Category Archives: Reskilling

The Garden Adventure Begins Again

Last year I “graduated” from the urban farming program at the Permaculture Research Institute for Cold Climate. I don’t believe I achieved “expertise,” but I did gain some useful knowledge, I devoted much more time to my garden, and I have become part of a  community of food growers. It was a good experience that left me eager to see what I could do the next growing season.

The Plan for 2013

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Acknowledging Trade Offs when it Comes to Saving Water

Oil and Gas versus Water

The greater the distance your food travels to get to your table, the more oil-dependent your lifestyle. Saving energy is one reason why we’ve expanded our fruit and vegetable production. Freshness and knowing that it was safely grown are other reasons. But gardens themselves take resources, particularly water.

Although we’ve had somewhat decent rainfall this year in Minnesota, fresh water is a valuable resource that really needs to be conserved. We have only one rain barrel and we haven’t always used it well. We want a multi-barrel system with a pump but we’re not there yet. Even the multi-headed sprinkler system I set up hasn’t been working properly. Next year I’m going try the newest low-tech watering trick every garden website is showing – plastic pop bottles planted upside down near voracious plants like tomatoes.

We eat something from the garden almost every day, but I’m also learning to process vegetables for winter. I’m most familiar with water-bath canning. I can tomatoes, sauce and pickles – things with high amounts of acid. It takes quite a lot of water to wash the vegetables and to fill the canning pot. And it takes a fair amount of natural gas to heat all that water. If I’m going to be canning two days in a row, I save the water in the canning pot, but I have a very small and inefficient kitchen. I can’t keep a huge pot of water sitting around. If it’s not going to be used soon, we “water” the compost bin (compost breaks down faster when it’s got the right amount of moisture) or the veggies with it.

Canning together saves resources and is a lot more fun.

In the past month, I’ve been canning with my neighborhood Transition group (Transition Longfellow). As part of our reskilling efforts, we’ve been teaching folks how to pickle veggies and can tomatoes. By doing these projects together in small groups — many people using the same water bath — we save water and natural gas.

I recently bought a pressure canner so I can process low-acid foods like beets and green beans and meat. At first I couldn’t understand why people said it was more efficient because a pressure canner takes far more time to process foods. Now that I’ve done my first batches of soup and broth, I understand. The pressure canner uses only a couple of quarts of water – as opposed to many gallons used in the water canner – and once it reaches boiling, I can turn the gas to the very lowest setting. Pressure keeps the heat high.

I’ve got two more food preservation methods to learn: dehydrating and fermenting. I’ve just bought a pickling jar to ferment cucumber pickles and a glazed crock to ferment cabbage for sauerkraut, both from EggPlant Urban Farm Supply. They also have a glazed water-seal pot for pickling, which is locally made. I’m in love with it but it’s too expensive for me.

Ultimately, I need to learn more about methods of food preservation that use fewer, or more easily available resources. I’ve ordered two books on this:

It’s harvest time! How far did your food travel?

Oh Bounteous Garden…

Pickled peppers

August was supposed to be the month we looked at reducing our carbon footprint in the area of transportation. What was I thinking?! I’m spending any non-work hours trying to stay ahead of the garden. We have learned how to can and pickle and ferment.

We’ve pickled green beans and peppers, cukes and beets and cherry tomatoes. We put up stewed tomatoes. I’ve got two containers of tomato puree in the fridge, a big mess o’ green and purple beans, and an abundance of fridge pickles cuz I let the pickling cukes get too large.

Garlic harvest

Produce from the garden

I’m waiting until all the pickling is done before I freeze the remainder of the 16 heads of garlic – absolutely luscious and interesting to experience the drying process. We had to dry them indoors because of the high humidity in July. We’ll be doing that again.

The tomatoes are starting to slow down now in the cooling weather. The peppers are still going strong – we’ll have a big batch of jalapenos and hot hungarians and a few more gorgeous green peppers. The eggplants are still going strong – we have purple and long, thing green ones. Collards look nice but didn’t get very big.

While I was out harvesting, a neighbor came by. I like him a lot and usually think he’s a very sensible guy, but he said he sees no value to gardening. He knows where he can get a tomato any time of the year – at the grocery store.

I pointed out that my tomato only traveled 10 feet, was picked in its prime and was never exposed to toxic chemicals. He thinks it’s a waste of time. While the industrial food system is working, he wants what he wants, when he wants it.

Canning and pickling

My neighbor believes in global warming but he doesn’t think there is anything we can do about it. Getting food closer to home – reducing the carbon footprint of food – is not a meaningful solution to him. On the other hand, he believes we have an “excess population” problem and coming food shortages are nature’s way of balancing.

That’s a pretty scary thought. I would rather be more hopeful and life-loving. I would rather enlarge my garden and learn how to grow more and preserve more. Maybe my garden can’t get us through a winter but let’s see what we can do with my garden and local farmers.

We’re learning. We thinking about issues. And I guess I was paying attention to my transportation footprint after all, in the form of food.

Experiments in Square-Foot Gardening

This month the mini-challenge is localizing our food.We’re paying attention to where our food comes from at the coop, choosing Minnesota or Wisconsin-grown, rather than California or Mexico. At our last trip, 24% of our purchase was local.

raised bed garden box

One of our square foot garden boxes

The other big effort – especially this time of year – is in the garden.

Last year we worked with the Permaculture Institute for Cold Climates and had an urban farmer create and work our veggie garden. This year we’re back to doing it ourselves, but with a twist. We’ve planted several square foot gardens in addition to a more traditional vegetable plantings directly in the dirt (the circular bed). The square foot layout is intended to maximize yield while minimizing space, to virtually eliminate weeding, and to generally simplify gardening.

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Join the Local Food Conversation

Growing food as locally as possible is a key component of the sustainability movement and addresses a number of problems:

  • Increasing cost of healthy food due to high cost of fuel to transport
  • Lack of access for some people to healthy food options
  • Better control over food quality (big agri-business practices have created some big health problems)
  • Reduced use of pesticides and herbicides
  • Allows more careful attention to health of plants and soil than large industrial farms

The city-wide group, Gardening Matters, has been very active throughout Minneapolis in getting gardens started. But there are a host of other challenges to increasing urban agriculture.

A wonderful conversation is taking place at Gandhi Mahal restaurant around issues of local food. A group of Longfellow neighbors has been meeting for the past two months to talk about the practical needs people encounter with growing, harvesting, distributing and storing food. Topics have included:

  • Increasing the number of community gardens
  • Garden planning
  • Ways to help existing gardeners share their produce with those who do not have enough to eat
  • How local restaurants can coordinate with local gardeners to increase their use of organic local produce
  • Food preservation — classes for cooking, processing and preserving produce
  • A food storage bank where residents can cold store processed produce for later use
  • Energy efficient greenhouses

Longer-term food storage (finding the right conditions to keep your produce through an entire winter) is one of the immediate projects the group is undertaking.

If you are interested in joining the local food conversation, leave a comment on the blog. I’ll connect you with the organizers.

Fighting Built-In Obsolescence

One of the foundations of the Transition Town movement is reskilling — learning how to do the things that people used to know how to do in order to live. Repairing broken items is one of those skills, but how do you do it when the item in question was built to break and be unrepairable? (Having just thrown away 2 irons, I’m feeling this dilemma acutely.)

Check out this article about Repairware in Treehugger. If you have examples of easy-to-repair items, please post responses here.