Gardening in the Weeds

Weeds choke out the roots of your cultivated plants. Right? But is there a place for weeds in your garden? I guess it depends on what you call weeds.

I’ve planted things in my garden that have taken over. Lemon Balm? I have enough for everyone in town. Chickens like the fresh leaves, and it makes a good tea. It makes the house smell good, too. Strawberries escaped from a raised bed a few years ago and took over a twenty-foot stretch. In years with a wet spring, there are enough strawberries to freeze a few. In dry years, like this one, the turtles get more of them than I do.

I planted hyssop for the bees, one plant. I now have a hyssop bed. But I also have bees and butterflies, and this is what has prompted me to find a way to live with the easy spreaders. This year, the spreader is swamp milkweed from seeds I planted last fall.

The solution is lots of straw in winter over areas where I want to plant vegetables. In spring I create boundaries in which to build up good soil on top of the straw. This year, I cut the bottoms out of plastic swimming pools and made potato beds. The plants are big and healthy. Next year, I’ll move the pools to another location and plant something else, maybe okra or beans, in the dirt left behind.

Repurposed mineral tubs, a gift from a rancher friend, contain blackberries and goji berries. In places, I’ve pushed back the straw and planted rows of beans, marigolds, and whatever else strikes my fancy.

My garden may not look like the ones in the magazines, and some years I get less than I’m hoping for. But I have a patio full of Grow Boxes, in case the year is dry, and to make sure I have fresh tomatoes and peppers all season. They work well for okra, too, because okra needs a constant source of water to produce.

Patches of weeds through and around the garden seem to make the bees and the birds and the butterflies happy.

No weed killer! I do a few minutes of weeding every day so my chickens have fresh greens in their secure runs! There’s lots of life here. It isn’t always pretty, but my garden brings me joy. I hope yours brings you joy, as well.

First World Problems in Third World Times

Out here on Crow Farm, we were prepared for the pandemic, we just didn’t know what we were preparing for. We have chickens, although most are pets instead of laying hens. I have a garden, but I get more produce from the nearby farmers’ market than I do from my own labor. Under my piano, in metal tubs, are peas and beans and rice.

I didn’t realize how quickly I’d run out of fresh lettuce, you know, that kind that comes prewashed and wrapped in plastic. I started a flat of micro greens that will last a micro minute.  And I got out my sprouting jars and seeds, but even as I was measuring a mixture of mung bean, alfalfa, and broccoli seeds into my jar, I started wondering what would happen if the farm system broke down and I couldn’t get my sprouting seeds. How many acres would I need to plant for a seed crop? Which seed crop would be most productive? Who am I kidding?

As the first cases of COVID-19 came ashore on the west coast, I made a Costco run. I got the last twelve-pack of almond milk on the shelf. There was plenty of oat milk, but I have never tried oat milk, so I didn’t get any. I probably should have.

I didn’t buy raisins, a staple in my breakfast oatmeal, or the big box of Quaker Oats, because I had plenty to last me until my next follow-up appointment with my oncologist. Silly me! Two weeks later my oncologist and I agreed to postpone appointments for at least two months. I wonder if Costco has any raisins and oatmeal left.

Then there were those things I kept putting off. My phone and my laptop are out of date. I need my piano tuned. Oh, the piano isn’t too far off, but it may be by the time this pandemic plays out. Playing the piano keeps me sane.

I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I thought I was, but I have resources not everyone has. Most important, I have a new crop of seed that I ordered over the winter and a garden in which to plant my seed. I have enough beans and rice to last a few months. I still have peaches and applesauce canned last summer.

The question niggling at the back of my mind isn’t, “Where’s my next meal coming from?”  It is, “Will I be able to can peaches and green beans this summer?

I realize the privilege of my question and how small my problems are. So, what can I do to help those who don’t have the same privileges? What can I do to ease someone’s anxieties? Privilege isn’t worth much if you don’t share.

Canning in April

I’ve always loved beans, but my mother, not so much. When you grow up poor and one of a dozen children, as she did, beans are always on the menu. But she knew we loved them, and it was a real treat when she made her chili beans.

Beans are one of the cornerstones of my diet, along with whole grains, fruit, and vegetables. My man isn’t quite as fond of all-things-beans as I am, but there are a couple of things he welcomes on the menu. One is my home-canned blackeyed peas. The other is our pantry version of black beans and corn salsa.

If you’re a prepper, you know dry beans store well. For the long haul, it isn’t necessary to can them. For the short term, though, a few jars of canned beans and peas in the cabinet sure make meal planning easier. Whether you buy them from the grocery store and can them yourself depends on your circumstances and your taste. I prefer my home-canned beans in glass jars.

Whether you can fresh beans or bags of dried beans from the grocery also depends on circumstances. I do both.

I shelled and canned a bushel of purple hull peas last summer.  Fresh peas need to be processed quickly.  Even partially dried ones can mold on you.  They can be canned or frozen. The frozen ones still require some cooking time, but they are a good choice for people who limit salt.

The 24 pints of canned peas I got from that bushel didn’t last long, and I found myself buying bags of blackeyed peas at the grocery store to can mid-winter.

We eat blackeyed peas at least once a week. I just open the jar, heat the peas, and serve them with cornbread.

To make Mama’s Chili Beans, I open a jar of my canned pintos, add a teaspoon of Williams Chili Seasoning, and heat. When I serve it, I add a few teaspoons of salsa to the bowl. Yep, it’s that simple.

You can serve chili beans over rice or with cornbread. They also make good tostados.

To make our Pantry Black Bean Salsa, I rinse and drain a can (or pint jar) of black beans and drain a pint of my whole kernel corn (or thaw a pint of frozen corn). I toss them together with a cup of salsa, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge to chill and marinate.

Serve the salsa with tortilla chips or tortillas. If you have fresh cilantro, so much the better! And don’t let anyone tell you that chips and salsa are not a complete meal!




Creativity and Pandemic

Jerry Saltz, author of How to Be an Artist, writes, “Isolation favors art.”

It’s true. I work best without human distractions, but isolation isn’t enough. Time, too, is necessary.

Last night, I had time for this: I cut a quarter head of red cabbage and put the chunk into a pan with about an inch of water. I put on the lid and brought it to a boil. I turned the burner down and let it simmer for a while. I ate the cabbage with my dinner.

When I took the cabbage out of the pan, I noticed two things: the patterns on the bottom leaves were lovely on my plate, and the water left in the pan was a rich winey red. I couldn’t let that water go to waste.

After dinner, I got into my basket supplies and teased out a length of quarter-inch flat reed. I coiled it as tightly as I could to fit it into the small pan. The cabbage juice didn’t cover the coil. I added water and set the pan on the stove. I boiled the coil. If I were a better scientist, I could tell you how long I let it boil, but just know it was long enough to see some color happening in the reed and short enough I didn’t boil the water completely away.

When I took it off the stove, I added enough vinegar to cover the coil again, put on the lid, and left my experiment overnight.  This morning I was rewarded with lovely pink reed, the color strong enough to sit between two strands of smoked reed to make a chain pattern.

During this scary time, when my daughter and her family are quarantined and recovering, I will take the gift of time and distraction from what scares me most, and I’ll make a basket.

As they say on PBS’s Gallery America, “Try to put a little bit of art into everything you do.”

When the Poles Tilt

I’ve been gone from my blog for several weeks.  Call it a health break.  I had a spindle cell sarcoma removed, and for the time being, the Grim Reaper hasn’t shown himself. It takes a lot of time to recover, though, if you’re serious about recovery.  I am. Good diet and an exercise routine are as important as friends and a good night’s sleep.  It also requires continuing education.

Because I had read The First Cell by Azra Raza, I agreed to the extensive surgery.  I won’t creep you out with the details.  Based on my son’s recommendation, I picked up a copy of How Not to Die by Michael Greger and Gene Stone.  I had recently read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell.  The two diet books corroborated these facts:

*Vegans live longer than omnivores AND vegetarians.

*A whole-food, plant-based diet protects against premature death by heart disease, cancer, and most of the ills that befall we mortals.

So, what’s a chicken farmer going to do? Become a vegan, of course.

Before the surgery, I gave my laying hens to a chicken farmer friend.  I didn’t feel bad about it, because her chickens have a safe place to free range and a warm place to roost in the winter.  I knew I’d be hard pressed to care for the flock during radiation, but I kept the seven old girls, most of whom no longer lay.

When I told my sister what I’d done, she said, “Let me get this straight.  You gave away the layers and kept the old chickens?”

Yep.  The old girls are pets more than livestock.  It’s always been that way out here.  I get a few eggs a week now, but more importantly, I have to get outside every day and take care of my tiny flock, in sunshine or clouds, in wind and rain.  My girls dance around my feet when I bring a treat of millet or mealworms.  Out among the trees, I see that life goes on.

I don’t eat eggs anymore, but my dog does.  Being vegan is my choice, but it’s not one I can make for anyone else, including my dear husband. I still have beef and sausage in the freezer for the family and friends I feed.  I just pile on the grains and beans and greens, the fruit and veggies, when I feed them at the big kitchen table.

The chickens still have a role to play on the farm.  As I recover, I’m remodeling coops and rearranging garden fences so chickens can clear the weeds and keep the bugs in check between growing seasons.

When your world comes crashing down around you, you start over again.  I have. I guess being a vegan farmer isn’t such a stretch for an agnostic preacher’s daughter.  The irony tastes a little like homegrown spinach.

My Dream Chicken Setup

Safety, clean water, and food are the three main things you want for your livestock.  My chickens have secure coops and covered runs.  I carry water and check the feeders daily, and I try to give them the greens and weeds and bugs they crave.

The latter is a problem if they aren’t in a pasture.  So, how do we balance safety and a chicken’s need to forage?

Last month, before the frogs were tucked away for winter, I opened the run gate and a frog hopped away into the crack where the gate meets the fence.  As I tried to get him free, one of my bantam hens ran between my legs. I tried to grab her, but my Lab/Border Collie got her first.  Nike thought she was helping.

I chased Nike across the creek bed and through the trees.  The chicken was crying the whole time.  Until she wasn’t. I finally caught up, carried the little girl in my arms back to the pen.  She was alive, missing feathers from her back, so I decided to make her a nest of hay to stay comfortable for as long as she had to live.

I set her down and she immediately hopped up, climbed the steps into the coop, and inspected all the walls.  A month and a half later, she still greets me every day when I go out to the pen.  I’ve forgiven Nike, but I won’t give her another chance.  Instead, I imagine the permaculture pen setup I would like to build.

Imagine four fenced garden areas, a coop in the center.  Also imagine moveable roofing, some of it solid to keep out the rain and some of it wired to let in the elements but keep out the hawks.  Year one, the roof covers Garden 1, and I plant in Garden 2.  Year two, the roof covers Garden 2, chickens cleaning up the bugs and weeds and fertilizing the garden while Garden 1 reseeds. I plant in Garden 3.  The rotation continues, the chickens doing their work while I do mine.

It would be a no-till garden.  I’d have to keep the grass mowed, as I do now in the yard, collecting the clippings for my penned chickens.  I plant in piles of soil, leaf mold and compost. I’m imagining permanent beds around the perimeter of the four gardens where I grow flowers for the bees and butterflies mixed in with perennial herbs and bed-contained blackberries.

It would take a lot of work to set this up.  You’d need a nearby barn to hold feed barrels and hay.  You’d also need centralized access to water, for the chickens and the garden.  But once the system was in place, it would cut the amount of chicken feed I’d need to buy, the amount of weeding I’d have to do, and would make my poison-free pest control easier.

Most important of all, it would allow my chickens to forage while keeping them safe.

Potato Peel Challenge

I had only five things on my to-do list today, one priority item, three important items, and one with a question mark.  Guess which got done first!

Yesterday, I canned eight jars of my Pontiac Red potatoes.  I love this variety because they’re tasty and they reach maturity before the weather gets hellish in Oklahoma.  The smooth-skinned reds steam well, and they’re lovely cooked with green beans. They hold together when boiled.

I also grow russets. They, too, are good steamed, but I like the way they break down in soups.

The Pontiac Reds canned beautifully.  I was pretty sure they would.  What I didn’t know is if the russets would turn to goop in the canning jar.  I had to find out. The priorities could wait!

Russets are tricky in Oklahoma.  They take longer than the reds to mature, and it gets hot before they get much size on them. I harvested a lot of small russets.

Anyway,  I had a question to answer and a lot of small potatoes to peel.

The first thing I realized is it takes much longer to peel a lot of little potatoes than it does a few big ones.  There’s also more waste, because the ratio of peel to potato is greater in the small ones. Little potatoes are harder to hold on to when you’re going to town with the peeler.  But I got the job done.

It was worth the effort. Canned baby russets look beautiful in the jar.

I’m thinking that next year it might be a good idea to get the russets in the ground in January or February, maybe under a thick coat of straw.  But that’s an experiment for another day.  Today, I’ve got to tackle a few more things on my to-do list.

Garden + Pantry = Tacos

When I think about food preparedness, I don’t see a basement filled with freeze-dried meals.  I see a sensible plan that includes pantry, shelves of home-canned produce, root cellar for storable foods, sprouts on the counter in winter, a garden and farmers’ markets in summer, DIY skills, and a community of likeminded people.  As with any worthwhile endeavor, there’s more than one path to food security.

When it’s cold outside and time is short, I stir up pantry meals with a side of greens.  Right now, though, garden produce is coming in.  Some meals are all garden, like yesterday’s new potatoes and green beans.  Today’s lunch was a hybrid meal, part garden and part pantry,

On my way home from yoga this morning, I was wondering what to do with the half package of taco shells in the pantry.  Chicken tacos, that’s what!

My friend Phyllis grew a lot of onions.  I didn’t get mine in the ground this year. Thankfully, she shared.  I have tomatoes coming along nicely, green ones, but I picked up a few pounds of ripe ones last week at the farmers’ market.  Add chicken, some fat for sautéing, homemade salsa from last season, and some good cheese. Yep, I had everything I needed.

I have an abundance of seasonings, food for the taste buds and the soul.  One might even call me a seasonings hoarder, except I use them up and I share them.

I sautéed the onions, added leftover chicken meat, and seasoned to taste.  If you don’t have leftover chicken in the fridge, use canned chicken.

I warmed the shells, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheese and set it all on the table with the salsa. It was as delicious as I hoped it would be. And simple.

This winter, when there are no more tomatoes ripening on the counter, make sure you have a few jars of whole, canned cherry tomatoes in the pantry.  They taste almost as good as the freshly chopped tomatoes we ate today. Almost.

After the Flood

It has been a while since I’ve been here. I could say it’s the busy time of year, but for me, all times of the year are busy.  I write, I run a household, I raise and preserve a good deal of my own food, and I have friends and family to whom I willingly give some time.

I could blame all I have to do, but it would be a lie.  What it is, is the weather.  Just past the halfway mark, we’ve already had a years’ worth of rain.

I prefer rain to drought because I live on high ground and I’m terrified of wildfires.  And war. Politics and weather!  It’s all enough to make one feel anxious.

One night a couple of weeks ago, we got seven inches of rain here, and two more inches in the two days following.  Now, I’m not going to complain.  I’m one of the lucky ones.  The creek behind my house didn’t overflow onto my garden.  My chickens survived the deluge.  It seems selfish to say that all I suffered was anxiety.

I had no television reception or WiFi, but by the back window I had a Hotspot.  My eyes were glued to videos of houses slipping off their eroded banks into the Cimarron River, of barges loose on the Arkansas and crashing into the dam downstream.  All this misery!  But humans are nothing if not resilient…and dangerous.  How much of this have we brought on ourselves?

Following every rain since, I’ve had to go out into the garden and scoop dirt on exposed potatoes, but they are lovely potatoes, and they will be dug in their good time.

I’ve discarded old tomato cages that loosen their Earth Staple moorings and fall over when the ground gets soft.  Now I use deep stakes, nothing fancy.  It works, and I’ve harvested my first Mexican Midget tomatoes and Jimmy Nardello peppers.

Life is as good as you make it.  Being anxious doesn’t help, even if you can’t help being anxious.  But there’s a remedy.  Go out to the garden.  Count your chickens and gather eggs.  Make a meal for someone.  Give some of your fresh produce away.  Breathe deeply.  Love.

How Do We Coexist?

Two evenings ago I was a hundred miles from home, wearing the raw silk suit my man brought home for me from an art show and that I rarely have a reason to wear. I was sitting at a table with two other poets and their spouses, eating steak and salad and trying to ignore the desserts on the table, waiting to hear which excellent poets, writers, and artists would win an Oklahoma Book Award.

I was a finalist in the poetry category for my collection, Not a Prodigal.  I signed a few books.  I talked to poets and writers, my people.  We shared hugs and good wishes.  I didn’t win, but a friend, Hannah E. Harrison, did, for her picture book, Friends Stick Together.

A long evening, and it was past midnight when Dale and I finally left the turnpike, navigated a stretch of shoulderless highway, and turned onto the dirt and gravel that takes us home.  We fell into bed, exhausted.

About six, I heard my name, and in that haze between sleep and waking, I thought it was a dream. But I heard it again, more insistent. My husband was standing at the window pointing to a charming young raccoon, a slash of black and white across his face, who was trying to figure out how to get into one of the chicken pens.

I let Nike out.  She sent the raccoon back to his hollow tree along the creek bank.  She enjoyed the run and a perceived victory.  On this day, no harm was done.

There’s a balance between the wild and the kept on our place.  I had to kill a sick opossum last year.  It broke my heart.  I have to keep my cats in the house and my chickens in covered runs to save them from the opossums, the raccoons, the coyotes, and the hawks that share this space with us. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We all belong here.

On this rainy Saturday, I slipped into jeans and tee shirt and heavy Carhartt hoodie and went out to inspect the fences, rake away hay to see if there were entry points into the runs, and to carry stones and blocks from the piles I’ve collected to shore up weak places.  It was a good day’s work.

Like my literary life and my farm life, the natives and the immigrants on our place coexist.  It is not without questions and occasional struggle, like when I’m hauling a big black snake out of the chicken pen and dropping her over the fence, knowing she’ll be back.  But I’m willing to do the work to make it work.

If only political parties, countries, armies, and religious sects would do the work they should so the world could coexist as we do right here, in Oklahoma, on a rugged square of clay and trees and water.  It requires give and take and a lot of hard work.  There’s drama and heartbreak, fear and fatigue sometimes, but mostly there is contentment and beauty that I wish all the world could share.