We've reached the halfway point of our budget and pantry challenge! I cut Steven's hair again! We cleaned out the kitchen and organized it! Steven won a gift certificate to Brightside Kitchen in Clive, and we are excited to go there on a date soon! We went and watched the bald eagles flying around Saylorville dam and counted more than 20! We are starting to plant peppers and herbs for the Spring Plant Sale under the grow lights downstairs. I took one of my exceptions and gave myself an extra $50 of groceries this week. Our budget challenge of $56 a week is really tight. Amanda wanted a fire pit party. Its a little cold outside so we compromised and had a fireplace party instead. We got yummy stuff for Steven's birthday that is coming up next week too! We have spent $450 in groceries and household goods since January 1 for all our groceries and household goods for our family of 8. The garden and food storage is what makes it even possible.
Speaking of the garden...all this planning and preparing while we are focused on eating what we grew last summer had me pondering on the law of the harvest this week. Basically, this is the rule that says you will harvest what you plant. For example, if I want pumpkins, I have to plant pumpkin seeds. Tomato seeds will never grow pumpkins, only tomatoes. This is an immutable law. Being a gardener, you already know that part. You also know the rest of the story. Planting is the easy part, but it is a long time between planting a seed and harvesting a crop. Here are 6 principles that I've learned while growing our own food.
1. Prepare before anything goes in the ground. You have to want a harvest bad enough to plan and prepare months before you will ever harvest ripe tomatoes. I frequently get asked to teach gardening classes in May or June. That's good, but that's more than halfway through my growing season. You have to be planning and preparing now to have a great garden. I'll start potting up strawberries the beginning of March, and we already have some herbs and hot peppers growing. With the wind chill at -10 below zero on this cold Iowa morning, it doesn't feel like spring, but even if the temperature doesn't reflect it, spring is coming fast. Seeds have arrived and I have a huge bin of seeds sitting on my desk waiting for their turn to be planted. I keep trying to write up the garden plan. How many tomatoes? Which type of peppers? Where will we plant the 2000 flowers seeds we ordered? Where should we move the raspberries to so they will be happier? Emily wants a 25 lb watermelon variety. Steven ordered a new type of rhubarb. Where will I put that? Hmmm. Maybe I can grow the herbs hydroponically on the deck? We have lots of decisions to make. This is also a good time to imagine how delicious the first ripe fruits will taste on a sunny summer afternoon, and make plans for what you want to do with the sweet, juicy and sun warmed fruits when they come, because once the harvest starts you'll really have to lengthen your stride to keep ahead of it all.
2. You can't fast forward growth. Have you ever watched a kids show about farming? It does not mirror my gardening experience. It usually goes something like this. Plant the seeds, water it with magic water or sing it a special song, and cut to the big perfect harvest. I know, kids shows are short, and attention spans are even shorter, but it bothers me that they always leave out the every day part, where the plant actually grows and develops over time. We facilitate that kind of movie magic when we go grocery shopping. Stores are filled with all sorts of foods from all over the world. If you are eating grapes now they are probably from Mexico, and over the next few weeks we'll start getting lots of fresh fruit from Chile, where it is the end of their summer. This week I saw peaches, plums, and nectarines, on sale at my local grocery store. Food that miraculously appears out of thin air disconnects us from its growing season making it hard to put a value on our food. How long did it take for that pineapple or asparagus to grow? Avocados grow on trees? Peanuts grow how? That disconnect makes it hard to appreciate how much time and effort went into growing it.
3. Growth doesn't happen without opposition. The middle part of this food story is where all the excitement happens, the conflict. I was reading a news article this week about locusts in Africa. A plague of locusts, will destroy a harvest. If the harvest is destroyed, you can't just plant seeds, sing a magic song and go right back to harvest bounty. There are so many areas of concern in the world today. Australia is in a drought. What do they grow that we eat? We buy their beef, nuts and sugar. It's a good thing we have California. No wait, California is in a drought. Never mind, they're having record rains. On second thought, they are back to dry. I'm sure they'll work out the water wars between the growing cities and the farmers. They're only important because supply us with 90+% of our produce. On the other hand maybe I will grow a bigger garden this year, just in case.
Pick a country that grows food, and I could find you a reason that farming is challenging, whether it is the weather, or wars or political and economic upheaval. Growing food is not a piece of cake. From record cold and late freezes, we move into excessive rain, flooding and hail, followed by drought and fire. If all of that isn't enough stress, lets bring on the weeds, diseases, insects, rodents, and more. Everyone has times of opposition. You have to work hard, pray harder, and count your blessings. Here is one of mime. I'm glad I'm chasing rabbits out of my garden and not elephants! You can't just throw seeds in the ground and reap a great harvest, not even here in Iowa where we have great soil and plenty of rain. Getting a great harvest means, watering, weeding, mulching, feeding, and protecting all season long. Everyday, everyday, everyday! So if you ate today, give a farmer a high-five, because growing food is more challenging than you might think!
4. Enjoy the process, not just the harvest. So now that I've scared you off farming, let me reassure you about this adventure called growing your own food. If you planted and you are doing the daily work, it will work out. Pests eat some things, but not others. A frost will catch some trees, but not all. Lots can be done to minimize risks and mitigate problems as they come up. Do not despair! The middle of the growing season is my favorite part! That's where all the excitement and growth happens. Growing food in a garden is just like a heroic tale in epic literature. The hero (a seed in this case) embarks on this great journey, and faces obstacles and challenges (hungry caterpillars, rodents of unusual size, fast growing weeds, torrential rainstorms). As our heroic seed completes this journey, it is totally transformed by the experience. But even in great literature or in garden blogs, you will find there is a lot of emphasis on the action and not on the everyday effort. They tend to leave out the day to day mundane stuff like "we sailed all day today, and didn't see land", repeated 30 times. Or in the garden version "I went out and watered the garden and weeded for five minutes again today." So we forget about how important it really is, and how much joy there is in the every day routine.
When you garden you get to see this miraculous transformation up close. I love watching leaves unfurl and flowers appear. Growth seems to take forever and be instantaneous all at the same time. You'll water and weed for days and then all of a sudden find a full grown zucchini hiding under the leaves. If you've raised children you already know this pattern. They seem to be little forever, then in a blink, one fine morning in June they turn into a zucchini big enough to be a baseball bat, and they are ready to go off to college. Zucchini seem to grow whether you watch them or not, but kids need a little more care. Its a hero's journey in either case.
5. If you're diligent, your harvest will be multiplied exponentially. Once you have mastered the every day aspect of the law of the harvest, then the blessings roll in. I'll go from picking a handful of tomatoes every day to needing a bin to carry it all. By August I'll have 100+ lbs of produce waiting to be processed every week. The best part about this law is that if you do the every day work, the reward is exponentially amazing. My one tomato seed could become a huge tomato plant holding 40-50 tomatoes (promise on my Bodacious tomato seed packet). That one tomato seed could provide me with 15 quarts of canned tomatoes which is 15 family dinners if I take the time to capture the moment when the harvest is in full swing. One little clump of rhubarb will last for 20 years, feeding my family and getting bigger and better every spring with very little effort if I can get it through the first few years. We're still eating the strawberry freezer jam we made last year and the strawberry plants are already greening up and getting ready to go for this spring. It feels like such a blessing to be part of the process of providing food for our family. I might plant seeds and Steven likes to water, but God provides the increase. I'm glad he lets me help.
6. You have to harvest when its ready, so watch and be ready. This last principle is not well understood as disconnected as we are from living and growing things. You have windows of opportunity with growing things. You have to be ready to move when the time is right. Steven's parents grow alfalfa. They have to cut it at just the right time for best nutrient content. Then it has to be dried, raked, fluffed again if its been rained on at all, dried again and baled, with dew for small bales, without dew for large bales, hauled to the stack and covered all in a very short window of time. Working around the the clock they try to fit all that work into a favorable weather window. The water needs to be turned on again as soon as possible to water the alfalfa that is already starting to grow again. It is not rest time during the harvest. The whole year's planning, preparing, watching, weeding, mulching, and feeding all come down to this time. All that work! Who will get the harvest? It's a big prize. When strawberries, currants, blackberries, or tomatoes get ripe, they are ready to go. Birds are waiting to eat my berries, and rain will split ripe tomatoes. Cucumber beetles and other insects will take every inch I give them, and late blight is trying to take the tomatoes. There is just a short window to preserve the harvest. We can all day and frequently into the night. We run the dehydrator and vacuum sealer almost constantly during this time. But it's a short season. Frosts are coming, then winter snows and the garden will rest for a season. By November we are celebrating and enjoying the fruits of the season. Cooking is easy because its all inside and prepared.
This is not a course for the faint of heart, but there are amazing rewards for those who embark on this heroic journey. We are gearing up for another good growing season. It will be an adventure. I'm not sure what challenges we'll face, but if we follow these principles I am confident we will have a great harvest! Right now, in the middle of February, we're enjoying all the effort we put into the garden last year. Spaghetti with homemade sauce is a super fast meal the kids can make with all the ingredients sitting in the pantry. Spicy green chili sauce, tangy currant jellies, and sweet blueberry syrups are all just steps away. Even though I've only spent $450 on groceries since the beginning of the year, we are still eating very well. Growing our own food has been a very rewarding adventure!