The Long Game Continues   15 comments

An entry in The Household Economy

I wrote in March about The Long Game—the slow assimilation of knowledge and experience and the increased making of my own living each year. I wrote of my hopes for the summer: my desire to make better use of the wild blackberries, to can my own tuna and perhaps pears, to take better advantage of apple abundance. I hoped to be more relaxed and have a better control over my life and work, for I always have hope in the spring, when the summer lies out idyllic in front of me, devoid of all the eventual mistakes and failures and neglect. It’s a beautiful blank slate in those early days.

Not long after that entry, the blog fell silent. Lacking a computer at home, my only internet access came sporadically via the library, which couldn’t support blogging. Instead I fell fully into the summer, continued to play the long game, and painted the summer’s blank slate with sweat and dirt, blood, work and play, all the inevitable mistakes and failures and, as well, the joys and successes. The steps along the path, in other words, some sturdy and others stumbled.

— ∞ —

I canned so much. I canned tuna with my roommates: 64 half pints altogether, 32 of those for me. That will keep me well-stocked in tuna for the year. I made a couple dozen half pints of pear ginger jam, some honey lemon apple jam, close to three dozen pints of tomato sauce, about a dozen each of salsa, bread and butter pickles, and zucchini pepper relish. A batch of ketchup and caramelized red onion relish. I even made some of my own pectin to experiment with during next year’s jam-making.

Despite my intent to take advantage of the blackberries this year, I made only two batches of jam (one of which failed due to divided attentions and, thus, became blackberry syrup.) In terms of weather, we had a better-than-usual spring out here followed up by an initially gorgeous summer. The blackberries came on early, ripening toward the end of July. So I made the aforementioned initial batches of jam and felt confident I would be making much more as the summer unfolded.

Then it drizzled. The blackberries molded. I had time; I didn’t panic. The sun came back, the berries dried out, the moldy ones dropped off the vines and new ones took their place, slowly ripening. Just as I was about to make more jam . . . it rained again. Just a bit. Just enough to mold the berries. And then, before I knew it, we had a stretch of rain and overcast days in September and then, toward the end of the month, it really rained. Two successive storms featured a perfectly normal level of heavy rain and wind—for November, that is. But it was September, instead, and we set a new rainfall record for the month and by that time any dreams of further blackberry projects—jam, syrup, soda, frozen—were long dashed.

Oh well. That’s how it goes. I couldn’t feel too bad simply because of the abundance of other canned goods. Despite those odd September storms, it’s been a glorious season, and even October has been shockingly sunny and warm, with almost no rain this month. As I type this, the sky is clear and blue, the sun bright, a load of laundry out drying on the clothesline. I wish I had a bit more blackberry jam, sure, but I can’t complain when I’m loaded down with pear ginger jam instead and grew so many tomatoes that I actually felt compelled to make ketchup because I already had more tomato sauce than I would likely eat in a year. And there are still apples to deal with, likely leading to apple butter and more honey lemon apple jam.

It’s fine. I’ll get another shot at the blackberries next year. That’s the way the long game works.

— ∞ —

Canning wasn’t my only success this year. I stumbled into a bit of seed saving, as well. A number of towering kale plants from the fall of 2012 flowered out this spring and went to seed. I kept watching them as the seed pods dried and, finally, one sunny and breezy day in the garden, thought that I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. So I grabbed a stray garbage can and half-assed my way through a slow winnowing process, leaving me with a plastic bag full of seed and chaff. A week or two later, after picking up an old fan of mine at my father’s house, I winnowed the seed again until I had something close to a quart of clean kale seed, derived from Wild Garden’s Ruso-Siberian kale mix. Lord knows what I’ll do with all the seed, considering I don’t have the desire or need to grow a few tens of thousands of kale plants, but I imagine I’ll give what I can away to friends and family.

Emboldened by that experience, I next started clipping seed heads off of bolted dill and tucking them in a paper bag. Then I realized, one afternoon as I was cutting up tomatoes to make some sauce, that I could save some tomato seeds, too. I researched the process and soon was squeezing out seed and gunk from Black Krim, Amish Paste, and Indigo Rose tomatoes into separate mason jars. A few days passed, mold grew, I drained off the gunk and water and washed the seeds and spread them on some coffee filters to dry. Now I have three small mason jars with dried tomato seeds; we’ll see what kind of plants they grow next year.

It’s not much, this seed saving, and none of it was particularly planned. I simply took advantage of opportunities as I stumbled into them. I don’t know yet how the dill and tomato seeds will sprout—if they’re viable and will grow healthy plants—but I already have a couple healthy kale plants out in the garden planted from the seed I saved early this summer. Next year will likely see more seed saving and even some other experiments, like making my own mustard from home grown mustard seed. And I bought a copy of Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed, so I’ll study that over the winter and see what I can accomplish next summer.

— ∞ —

As for the garden itself, I had my successes but also a majority of this summer’s failures and neglect. I didn’t mow and maintain it well enough in the spring, which ended in a garden full of moles and voles. I suspect the nice spring and summer didn’t help in this regard—there seemed a lot of rodents around in general—but I did myself no favors by not knocking back the weeds and grass around the garden. It was a mess, overgrown, underutilized and somewhat neglected due to its distance from my home. So while I grew an abundance of tomatoes, basil, and peppers in the greenhouse, I lost quite a lot of my outside crops to rodents and a lot of my root crops were stunted by tunneling moles.

I harvested far fewer potatoes this year, partly due to rodents eating them and partly due to using saved seed from last year that hadn’t been saved well enough—it was in poor condition. I seeded quinoa twice and both times lost all the seedlings to slugs despite my best efforts. My carrots were stunted by moles and eaten by voles. I still got some, but not nearly as many as I hoped. My beets also were stunted and never sized up. The kale did quite well; much of my broccoli was decimated by birds. Deer got in on the act, too. Last year, I didn’t have many problems with them despite the fencing around my garden being capable of keeping out sheep but not deer. This year, they showed up more regularly and enjoyed munching on my romanesco just as they were starting to head up. I grew a ton of onions and have bags of them for the winter, so that was nice. They still were limited a bit in size by mole tunnels, but I have plenty for myself regardless.

So more lessons learned. I need to pay more attention, to better maintain, to keep the garden cleaner. I might have to be more proactive with the moles, perhaps experiment with sulfur tablets. I haven’t decided. Luckily, I likely will have a whole new set up next year, lots of gardening space where I live, an opportunity to do quite a bit more than I so far have—assuming I can manage the work load. I’m excited for that and I’ll write more about it as it comes together.

Most important, though, is that I have another summer under my belt, more lessons learned, more skills practiced, more experiments engaged. I have some seeds, I have more canned goods than last year—an abundance, really—and I already have some new dreams for next summer’s blank slate, for that canvas aching for my sweat and blood, promising so many successes and not yet weighed down by mistakes and missteps, by all the tough and valuable lessons each season brings.

I can hardly wait.

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15 responses to “The Long Game Continues

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  1. So nice to have you back to writing on your blog! See told you I would wait!
    It sounds like summer treated you well and things worked out fine. Wins and losses. Expectations and experience. Plans and realities. I truly love how you are ready to do it again.

    • Thanks, Kathleen! And thanks for waiting. Hopefully others did, as well.

      The summer was really good. And I have to admit, I think not having the internet at home helped a lot with that. I’m still going to have to figure out that balance.

      As for next year, I have definite plans. Depending on how the next couple months shake out, they may be fairly ambitious. (At least for me!)

  2. Thanks for the posting Joel. Really good update on your goings-on. And delightfully honest too. As you well know, all is not always rosy in the world of those who make the move toward sustainability, etc. and doing it by and for oneself.

    Some years back I read an article that claimed that moles are really not after your veggies (as contrasted with gophers, voles and such) but are swimming through the topsoil in search of worms and grubs, both of which are attracted to the richer soils typically found in and around garden areas. The recommended deterrent was to fill a hose end sprayer with castor oil and spray the mole-infested area thoroughly. I tried it. It worked. but I don’t factually know what it did to the worms. The grubs I didn’t care about so much.

    As for the gophers, voles, mice and such – get an indoor-outdoor cat or two with strong hunting instincts and feed them sparingly but well. They’ll get a bird now and then, but mostly they’ll go after the ground-critters. And, if you treat them kindly, they will bring you a ‘trophy now and then, just to show their appreciation for the partnership.

    • Hi Martin,

      I learned that about moles awhile back, too, that they’re not eating on the veggies. But they do seem to be quite adept, at least in my garden, at tunneling right down a row of carrots or beets or what have you, leaving those roots dangling in the air and stunting the crop’s growth. It’s endlessly annoying. I’ve also heard rumors that the voles then like to make the rounds via the mole tunnels, and munch on whatever vegetative growth they find access to. Not sure if this is true or not.

      Castor oil. Interesting. I’ll keep that in mind.

      As for the cat(s), that’s a definite future possibility if I end up in this new place. It likely will be more settled and I’ll probably indeed get a cat at that point and encourage some good hunting. I’m quite the cat fan, anyway. Where I gardened this year and last had, last year, a feral cat living around there. I would regularly draw too close to him while gardening without realizing it, at which point he would explode out of hiding and run off. I have little doubt that he was helping quite a bit to keep the rodent population down. Sadly, I haven’t seen him once this year, so he either got got by a coyote or raccoon this last winter or migrated somewhere else. Whichever the case, I’m pretty sure my rodent problem would have been much less worse this year if he was still around. Not much I could do about that, though.

      • Re: cats vs Coyotes, semi-feral dogs, racoons, the occasional bobcat or cougar & etc. In your neck of the woods (still the lower Nehalem Valley, I assume) it would seem prudent to allow the cat(s) to be indoors overnight – especially across the winter. Some years back I lived in the eastside foothills of the coast range, south of Forest Grove and we had all of these as well as the now-and-then black bear. Our cats always enjoyed the fireside after dark.

        • Hey Martin,

          Yep, still the lower Nehalem Valley. Where I’m living now, we have a cat who is very routinized and almost always shows up around dark or a little after to be let in for the night. No doubt one of the reasons he’s lived as long as he has—cats often have short lives out here. (And all the places I’ve lived have been along Highway 53, which is busy enough to add cars and trucks to the danger.)

          And speaking of black bears, we’ve been having one or more as regular visitors to our property of late. They like the apples and quince, it seems. I actually saw a mother and a couple cubs run across the highway a month or so back in the middle of the day. It was a surprise. I know black bears are around here, but that was the first time I saw any.

          • Re: Black Bears – the northern and central Coast Range is crawling with them; lots of stuff for omnivores to eat and little in the way of interference from humanfolk (except during bowhunting season) I guess.

  3. Another beautiful entry. Thank you, Joel. I’m so glad that I found this blog this past spring. Congratulations on your summer successes! Have you ever canned chicken?

    On Sat, Oct 26, 2013 at 1:53 PM, Of The Hands

    • Hi Faren,

      Thank you! I’m glad you found the blog, as well, and stuck around long enough for some new entries.

      I’ve never canned chicken. I can’t say I have much motivation to, either, since one of the farms I work for raises delicious French Freedom Ranger chickens and always seems to have whole birds in their walk-in freezer, so I have a good source of top notch chicken for when I want it without having to worry about storage. I would like to can chicken stock, though, and that might be an eventual project.

  4. It’s nice to get a report on your long game. It sounds like a good eventful year of laying in experience. One of my uncles used to tell me that if you weren’t failing you weren’t trying hard enough. It certainly applies to gardening!

    • Thanks, Anubis! I think anyone who claimed a nothing-but-successful year of gardening would have to be blind or a liar. Granted, hopefully next year will prove a bit more successful. We’ll see, though—I may be trying quite a lot of new things next year!

  5. I’ll try this again. The blog ate my homework 🙂 . I saw that you posted over on the Archdruid Report. So, I’ve been watching this space as I figured you might be posting, again.

    Sounds like you had a VERY productive summer as far as food preservation.

    Hmm. Cats. I’m quit attached to my little black cat, Nell. Knowing full well that something could do her in, any day. I’m prepared for that in my mind. Might be an old wives tale, but females are supposed to be better hunters. Also, black or dark cats do better in the country as the things that hunt them in the dark can’t see them as easily. I’m always finding dead mice and voles around the yard. The neighbor cats even tackle rabbits. I feed my cat in the morning and at night. Not at all during the day. Thus, she’s ready to come in at sunset.

    I saved quit a bit of money by getting her initial shots from the farm store and doing it myself. If I can do it, anyone can. Also, in our area was a really cheap place to get your cat fixed. They may have bit the dust by now. But, our local animal shelter only adopts out fixed animals … they just ask a very small donation if you adopt one. That’s probably where I’ll get my next cat.

    • Hey Lew,

      Yes, food preservation was definitely one of my top successes this year, which is pretty exciting. It feels very abundant. Of course, now I need to eat it all, but that’s one of the better problems a person can have.

      As for cats, thank you for pointing out the obvious that black cats have a bit of a survival advantage out here. I suppose that might be offset somewhat by the dangers of the road, but it still seems like an advantage overall. I likely will be looking to get a cat in a couple months, and I now think I’ll go for a black one. I don’t know how true it is, but I also hear it’s harder to adopt out black cats, so maybe I’ll give one a home that otherwise wouldn’t find it. There’s an organization out here called United Paws that adopts out cats, so I’ll likely use them as a source.

      My current roommates use the same morning/night feeding schedule and it seems to work well for keeping the cat in at night. I’m going to adopt that method, as well.

      Interesting on DIY shots. I’ll keep that in mind if s/he needs any.

      I’m glad you found the new post! It’s nice seeing a lot of the regulars returning. I always like the conversation and updates.

  6. Hi Joel, your cousin here in Idaho. I sure enjoyed your Blog. You are quit the writer. I will be tuning into it often. Very interesting and you sound very ambitious. I enjoyed reading about your gardening experiences and canning. I have never canned but have wanted too. I just didn’t want to invest a lot of money into the jars and canning equipment. A lot of that was because we moved quit often. I have a friend that her and her girls can every year. They can fruit and some veggies. It sure is nice to have them sitting on your selves and can save a lot of money at the grocery store plus canned food is so much healthier in the long run and especially organic. I will watching for more interesting writings on your blog. Take care, cousin Drena

    • Thanks, Drena! Glad you’re enjoying the blog. I suppose I’m ambitious in my own ways, but I imagine a good many people in this country wouldn’t see me as such. I don’t work enough hours, at least officially. Perhaps if you count in all the unpaid ones, though.

      Do some canning! I bought a set up for something like $30, if I’m remembering right. That was the pot and canning tools. The jars were separate from that, but they’re not too terribly expensive, and you can always looks for cheap used ones in thrift stores and the like. And once you have them, they’re reusable. You just need new lids, which are cheap.

      As long as I’m growing the food myself, I don’t mind the cost of the jars and equipment. I think it’s worth it. Granted, I wouldn’t go out, buy a flat of strawberries at the farmers market, and then make jam from that. (And, boy, do I wish I had some homemade strawberry jam.) But if I have something from the garden, or wild blackberries, or a surfeit of apples or pears from my roommates’ trees, I’m all over it.

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