So. I've decided that at least for the next several months, I will use this blog platform to share what I know about gardening. Specifically, how to grow a lot of food without a lot of fuss. I used to be a vegetable gardener, then I just was a gardener for the last decade. My thinking is that if I share this in a more thoughtful way, it might be useful to someone deciding to take the leap into gardening or looking to ramp up their garden in the next couple of months.
These will be short, because they will be daily. Why daily? Because that's the only sort of habit I seem to be able to stick with. So I will keep them short.
Today we got seeds in the ground. It's amazing how important that step is, and yet how we can take days to get around to it. Thinking of all the digging and amending and whatever we need to do... And then we look up and two weeks have gone by. So today my daughters helped me muck out the hoophouse where I had been working all winter, we pulled up the plywood, raked the leaves underneath into the path, broadforked it, spread some fertilizer, cultivated it in, raked it again, and then planted potatoes, carrots, spinach, radishes and lettuce. Then we did the same with an outside bed and planted sugarsnap peas. How long did that take? Less than an hour.
So don't make it more complicated than it needs to be. Go put some seeds in the ground. And if you live somewhere where that is not appropriate, fill an egg carton with soil and sow some seeds in that. Just start something.
So it's been awhile since I shared my bread recipe, and what with the coronavirus pandemic and the social distancing going on, I thought it would be an appropriate time to share my recipe, as I know it gives me a great deal of peace of mind to be able to at least bake fresh bread for my family.
I use a very simple, hands-off and forgiving recipe that involves a cast iron casserole pot like a Le Crueset or Dutch oven with a lid. In a pinch I've used a heavy pot with a cast iron frying pan for a lid. Also, a pizza stone helps though is not essential. I use sourdough, which I will address at the end, but you can also use dry yeast quite easily.
Here is the basic recipe:
4 cups flour (any type, but bread flour for much of it will give you more gluten strands and a more open, lacy structure)
3 large (three fingered) pinches of salt (I prefer kosher, but whatever)
1 large pinch of dry yeast if going that route
Once that is mixed, stir in 2 cups warm water. If using sourdough, mix in a pint of starter. You want a shaggy, wet dough that holds its shape but is definitely wet. Don't agonize. Stir only until all the dough is hydrated. Cover bowl with a plate and let rise 8-30 hrs. That's right, it's not a typo. You will get different results but you will get a perfectly fine loaf of bread.
I generally shoot for mixing up a dough in the afternoon, baking the next morning. If going more than 18 hours or so (which I would only do if I couldn't bake earlier), I might gently fold the dough halfway through, right in the bow, and let it rise again.
Half an hour before you want to bake, preheat your oven, a pizza stone if you got one and your pot with lid to 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Make sure to replace the knob on your pot with a bolt and wingnut if the knob is plastic, because this temperature will melt it.
Lay out a dishtowel, sprinkle it liberally with flour, and then using your fingers, gently scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the towel. Fold the sides of the dough in to the center, rotate 90 degrees and do it again. Wrap the towel around the dough and let rise until the oven has heated for thirty minutes.
Pull the pot out of the oven and remove the lid. Place the dough, still wrapped in the towel, into the pot, then gently lift two of the corners of the towel, unrolling the dough until it lands in the pot. Score the top of the loaf with a razor if desired. Replace lid and bake with lid on for thirty minutes. Remove lid and bake for fifteen more minutes. Remove bread from pot and prop up to cool.
There are a number of things you can do to streamline the process further. I fill the dough bowl with hot water while I deal with the dough, after which it is easy to clean. I walk outside to shake out the floured tea towel before I put it in the laundry. I don't bother washing the baking pot, ever. I store the bread, cut side down on the board, with no bag on it at all. It should stay delightful to eat for several days this way.
I have gone in and out of using sourdough starters for years, but recently have found the most success with my latest iteration. I created the starter by mixing flour and water and tossing some grapes that grew behind my house last fall into the batter. The bloom on grapes, apples and other fruit that hasn't been washed is the yeast you want to capture, but this yeast also exists all around us, so you don't strictly need this. I stirred this mixture each day and added more flour and water every other day for a week, at which point bubbles started to form, indicating that the yeast had taken hold.
I feed my starter whenever I make a bread dough, simply by mixing fresh flour and water into the same pint jar that I took the starter out of. The residue left in the jar does a great job of colonizing it. I calibrate how often I feed it and how much to how often I need to bake bread. Right now, I am baking a loaf a day with eight people sheltering in our house, so I basically leave a couple of tablespoons of starter in the jar, and mix it up full again with flour and water, and by the next day it is ready to go again. At other times I have fed it very sparingly so that the jar is full basically when I am ready to bake another loaf. Sometimes the starter can go flat and separate out and smell like alcohol, and all you need to do is feed it again to get it going. You can stick it in the fridge for months at a time if you need to.
Alternately, you can spread some out on a try and let it dry out completely and then freeze it. If you are reading this because you asked for some of the starter flakes I am giving away, then this is what you are getting. I've never done it, but my understanding is that if you soften the flakes in a bit of warm water, then mix in some flour and water, the yeast will recolonize that and you'll be off and running.
Good luck! Have fun! And feel free to ask me any questions.
Today I started pruning the Christmas tree groves, but really there was very little actual pruning of trees and much, much more clipping and cutting of the endless waves of saplings that grow up through the conifers, along with a certain amount of cutting all the extra growth from the balsam stumps themselves. There is so much of this to be done that I never get to all (or even most) of it in any given year.
As such it is a great example of overwhelming work, the kind of work that feels unbreakable, never ending, eternal. Sisyphus rolling the stone up the hill. I have ten acres of trees, and each year I'm lucky if I can do this to two or three acres. My goal is to leave an area completely clean, all the trees well defined by clipping branches to make that clear 10" of trunk that helps people really see it, the right smaller trees and sprouts leapfrogging off the stump, and the general growth of the branches allowed only in the right directions where they won't crowd out the trees themselves. I cut back all saplings except those I'm keeping for poles (I need about 30 a year, a pace the local forest edges along the road can't sustain) and the really good ones I'm pruning up super high to grow into full sized trees. The undergrowth gets clipped when necessary, except for azaleas and rhododendrons, and paths get carefully cleared and all the brush piled up out of the way.
When I'm done with an area, I don't need to return to it for several years, and when I do it is in much better shape than it was originally. This process, leaning intensely on a portion each year, works much better than trying to do the minimum amount to everything. When I have tried to do the minimum amount to everything, nothing got better and in fact everything slowly slipped farther and farther into chaos.
I think this is a good approach when applied to any overwhelming work, one that you can never hope to completely take care of at any one time and that will continue to need work in the future. I take this approach to maintaining our house (each year I tackle the most pressing three projects) and with the grounds (I tend to ignore thickets or tangles of stuff until I tackle it completely). The important thing is to do just a bit, and to do it as thoroughly as possible, so that it won't need your attention for years to come.
Slowly, bit by bit, the ratchet of improvement lifts everything up.
Summertime holds so much promise. You wake up to a fan, and bare feet on the floor, and there is no fire to light in the stove, no snow to shovel. Getting dressed takes half a second, and everything is easy.
But then there are the other demands the season places on your time. The lawn needing to be mowed. The meadow needing to be mowed. The garden to be weeded and planted and fertilized and thinned and turned and planted again. The repairs to the house and the projects you would never undertake in the colder months, rebuilding the chicken run or clearing brush.
It is easy to lose the sense of ease that the summer brings. I used to work jobs (sailing, farming) that required me to work the hardest during the summer. More recently, I worked most weekends of the summer, either going to markets or teaching at home or elsewhere. There was money to be made and I was hungry to make it.
This year is the first year that I have deliberately refused to teach on the weekends, keeping them open instead for projects and family time. This is also the first year in many years that we have stayed on top of the garden, keeping it watered and weeded. Who knows? Maybe it will be the first year in many when I truly relax into the easy promise of summer.
One thing is for sure. It will only happen if I make that choice. Because that ease? That's a vacuum. And everything, at all times, tries to relentlessly fill a vacuum.
Here's how it works: I go through life cramming more and more into the space and time I have, until I hit a breaking point. With physical objects it manifests as a need to rearrange. With my time, this shows up as a need to recalibrate how I articulate TO MYSELF how I spend my time.
I am at one such moment. I sort of have known this was coming, but there are so many variables of how opportunities and obligations come my way that I don't know for sure if I'm there until I'm there.
I know I'm there when the story I tell myself of how I should be spending my time doesn't match up well with how I actually need to spend my time, and I find myself doing things like just now, axing out an order of blanks on a weekend, generally cramming more and more work into every available moment. Time to take a step back and review.
What's actually happening is several things are piling up, and I need to take a day or two to deal with them before filling more orders. I have two manuscripts needing to be edited by midweek; I need to write an article for the magazine and send all the articles and photos from all the contributors to our new format guy (very excited about that, but it does mean that I can't shove it off til later like I'd been planning); I need to box up and send out almost 50 polishers and burnishers; I need to do a regular post office run with all the orders from this last week and I need to prepare and make a bank deposit. That may all fit into tomorrow, but likely it will spill over into Tuesday, especially editing the manuscripts. Then, by chance, I'm teaching half of Wednesday, all of Thursday, and half of Friday. I have tried very hard to hold teaching to one day a week, but somehow I booked all of these.
To top it all off, I've been getting less and less certain of when I'm actually booking work now, as my day planner has gotten muddled. So today I actually ordered a new day planner, and I will be re-writing all orders from here on out, adding in all the new obligations I know of now, and we'll see where that gets me. I'm getting close to the cut-off date of when I need to close non-local orders for the year, and I won't know until I write everything out again.
So I'm due for a recalibration, and I need to clear the decks a bit. I'll see you on the other side.
This weekend I put in my yearly couple of days of attending to the outside of the house. Some years it's building wraparound stairs to a porch, or ripping out a bunch of rot and rebuilding walls and siding. This year is was repainting about a third of the house and attending to the small pockets of rot that this process uncovered.
My process is unsophisticated but effective enough. Scrape any loose paint. Probe any rotted areas, rip out only what seems truly soggy, stabilize the rest with wood hardener applied with a syringe, patch with wood filler if necessary and paint that sucker.
The nice thing about paint is that it allows a house to age gracefully. It always amazes me how the gnarliest section of rot, if treated this way, can be completely inconspicuous, unnoticeable against the view of the house as a cohesive whole.
Now don't get me wrong: if a board is totally rotten, I think it's a good idea to rip it out and replace it. But sometimes now is not the appropriate time to rip it out and fix it properly. In which case, this quick fix that takes five minutes is miles better than doing nothing at all.
The thing is, we all need a way to age gracefully. I used to groan at having to paint the house, swearing that I would never live in a white house with a white picket fence (I grew up with both). So much painting! But what I failed to appreciate was the way that paint allows you to tolerate imperfection for awhile longer, and then awhile longer still. Failings can be covered up, forgotten. Repairs can be blended in with the original, creating one joint effort between me and everyone who ever built or worked on this house.
I am a man of quick fixes. I don't bite off more than I can chew in these couple of days of house repair each year. I am not interested in living in a construction zone for months while I slowly piece together the parts of some complicated renovation. Paint is the ultimate arbiter for someone like me. Do the best you can, paint it and move on. Paint is temporary. Paint is powerful. Paint is life.
The other day, I got approached to see if I might be interested in taking over the local paper's food and farming column, a monthly thing that I could run with almost complete autonomy.
I'm leaning towards saying yes.
It's a strange feeling, being approached to see if I want to write for money. For my whole life, my writing is something I've produced almost entirely apart from money. Sure, there have been a couple of magazine articles for pay, and yes, there is the book. But for the most part, the monthly column I used to write for an even smaller paper, these blog posts, the mini blog posts I write for my instagram account, all those WORDS, they are all put out there with the hope that someone, somewhere, will find some use in them. For sure no one asked me for them.
Which honestly is as it should be. Whatever you love most should come from a place of loving to do it, NEEDING to do it, first. You do it and do it and do it and do it. No one listens at first. No one even knows you exist.
This is a good thing. You really don't want anyone's attention while you're figuring things out.
Bit by bit you get better, usually by unlearning all the things you added on top of what is actually quite simple. Still, no one is beating down your door. But maybe they are okay with you showing up.
Stick with me a bit further here, because it's still a long road. You see, in order to write anything, you first need to know something. The younger you are, the less you know (trust me on this 20-somethings). So live a little. Keep writing.
At this point, you can probably ask people if they want to hear from you, and they will usually say yes. Because by now you have something to say and you are practiced in saying it. Which is only because of all the times you have practiced saying it and fell short. Still, you keep at it. Beyond all reason, beyond all payback, beyond all patience, you do this thing because you have to. Because it is how you make sense of the world. Because it is how you can make an impact. You keep at it even when you'd rather be doing something else and you get back on that horse when you fall off.
And then maybe, if you stick around long enough, just maybe, someone asks you to write something.
I was teaching a spooncarving lesson this weekend when I found myself saying, in different situations, the same thing: shift your hand a half inch. Sometimes it was when axing, or using a knife, or how to hold the spoon being carved. Each time, it increased power, or control, or just flat out made something possible that the student was struggling with. I was struck at what a small change each of these instances was, and what a huge difference they made. What had been a struggle became easy. What had been impossible became possible.
Of course, me being me, I'm not satisfied to let this just remain a lesson inherent to spooncarving, but feel the need to extrapolate from it to life at large. So many times, the smallest of changes have an outsized affect on the outcome, or our abilities. We make some small change to our habits, and then everything flows differently from there.
I recently installed a chin-up bar in our house. I had originally purchased one of those ones that hang from the door trim, only to find when it arrived that all of the doorjams in our house are too wide for it to fit. After sulking for a day or two, I just went and made one from a section of ash sapling and two chunks of 2x6. The rule (or habit shift) is that every time I go through this doorway, I do one pull up.
Now, I can't remember the last time I did pull ups regularly. Maybe never. We had one in our house growing up but I didn't use it in any habitual way. I'm strong, but I quickly found that pull ups use a set of muscles that I am currently lacking. One pull up, at first, was hard. And one might not seem like much, but the way we use our house (and the location of the bar) means I now do 10-20 pull ups a day. I used to do zero.
In the last week, then, a single pull up has no longer become hard. It's too early to see any other ripple effects from this small change (although I realized the other night that my stomach muscles are sore, another good sign), but I suspect, so long as I continue the habit, that they will be many.
Often when we want something different in life, we think that we need to make drastic changes to achieve it. The problem is, drastic change, unless you have no choice and your life is just different now, is unsustainable. No amount of momentary desire will keep you on that diet and crazy exercise plan. But one tiny change? That's where all the power and control flows from, strange as it sounds.
So go ahead. Nudge your hands over a half inch. See what happens.
So the last few days I've been sick. Just a head cold, but anyone who knows me will tell you that I'm at my absolute worst with full sinuses. As part of coping, I watched some rom-coms at night, and by chance, the two I watched both had protagonists who found, through many plot twists and turns, the joy of being single.
On a seemingly random and yet related note, we just got 15 pullets (young hens) after a winter of being chickenless except for a rooster who we wanted to keep because he is a very good rooster. Some roosters are mean. Some are stupid. Some are useless. It's worth hanging on to the kind, gentle ones that actually watch over their flock.
This rooster had a long, cold, lonely winter, and so it is a true delight now to watch him interact with the new flock. One of the things that is most evident is that he has a PURPOSE again. Now he can scratch up tender grubs and make little chucking noises to call over the nearest hen to eat it. Now he can crow at potential threats and have that alarm have real meaning. Now he can keep a vigilant eye on things from the top of the compost heap for someone's benefit other than his own.
Seeing Solo (his name is almost too perfect given his lonely winter, I know, but I swear we named him because he was the last surviving chick of his clutch) rediscover his purpose has got me reflecting on my own purpose in life, and how much of that revolves around creating a home and providing for my family. Many of the things I do are to create the experiences for my girls, or to make a home life that feels a certain way. If I lived alone, would I wash the dishes? Would I vacuum the floors? Probably, but the point is not whether I'm doing these things for me or for them. The point is that I do it for them, and then I get to enjoy it, too.
What I'm realizing is that this service to my family is my purpose in life. Sure, there are other goals of service, having to do with what I do for a living, but I do those things SO THAT I CAN PROVIDE FOR MY FAMILY.
Which brings us to the central question: if you are single, or don't have kids, what the heck are you supposed to make of this? Is life just a waiting game of playing at adulthood until you have a family and then that all changes?
I don't think so.
I think that this service to others is not just something we give to our families. It can be a way of approaching the world, extended to our family, friends, acquaintances. It can be the basis of business and it can be how we seek to make the world a better place than how we found it.
I believe it is important to be self-aware enough to know what you need to be happy, and to fight for that, but I also think that you can go too far down the road of self-realization, and end up taking care of only yourself. And ultimately, that won't hold a candle to the pleasure of taking care of others.
So it's good for me to see Solo stalking around the chicken meadow, a couple of chickens in tow. It's good for me to have two tiny whirlwinds of chaos in my life to clean up after. It's good that it's not just me, looking after me. I do better, and I think we all do better, when our actions are at least partly done for the sake of others.
This weekend has been a big family weekend, with my brother and his family coming down from Burlington. They are bigger gardeners than even we are, so the conversation turned to the spring season, what had done well and what was lagging behind. It has been cool, without surprise frosts but all the things that like some heat are taking their sweet time while all the things that benefit from an extended cool period (like spinach) are going crazy.
I mentioned how this year, for the first time in a long time, I had failed to go into the spring with an established planting of spinach or even a new round sowed as early as feasible. I was using the hoophouse to axe out blanks until mid April, and the intensity of it this year had me questioning if it was even worth trying to squeeze in a little sowing of spinach in the corners. I felt like I was using the space to the max already. And then when I cleared out of the hoophouse I convinced myself that it wasn't worth planting spinach because it was just going to warm up and it would bolt and we'd get barely any life out of the planting.
As it turns out, with the long cool spring, we would have done quite well if I'd just taken the half hour to get it done. And that is kind of the point, because as I was relating this to my brother and sister-in-law, it occurred to me that this very diversification, that means that if you plant a little of everything that each year some stuff will do poorly and other stuff will do great, that same principle is actually at work in all areas of life. You don't know what the weather will be so you hedge your bets by planting a bit of everything, and that way you know something will work out. Similarly, you don't know how life will turn out, so you hedge your life-professionally and personally- so that even if some stuff doesn't pan out, other stuff will. Friends come and go in ways that you can't control, so make a lot of them. Some work opportunities succeed while others don't for reasons as inscrutable as the weather, so have lots of irons in the fire.
The benefit of this sort of diversity is so obvious that we often don't even see it. Instead, we convince ourselves that we know what we want, or are choosing quality over quantity, or are following our passion. But I think we are fooling ourselves. We are as much in control of the outcome of any individual part of our lives as the tomato controls whether or not there will be a late frost that nips it in the bud. The thing we CAN control is how many shots at success we give ourselves.
So plant that spinach, because you never know. Nurture those friendships you've been neglecting. Send that exploratory email, start that pipedream. Much will fall by the wayside, but even the most difficult growing season is a goldmine for something. And if you don't appreciate the bumper crop of zucchinis the world has bequeathed you when you would have preferred basil and potatoes, roll up your sleeves and get planting.
In the diversity is your success.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.