spread the word, so that everybody can take advantage of this great resource

Rock on, Food Coop, and Farmer’s Market. You make this city such a good place to live.

Happy Green Day!

I celebrated by cleaning up the winter dog crap from the backyard!

And planting peas, lettuces and radishes. And celebrating the fact that I’m *not* playing Irish music to obnoxious drunk people in plastic hats.

The weather hit 60F for the first time since November, and it felt so very good to be outside in just shirtsleeves. Too bad it’s planning to snow on Sunday, just in time for our first paddling trip of the year.

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