Vegetables Feed

The Strange Case of the Bloomin' Onions

Potato onion flower about to open 21
Potato onion flower, just beginning to open.

By Lisa Brunette

We made an unsuccessful attempt to grow Walla Walla sweets in 2020 - Anthony grew up in 'the city so nice, they named it twice' - but that arid landscape is quite different than our steamy Midwestern climate. I cast around for an onion variety that would work much better here, and you can imagine my excitement when I stumbled upon a variety of perennial onions. Most vegetables, and most onions as well, are annuals, meaning you have to replant them as seeds each year to get a new crop. But perennial onions, also called potato or multiplier onions, are the gift that keeps on giving. Reserve some of the bulbs, replant them each year, and they'll multiply into neat little bunches of more bulbs! This makes potato onions a perfect permaculture plant, by the way. 

Potato onion stalks 21
Here you can see the cluster at the base of the stalks.

We planted a crop of these last fall - on October 25, to be exact, a week before the garlic cloves went in - and we had a decent harvest this July. They're delicious onions, mild and tangy. I had ordered 16 ounces, which gave me 20-30 bulbs, and the yield was... OK. If you're wondering, no, I did not amend this soil with the mix of pine sawdust (soaked in urine) and coffee grounds as I did the garlic cloves. The onions were planted in a bed that had previously been potatoes, though, and some of that matter from the potatoes and their plants had decayed in the bed, which probably helped some, along with the decayed leaf mulch we'd used to sheet-mulch over the grass in that part of the yard. I also amended the bed with compost tea.

What happened before harvest, however, is the strange part of this case: the onions put up flower stalks, forming seed heads.

Potato onions flowering 21
Potato onions, beginning to form buds.

For the potato onion, this is apparently a rare and special event. Gardener Kelly Winterton has written a booklet on his many attempts to get potato onion seeds, and you can see this pursuit is apparently one with a high likelihood of failure. But it's worth trying for, as the bulbs that form from these seeded plants are much bigger than the rather small clusters of multiplied onions. So it's strange, wonderful, and felicitous that I was able to get seeds on my very first attempt at growing potato onions.

Potato onions and seeds 21
Harvested bulb clusters, and some of the seed heads.

The stalks were battered by several successions of summer thunderstorms, and then we were planning to head out of town (to Walla Walla, coincidentally) right when the seeds would have ripened, so I harvested most of the seed heads when we harvested the onions in mid-July. 

Potato onion seed heads 21
A nice harvest of potato onion seeds.
Potato onion seed head closup 21
Close-up of a seed head.

These are now drying in a muslin bag hanging in the basement. Unfortunately, as I've mentioned before, I don't have a greenhouse or other space in which to start seeds during the late winter months indoors, but my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou has offered to grow the seedlings in her greenhouse porch in exchange for some of the plants. With the promise of much bigger bulbs, it's definitely worth it to try. Wish us luck! In the meantime, we'll all enjoy our regular ol' potato onion harvests this year.

What's your favorite onion to grow? What works best in your part of the world? Have you tried perennial onions?

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

65 Bulbs of Garlic on the Wall...

Our 'Cool Season' Annual Gardening Report Card 2021

Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem


65 Bulbs of Garlic on the Wall...

Garlic hanging 21
Garlic nestled in among the basement rafters, with hyssop, dandelion, and other drying herbs.

By Lisa Brunette

"Take one down, pass it around..." OK, so we didn't exactly begin with 99 bulbs of garlic, but 65 is a lot of garlic bulbs to have on hand. Our basement smells like a pizzeria!

We harvested this bumper crop just before the 4th of July: 65 bulbs of 'Silver rose' garlic, a soft-necked variety. Soft-necked varieties store longer and can be braided. They also do better in our Missouri climate than the hard-necked. We put the cloves into the ground on October 31 (ooo, Halloween!). The order had been for 60 cloves to plant, so how we ended up with 65 bulbs at the end is unclear. Maybe there were a few extra in the order? At any rate, we had more than a 100 percent return on our investment on that batch.

This was actually only half our garlic crop, though; the other half did not germinate at all. Not a single clove. I had also ordered and planted a batch of 60 cloves of the 'Early Italian' variety, and that crop was an abject failure.

What was the difference, besides variety?

Garlic bulb 21
'Silver rose' garlic bulb.

I used a slightly different technique on the Silver rose, and that might have done it. I amended the soil with my secret ingredient: a mixture of coffee grounds and pine sawdust with a little added nitrogen in the form of cat urine. 

Yeah, that's right. Cat urine. Are you appalled? Don't be.

You see, for Chaco's litter box, we use pure pine pellets. It's hands-down the best cat litter I've ever used; it doesn't smell bad, and the urine basically gets absorbed by the pellets, which then break down into pine sawdust. We then truck the sawdust outside to a pot, where it can be used when needed to amend the garden soil. It always gets turned into the soil, where the sawdust breaks down completely, the pine and remnant urine nourishing the soil. Sawdust is never evident on the food part of the plant at harvest. 

Urine is rich in nitrogen, and I know of at least one gardener, my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou, who uses her own as a soil amendment, with good results. I'm not opposed to her method at all, as urine is sterile in healthy individuals, but I already have a ready supply of Chaco's urine, and I like the idea of making good use of it and diverting it from the waste stream. I also know Anthony and I don't have the time to devote to collecting and dispersing our own pee.

Garlic almost ready to harvest in June 21
Garlic almost ready to harvest.

Anthony adds the coffee grounds to the pot of sawdust outside each day when he dumps out his coffee pot from the day before, instead of running the grounds down the disposal or just tossing them into the trash.

I did not use the sawdust-and-coffee grounds mixture on the 'Early Italian' beds, the failed crop. Both beds also received a good dosing of compost tea.

I honestly can't remember if I designed this experiment on purpose or if I simply ran out of the sawdust mix. But we have an experiment nonetheless. At least of sorts. There could be variations in the soil across the different beds, though they were right next to each other. The different varieties alone could have produced the radically variant results, too. Maybe the 'Silver rose' is more suited to my soil conditions. It's a lovely variety, so named for the mottled red-and-pink hue on the inner clove papers.

Garlic ready to harvest 21
Garlic at harvest time, when the bottom leaves go brown.

But the point here is we have enough garlic for the winter, and then some, and I've successfully used spent kitty litter as a soil amendment, which diverts it from the landfill and provides a cost savings to me since I don't have to purchase fertilizer. It's a perfect permaculture loop, too, since I'm using what's produced on-site, without any outside inputs (well, except for the pine pellets in the first place).

By now you might be asking, "What about the cat poo?" That gets removed daily and placed in a hot compost, where it breaks down over a minimum of six months. No poo ever goes into the garden, at least not while it's still, um, poop.

Garlic scapes 21
Garlic scapes on soft-necked garlic.

One odd thing that happened: The 'Silver rose' garlic grew scapes (above) just prior to harvest, which I was informed soft-necked varieties wouldn't do. If anyone can shed light on this matter, please do so in the comments below. The scapes were delicious, by the way.

Garlic harvested 21
A harvested bunch.

One caveat to my garlic success story is that the sawdust/coffee mix isn't a cure-all. Last month I told you about this year's failed potato crop; well, I'd amended that bed with the mix, too, and it wasn't enough to save it. Claire and I are discussing this amongst ourselves, and let's just say that the grand experiment continues!

What grew well in your garden this summer? Any exciting discoveries to report?

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Our 'Cool Season' Annual Gardening Report Card 2021

Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem

'The Most Food for the Time and Space' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser


Our 'Cool Season' Annual Gardening Report Card 2021

Snap Peas on Vine
Sugar snap peas on the vine.

By Lisa Brunette

Last year we got a very late start on our vegetable gardening, so we didn't enjoy much of a cool season, outside of some arugula and a heaping supply of chervil. But this year, I was determined to plan things better. Armed with this extremely helpful vegetable planting calendar from Gateway Greening, I updated my sowing schedule, shifting everything earlier.

For those of you new to the idea, the "cool season" is the first planting season of the year, in early spring here in the Midwest, when you can sow seeds and seedlings for vegetables that like cooler temperatures. A lot of people wait until May or June and plant everything in one go, but you can make better use of your space if you stagger your plantings in successions, starting with the early cool season vegetables in March, continuing with warm season vegetables in May, and then sowing a fall crop to last through the first gleanings of winter.

Early Spring Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is my new go-to for seeds.

The other change I made was in where I source my seeds. Last year I'd scored most of our seeds at the Missouri Botanical Garden Shop, using our 30% member discount to purchase seeds put out by Botanical Interests. I supplemented that with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. But this year I took advantage of Gateway Greening's super-duper seed offerings, getting them for $1 and $1.50 a packet, an even better deal than I'd had with the botanical garden member discount. I also purchased more than half our seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Because SESE operates out of Virginia, they're much more focused on plants that do well in hot, humid conditions, a better fit for our zone 6a/7 needs than Seed Savers, which is in northern Iowa, and Botanical Interests, which is more of a mass-market outlet.

What stayed the same: I still don't have an indoor location to grow seedlings that will stay warm enough, get enough sunlight, and stand up to the cat's tendency to dig in the dirt. So again, we sowed seeds directly into the ground.

Last year I graded us a C for our spring food gardening; this year, I'm upgrading us to a solid B - maybe even a B+? You decide. Let me break it down for you by harvested crop, in order of when they went into the garden.

Spring Food 21
An open-faced sammy made with herbed cottage cheese on a bed of arugula, topped with violets.

Arugula

Remarkably, we're still getting arugula from that one packet of seeds sown last spring. Remember my tarp method? I repeated it again with the fall 2020 crop and got a third harvest this year already. So by using a simple tarp, I've turned otherwise annual arugula into a kind of self-seeding perennial. It was a great food to pair with the edible violets, blooming at the same time in March and April.

Peas

The first planting in earnest this spring was peas, and I opted for two kinds, both from SESE: 'Sugar Snap Tall' snap peas and 'Green Arrow Dwarf' English shelling peas. These vining plants need support, and that's where our free supply of bamboo from a neighbor came in handy.

Pea Tripod w: Anthony
Anthony, setting up the bamboo tripod supports.

I'd never built a pea trellis before, but I know the tiny pea tendrils need a rather slender something-or-other to grab onto. So we wound the bamboo poles with twine.

Pea Trellis
Winding the twine.

This method worked, but I don't know that we'd do it that way again. It was time-consuming to build and used a LOT of twine. If you have any great ideas for low-cost pea trellises, tell us in the comments below.

In 2020, the rabbits ate the peas as soon they emerged from the ground, way too tempting a treat early in the spring when there are not as many other choices. So this time, we fenced in the peas. I scored a set of modular fence panels on clearance at Menard's; these have stakes that fit into the ground, and the fences can be easily lifted up and moved wherever you need them. They're attractive, too, with a hummingbird-and-flower motif. The chicken wire sections in the panels proved to be a perfect climbing surface for pea vines.

Pea Trellis with Fence
The trellis, surrounded by fencing to keep out rabbits. The added benefit is that the fence also acted as a vine support.

We put the peas in the ground on March 6 and harvested them in late May and for most of June. Our pea harvest was pretty phenomenal, with a high germination rate and productive vines. First we ate some of the shoots, as they can replace beef kidney pills as part of my treatment for MCAS. By the end of May, we had an excellent crop of both snap and shelling peas. They tasted better than any peas we've ever bought from a grocery store! We will definitely grow them again, probably even doubling up on the quantity. While my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou doesn't rate peas highly, saying they take up a lot of space for the amount of food they produce, we grew them really close together and had both high germination and yield. It's enough to put them back on our list for 2022.

Peas on Vine
An English shelling pea, ripening in the sun.
Pea Flowers
Pea flowers.
Shelling Peas
Shelling peas is a meditative and satisfying activity.

We did have one area of abject failure related to peas. I made the mistake of putting in black-eyed peas at the same time as the peas above, and none of them germinated, probably because the soil was still too cold. Later, I learned they're not a classic Southern dish for nothing; black-eyed peas (and crowder peas) like it hot and humid. Next time, we wait till May for those.

Lettuce

Whoa, lettuce! We had a bumper crop this year, with all three varieties from SESE thriving: 'Jericho' romaine, 'Bronze Arrow' loose leaf, and 'Crawford' bibb. It was actually too much lettuce for the two of us - I don't think I've ever eaten so much salad in my life - so we ended up giving away a lot to friends and family. All three varieties we sowed as seeds directly into the soil on March 13 and began harvesting in early May. We put them in right next to the peas, a good companion plant.

Lettuce Going In
A row of lettuce, next to the peas.

In case you had any doubt about this, rabbits love lettuce. So it behooved us to enclose them in the fenced area. While we enjoy the rabbit family we're fostering through wildlife conservation habitats, we do have to set boundaries. There's plenty else for them to eat without snacking on our food plants.

Teacup
We can't help it. We named this one Teacup.

But rabbits and people can coexist; it's a matter of finding out what the rabbits like to eat that isn't your food plant, giving them plenty of it, and then cordoning off your tasty veggies. Yay, modular fencing!

Peas and Lettuce
Lettuce and peas, fenced.

As the pop star Prince once sang, "Sometimes it snows in April." We had a freak snowstorm late that month, and many a leaf withered. So there is that risk in putting in the seeds as early as mid-March. But the Jericho and Bronze Arrow were virtually unfazed by this setback and indeed seemed to strengthen in response to the sudden burst of chill. 

We likely won't grow the bibb again, though. It didn't yield as much for the space it takes up, it withered the most during the cold snap, and even though it sprang back no problem, those dead leaves were still wrapped into the bibb head, making harvesting more of a challenge. The bibb also bolted; whereas, the other two lettuces did not.

Spring Veggies Sprouting 21
From left to right: Beets, carrots, lettuce, peas.

Beets and Carrots

On the other side of the lettuce, we planted rows of beets and carrots, which also need protection from rabbits. We sowed these seeds on March 20, easily moving the fence line over a space to accommodate the new row. The carrots are a variety called 'New Kuroda,' and they come from Gateway Greening. GG staff grow the carrots in their demonstration garden and save the seeds to sell to the public each year. The New Kurodas also had a high germination rate, a good yield, and are quite tasty.

Carrots
The 'New Kuroda' variety is tasty and attractive. We also eat the greens; they're great chopped up in rice.

The beets, however, haven't done well. I might have to throw in the towel, as this is my third failed attempt at beets. Or maybe I'll try a SESE variety next year; these were an inexpensive Ferry-Morse seed packet I got in the Gateway Greening super sale - called 'Tall Top Early Wonder.' The only wondering I did about them was why they didn't come in better!

Kale 21
Kale growing in a strip on the side of our house.

Kale

Kale was one of our few triumphs last year, and some of those same plants continue to produce to this day. Also on March 20 of this year, we sowed a new row along the side of our house. It took off and is still producing. This was SESE's 'Premier' kale.

Cabbage Patch Obelisk
An obelisk, in the middle of our cabbage patch, because it's too heavy to move.

Green Cabbage

We unearthed an obelisk of sorts when we dug up the bed for cabbage. It looks like the rebar and concrete foundation for some large structure - perhaps the garage that once stood in the backyard. We recently found out from a neighbor that the garage was destroyed by a fallen tree. That might explain this obelisk and definitely tells us why we're constantly digging up bricks.

We planted cabbage on March 20 as well, a busy day for the garden. It had a high germination rate, seemed to also improve from that late-April snowstorm, and has given us lovely heads of cabbage. 

Cabbage Head 21
'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage.

I read that you can cut the main head once it's grapefruit-sized, leaving the plant and its outer leaves, and more heads will form. I'm happy to report this is very much the case.

More cabbages
After cutting the main head, several more smaller ones form on the laterals.

We sowed 'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage (Ferry-Morse seeds) and harvested our first heads on June 19, with more still forming as of July 17. It's been a steady stream of cabbage dishes and sauerkraut up in here.

Sauerkraut
Anthony's been perfecting his sauerkraut recipe, and I reap the benefits.

Potatoes

On March 27, we put our seed potatoes in the ground after a round of chitting. Chitting is how you prepare them for the garden; first, you cut them into wedges, with each wedge possessing at least one eye. Then you let the cut sides heal over, which protects the seed potato from rot. Once healed over, you plant them.

Potatoes Going In
Seed potatoes going in.

We planted the potatoes on either side of a plot of horseradish, a perennial and good companion, as it's supposed to ward off potato beetle. We ordered half the amount we'd sown last year; after the 'poop potato' incident, I wanted to make sure we have this thing down before investing too heavily. I ordered two varieties from SESE: 'Keuka Gold' and 'Banana' fingerling.

Alas, our yield this year was poor. This could be from a number of factors:

  1. That snowstorm in April withered the plants. Even though they seemed to fully spring back, this might have had an effect.
  2. We didn't realize it, but there was quite a bit of rubble underneath where we'd planted the seed potatoes, from that aforementioned garage destruction. These might have inhibited their growth.
  3. We got really busy this spring running our company (Brunette Games), and we forgot to hill up around the plants.
  4. The potatoes were planted in soil that had been converted from lawn the previous year, so nematodes likely still present ate the potatoes.

This is half our harvest.

Potato harvest
At least it was enough to make a big potato salad for my family's 4th of July party.

I'm still thinking on whether or not we should shift the potatoes back to May... or even just April. Our friend Claire doesn't get started out there in her garden until May, but her location offers cooler temps and very different soil, plus she has a greenhouse where she can start seeds for transplanting; whereas, we sow seeds directly into the soil. Decisions, decisions...

I think we'll start the lettuce, peas, kale, and carrots at the same time next year, as those all worked out great. We can improve on the carrots by being more diligent about thinning them early on, but otherwise, everything was stellar. I'll do some research on beets, and I also want to find something else that can coincide with that early lettuce. It really makes you realize how dependent we are on the fossil fuel system and grocery stores for our modern ideal of the "salad." A lot of salad ingredients - tomatoes and cucumbers, for example - come in much later, when it's too hot (here, at least) for lettuce. So eating with the seasons means your salad won't feature those veggies.

Well, that wraps the 'cool season' annuals. We had great success with arugula, peas, lettuce, kale, carrots, and cabbage. Black-eyed peas, beets, and potatoes challenged us, however, so perhaps we should stay at a solid B. What do you think?

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Information Is Good, Even If the Results Are Not - Spring 202 Growing Season Report Card

'The Most Food for the Time and Space' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

3 Great Gifts for Gardeners from Small, Indie Shops

 


Last Year's Peculiar Potato Problem

Potato_1
Part of last year's potato harvest.

By Anthony Valterra

Let me tell you a weird story about our cat. We had some problems with water seeping through our basement walls. When this happens, the water is muddy. Even if you clean it up, it leaves a very fine silt behind. One place that ended up having a pretty thick layer was behind the furnace. It was out of the way and hard to get to, so it just sort of built up. We fixed our gutters and created a water garden in the backyard. Our roof runoff fills some drums, and then when they overflow, it runs out to the water garden, as does a French drain to draw water away from the basement. After we did that, we haven't had any problems with water in the basement. But that silt just set back there getting dryer and dryer. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and finally found a nice pile of poop behind the furnace in that lovely soft silt. Well, I guess you can't really blame the cat. The silt is a soft as down, and the furnace makes that spot nice and warm. But still I had to clean up the cat poop and then clean up the silt. The cat went back to his litter box, and all was well.

Potato_4
I ams what I ams, says the cat.

Now I tell you that story so I can tell you this one. We dug up our potatoes last year and had an OK crop. We really don't know that much about growing potatoes, so the soil was probably not the best. We planted on ground that the previous year had been lawn. I read that there is a pest that lives well in lawn and also loves potatoes. So, a lot of our potatoes had suffered a bit. But we planted a good variety, and some came through OK. It makes you realize how important it is not to monocrop when you are trying to grow organically. Anyway, we had enough potatoes to fill a few 5-gallon buckets and felt that we had not grown enough to carry us through winter but certainly enough to reduce our potato purchases. But how do you store potatoes?

Sadly, I should know this. I grew up with parents who backyard-farmed. My dad still grows corn, potatoes, tomatoes, etc. I should have paid attention growing up, but I didn't. I was too busy reading the latest adventures of Daredevil, Batman, or the X-Men. I had zero interest in gardening. So I started reading various blogs trying to figure out the best way to do it. It is surprising how many ways there are to do a thing. I might write a blog post about storing potatoes and put it in a form that would have helped me. Maybe it will help others.

Potato_2
Into the bucket.

The method we ended up going with was to put the potatoes in a 5-gallon bucket in a layer. Then cover them with sand. Then another layer of potatoes and then another layer of sand until the bucket is mostly full. We read that the sand should be damp but not wet. That was likely a mistake. We think that that might make sense if you are in very dry environment, but it made our potatoes soften. I think this year we will cure them and then try the egg carton method (put the potatoes in egg cartons). We will try to keep the potatoes as cool as possible in the basement without going below 48 degrees. Likely it won't be cold enough for maximum life, but we will see how we do.

Potato_3
Little did these potatoes know what fate awaited them.

But last year it was the sand-in-the-bucket method. One day I realized I had not needed to clean the cat's litter box in a while. He seemed OK. He wasn't lethargic. I thought, "Maybe that silly cat is pooping somewhere other than in his litter." I looked and looked and looked and... I'll bet you know where this is going. Yep, he was POOPING IN OUR POTATOES. If I didn't love the little beast, I might have strangled him. He was pooping and peeing in the buckets and had done a terrific job of getting all the potatoes well desecrated. After a very short debate, we dumped them all.

Potato_5
The best-laid plans...

And that, dear readers, is how we lost our potato crop last year. I'm sure there is some deeper moral or philosophical lesson to be gleaned from all this. But I'm hornswoggled if I know what it is.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Using the Japanese Art of Kintsugi to Keep Instead of Discard

Hügelkultur - More Than Just a Pretty Word

Tragedy Strikes the Squash Tunnel

 


'The Most Food for the Time and Space' - Q&A with Living Low in the Lou's Claire Schosser

Claire in Garden 2
Claire Schosser, in her one-acre suburban homestead.

By Lisa Brunette

Part 3 of a 3-Part Series

Claire Schosser writes Living Low in the Lou, a blog chronicling her and her husband Mike's journey of reduced energy consumption and self-sufficiency. She opted for early retirement back in the mid-1990s (with Mike following in 2001) by reducing their expenses through living simply, growing much of their own food, and forgoing many of the shiny new conveniences that the rest of us take as givens. For those outside the area, "the Lou" is a popular nickname for St. Louis, Missouri. The Schosser/Gaillard homestead is located on a one-acre plot in suburban St. Louis and includes many mature, productive nut and fruit trees, an extensive annual garden, an herb garden, and a glassed-in front porch that functions as a greenhouse.

Claire and I discussed their lifestyle and garden over the course of two in-person visits and many back-and-forth email conversations between spring 2020 and spring 2021. This three-part Q&A series covers the topics voluntary simplicity, suburban homesteading, and getting the most food for the time and space in your garden.

LB: You mention a few times on your blog that May is your month of heaviest gardening activity, and in your recent email to me, you said you aren't really gardening much right now. I just spent the past two weekends putting in early-season peas and lettuce, along with arugula, chervil, and nasturtiums. Is your emphasis on May just a reflection of the types of crops you like to grow? I noticed dent corn is high on your list. Do you grow peas and other early-season crops at all? 

CS: Its partly a reflection of the crops that Mike and I like to eat and partly a reflection of the crops that yield the most food for the time and space that they require. Take peas, for instance. Both Mike and I like them, so I have grown them in the past. But for the amount of space that they need, even a good crop doesnt produce much food. Id rather spend the time and space on crops that yield a lot of food in late spring and early summer, for instance bok choy and cabbage. Even lettuce yields more food than peas do.

Its also due to the microclimate at my place being several degrees cooler than at your place. Ive lost enough seedlings to late freezes in April that I now avoid planting anything except potatoes before the middle of April, when the freeze risk lessens. 

Orchard
Claire and Mike's one-acre plot includes productive fruit and nut trees, in addition to the active annual fruit and vegetable garden.

 I grow dent corn because it provides a lot of calories compared to the vegetables, it grows well here, I have enough space to grow it and save seeds, and its the easiest grain to work with at the homestead level. By February or March, almost all the fresh food from the previous season is gone, but we still have dent corn available to make corn mush or cornbread if something like a natural disaster or pandemic were to make other sources of food scarce or expensive.

I harvest a few early perennial edibles starting in mid to late March: Profusion’ sorrel, a rocambole garlic that the previous owners left for us, garlic chives, mint leaves, and some wild plants like dandelion greens and violet flowers that grow in various parts of the yard. The strawberry harvest occurs in May; last year I harvested nearly 40 pounds of them from a single 100 square foot bed! Otherwise, my harvest season doesnt take off until June. But once it gets going it doesnt end until November or December.

Strawberry Patch
Claire's big, productive strawberry patch.
Strawberry Flowers
Strawberry flowers.

LB: Oh, good... I'm starting some sorrel this year and am glad to hear it can work in this area. I can definitely see what you mean about peas. For me they are a cheaper way to get a DAO facilitator into my diet, necessary to combat a condition I have called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome. The two food sources for DAO are pea shoots and beef kidney. Since I don't like the taste of kidney, I have to resort to (pricey) kidney pills. Pea shoots are a great substitute. By the way, don't you love our native violets? It amazes me that people treat them as weeds, pulling them out to make room for more grass. Besides their edibility, they are a host plant for fritillary butterflies. I also use the leaves in a tea with rose petals to combat heart palpitations. You're killing me with the strawberry story, though. Anthony can't eat them due to the oxalates (kidney stones), and they are unfortunately a Mast Cell trigger for me.

Question for you: What is the last thing you harvest in December? And could you briefly describe your food storage system?

CS: The last things I harvest are leeks, carrots, sorrel, and members of the cabbage family. Although I think it best to harvest the turnip, beet, and radish roots earlier, before temperatures drop below about 20°F, the varieties of kale and arugula that I grow will live through temperatures approaching 10°F. They and the sorrel are the last leaves that I harvest in December. I harvest leeks and carrots before the soil freezes, not because it would kill them, but because I can’t dig them out of frozen soil. 

If your seed-grown sorrel doesn’t produce much before it flowers and goes to seed – mine didn’t – I recommend ‘Profusion’ sorrel. It doesn’t go to seed so it grows new leaves for months!

Profusion Sorrel
'Profusion' sorrel.

I’m not fond of canning during summer’s heat, and Mike hasn’t shown an inclination to do it, so we focus on storing crops we can freeze; store whole in the basement, a makeshift cold cellar, or in the living room with us; or process by fermentation or making into wine. We only have one refrigerator and it’s rather small, so we don’t store many garden crops in it, only apples that we don’t turn into wine.

Cold Cellar
Entrance to the cold cellar.
Cold Cellar Interior
Inside the cold cellar, empty now at the start of the new season.

LB: We met via a mutual interest in the writings of John Michael Greer. Have you read Green Wizardry, and has it been an influence for you? How else has Greer's writings inspired you?

Yes, Ive read Green Wizardry, and I call myself a green wizard. Mike and I had already done some of the things that Greer writes about as part of our voluntary simplicity practice, and we are adding others as time goes on. We practice a Retrofit lifestyle, with a little Down Home Funk mixed in (who else do you know who has at least 25 slide rules – Ive lost count – sharing the house with them?). 

Before I read Greers first blog, The Archdruid Report, the only thing I knew about Druids was the Druid character class in the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Fast forward four years after I began reading his blog, and I had joined the Ancient Order of Druids in America, the Druid order for which he was the Grand Archdruid from 2003 through 2015. Fast forward another eight years to now, and I am the Archdruid of Water for the same order. I owe Greer a major debt of gratitude for his work to revive the Order, which has become my spiritual home, as well as for his work on green wizardry and related subjects.

LB: What does it mean to be an Archdruid of Water? Can you explain what this spiritual practice is all about? And how does it dovetail with being a 'green wizard'?

CS: The Druidry that members of AODA and other Druids groups practice is a form of nature spirituality. The only thing that holds for all of us in AODA is that we all have a sense that nature is sacred in some way: that nature itself has a spiritual significance and has spiritual lessons to teach us. AODA is non-dogmatic; its members hold a wide array of beliefs, so we focus on practice.

The four Archdruids of AODA function as the board of directors of AODA. More importantly, because we are a teaching Order, the Archdruids establish, maintain, and as needed revise our educational curriculum, which is designed so that each member can make each of AODA’s seven core practices and values a part of their everyday life.

One of our seven core practices and values is nature reciprocation. Nature reciprocation means living in balance and harmony with nature. To do this we incorporate lifestyle changes that reduce our negative impact on the Earth and her cycles, and we also learn how to work with the Earth to increase her richness. This is a perfect fit with green wizard practices, which seek to do the same things.

Barn Shed
Barn shed and bamboo poles, grown onsite.

LB: Living Low in the Lou is definitely the writing of someone with a deeply scientific bent. What's your background? How has science and the scientific method shaped your gardening, as well as other aspects of your carefully chosen lifestyle?

CS: Ive been interested in nature and science from as far back as I remember. In my late teens and twenties, I focused my college and graduate studies on chemistry, which drilled the scientific method into me and showed me how to use it to solve problems.

In my blog I describe the scientific method as a conversation between me and the garden. Each year, based on the results I obtained from previous years and my research on how to become a better gardener, I form questions (hypotheses) for the garden to answer. With the questions in mind, I decide what I can do to help the garden answer those questions (experiments). As I observe the plants in the garden and measure the weight of each days harvest, the garden is answering my questions and teaching me how to garden. 

In the same way, when Mike and I were learning how to live more simply by using the nine-step YMOYL program, every month we had a conversation with our categorized income and expenses about whether they were fulfilling and in line with our values. Based on the answers, we made changes in what we spent our money and time on. Then we asked the questions again the following month and made more changes. Like the garden example, its a process of asking questions and determining what action to take depending on the answers. The process taught us how to live in a way that allows us to pursue our interests and express our values. 

Mint
Claire grows 'mojito' mint for the both culinary and medicinal use.

LB: That's fantastic; I love it. Can you give some examples of expenses you realized were in conflict with your values? And others that were in harmony?

CS: Payments for utilities were among those that conflicted with our values. Noticing this resulted in our beginning to change the way we live to use less electricity, natural gas, and water. 

We also realized that the mortgage payment conflicted with our desire to retire early. In 1996 we paid the remainder of our mortgage debt. Since then we’ve lived debt-free.

I enjoy spending money on books and on plants and seeds. Mike finds fulfillment in spending money on musical instruments and on his motorcycle. Both of us enjoy contributing to organizations whose work we value.

LB: Claire, thanks so much for taking the time for our wonderful conversation. It's been a real privilege and pleasure!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Part 1: A Life of 'Voluntary Simplicity'

Part 2: Suburban Homesteading