Sunday, February 19, 2017

Garden Update - Seed Order

I actually got some writing done this week! (And not just half-drafts of posts for this blog.) Much of it was family history stuff, but I actually started working on one of the "Xtreme Outlining" projects again. (It does work for those times when stories have to go dormant. They don't just die!)

Today I put in my seed order from Johnny's Selected Seeds.  I need the plastic "mulch" to kill grass where I'm putting in beds.  I also ordered some "green manure" -- cover crops you plant to enrich the soil, and a few packets of seed. (While I am expanding the garden, it's still not very big.)  I'll be buying plants from a local greenhouse for some things, so this is not everything.

*Plastic Mulch:

They have a fancy new kind of black plastic -- it's not quite black. It lets through infrared light, which warms the soil significantly more. This will be good for solarizing the soil (and killing off bad bacteria) and also for just warming the soild for planting.

Normally I wouldn't need this but since we are expanding the bed by more than double, AND putting in a Black Cap patch, we need the grass-killing power.

*Green Manure: Peas And Oats

Since I don't have my own compost heap, I would like to add some more organic material to the soil, and also keep down weeds.  Cover crops do both.  This year, though, instead of the usual ryes and clovers, I decided to buy the field peas and oats mix.  The peas fix nitrogen for the soil, and the oats provide a "trellis" for the peas to grow on.... AND THE PEA GREENS ARE EDIBLE! 

Seriously, I love the exspensvie "pea greens" you can get in Chinese restaurants in the spring, but I thought they must be a special kind of plant. Apparently you can harvest the tender tips of any kind of peas, including field peas and they are just great.  So, I'm going for it -- a cover crop AND a stealth food crop. (Also, field peas are what you make pea soup out of, but I'm not sure I have the space to bring a field crop to harvest.)

*Beans:

If you can keep the woodchucks away, nothing will give you great crops for lower maintenance than pole beans.  I love "filet" beans; the thin, French style "haricots verts."  They are tasty and tender. So I am growing Fortex pole beans. They don't grow quite as wildly as Blue Lake, but that just makes them manageable.  I'm going to make a large trellis for them this year out of pvc.  It'll be an arch and I may put Malabar Spinach on the other end of it. (Oh, shoot, forgot to order those! Oh, well, I can probably get seeds at the garden center....)

*Cucumbers:

These are my main other crop.  Gramma called them "pickles" whether we pickled them or not, and pickling varieties are so much sweeter and buttery flavored... I just don't consider it a cucumber if it's not a pickling variety.  Also, this is my native food.  Cucumbers are our most important crop.

This year I just got the standard Northern Pickling. I usually get a special variety called "Little Leaf" which is less prone to disease, and is easier to harvest because it has little leaves. However, I've decided like the flavor of NP better, and it starts setting fruit earlier.

*Radishes: 

I don't usually grow radishes, but they are the earliest crop. And my Significant Otter likes them -- plus Johnny's has this cool variety called Bora, which is purple and large like a Korean radish.  (And because they are big, they probably aren't going to be that early.)  Might be a good cooking or pickling radish.

*Carrots:

I'm going to give the carrots a try this year.  They are bit fussy to grow, and there is no way we will be able to grow as many as we eat, but still.  It's a raised bed garden -- the soil is loose and fertile.  Perfect for carrots. I'm growing Adelaide, a "true" baby carrot. It's naturally small, and thus fills out early.


Other things I plan to grow, but will wait for plants:

*Black Caps (as mentioned in a previous post) - but the everbearing variety I have my eye on comes from another company.

*Peppers - I have great luck with thin walled peppers like Shishito, so I'll grow at least one of them, but I'll be trying another thick-walled sweet pepper too.

*Eggplants - either I or S.O. will be growing these. The tender, sweet Ichiban variety.

*Basil - I usually get a plant or two.  I love Thai basil, but can't always find it.  When I grow sweet basil, I tend to not harvest it as much, and have discovered that the bees love it.  So... if there's room I might let a basil bush grow all out of control.  (Or, I might not buy it, but let the seeds from last year sprout, and I'll just transplant....)

Finally, I will also call the local community gardens and ask about available space -- and if they have it, I might grow melons or squash.  (Since I have a garden, I don't want to compete for space with people who don't have gardens at all -- but if space is available, why not?)

See you in the funny papers.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Garden Update - Catalog Season

Tis the Season To Plan Gardens!

The garden catalogs mostly come at the end of December, but it's right now that cabin fever hits in the great white north, and everybody is planning their super-ambitious garden.

I am reining in to the best of my ability... but some black raspberries escaped my dream garden and insist on being planted for reals. And I have infected my partner, who now wants a fig tree in hers.  (You can grow fig trees up north now. They have developed a "Chicago" variety!)

I blame Great Gramma Lu.  I am transcribing her memoirs and she reminded me of the "black caps" Grampa grew in his garden.  We used to pick them wild too. These are not like blackberries.  Nor like raspberries. They are sweeter and richer.

So even though I have an ambitious building project for the garden already (more on that next Garden Update), I will be laying out black plastic and patio blocks at the first moment snow uncovers the right spot.  Big enough for five plants and the path around them. That means, maybe 5 by 18 feet.

The black plastic should kill the grass. It would be better if it were left on all summer and prepared in the fall, but I hadn't thought about it in the fall. (One never does. One is busy swearing off gardening forever in the fall.)

Then we dig out the sod, put in root barriers, double-dig the soil with plenty of peat moss and purchased compost, and a little lime.  (Which will also be needed for the new garden bed -- must budget accordingly.)

Then, if the roots have arrived, we soak the roots to jump start them and plant them about three feet apart in the bed.  Voila!  $100 for raspberries.  (That includes the cost of plants, shipping, plastic, patio blocks and soil amendments.)

Which is a lot to spend if you are thinking of this as independant living and survival food.  Because you're not going to get $100 out of those berries this year, and probably not even next. 

However, you could get by creating a bed of berries with a lot less investment. I buy my compost, because there is a factional divide in my household: the "lawn" faction and the "garden" faction.  The lawn faction hates compost heaps (especially since that incident where that angry ground bee made a nest in it one year).  So I buy mine from the college. (MSU is an ag college, they have great compost.)  But you can make your own compost and soil amendments, especially if you're not in a hurry. Heck, if I were willing to wait until next year, I could grow "green manure" on the bed and till it under a couple of times. No compost pile needed.

And I probably don't need the peat moss either. As it happens, I cut my teeth on the Victory Garden, am a great fan of peat, but it's acidic, and requires the addition of lime... so I would probably be fine with just more compost, which is cheaper.

The key there is, though, is to be generous with the soil amendments: these are perennials. They need great soil if they are to produce year after year after year.

I could also skip the plastic that kills the grass. If you have a good shovel and a good back, and time to mess with the grass roots, etc., you could do without that. (Plus many people use things like newspaper or cardboard, which will eventually break down and make mulch.  Worms, apparently, love cardboard so much, you can start a worm farm based on cardboard.)

I don't really need the patio blocks either.  It's just that the patio blocks turn the bed into a landscape feature -- which pleases/pacifies the lawn faction.  (And I admit, it is way easier to manage, especially mowing.)

And if you didn't want fancy black raspberries, you could get red ones for maybe $20 for five.  And sometimes you can get such things for an extra cheap price form your county extension office.  (Although a quick glance at this year's catalog shows me that raspberries are about the same as Burpee and Starks -- so you only save on shipping.)

So in the end, you could probably do it for  $30, but you'd have to be a good at your soil prep.

But I'll probably spend the hundred. What do I get for that investment?

*Fruit: 10-20 pints a year? Maybe? (Since we tend to stand and eat the berries in the garden, I can't tell you how many a patch gives me -- just that it WILL vary from year to year.) The patch may wane after 6-20 years (depends partly on how well you prepped the soil).

*Health: I put this as a separate item because I have dietary restrictions that mean fresh fruit is truly a bonus. It's good for everybody, it's necessary for me. Plus raspberries actually have some protein. Not much, but more than most other fruit.  Also, all that digging builds bone mass.

*Landscaping.  Some nice attractive bee food, and the patio blocks make it easy to mow.

*Experience.  I picked berries, and had an untended berry bed when we had acres to work with, but never really tended my own patch.  Grampa had a significantly bigger patch than I ever did. They consumed a lot, put up a lot, but also had some to take to market.  Grampa, though, had a lifetime of experience.  Your first patch of your own will always be a learning experience.  Your second one will be cheaper to create, easier to tend.

*Soil Tilth.  Preparing a new garden bed is always a whole lot of work and investment.  However, if you do a good job with your garden, you will leave the soil in better shape than you started. It will be easier and easier to work with each year. 

Those last two items are the reason why old people have such lush gardens, with seemingly no effort at all.  While younger gardeners pour knowledge, money, and labor into gardens with much less to show for it: The soil on an old garden is SO much better than on a new one, and an old gardener has many seasons of experience to give depth to their knowledge.

Growing your own food can be hard work, but I swear WILL be talking about less ambitious projects, because this blog is not supposed to be about the enormous time suck of playing in dirt, but about creating "margin" for yourself to live the life you want. 

And there are people who have created a full and leisurely lifestyle for themselves via gardening. I'll be talking about some of them this week, and also about the concept of "margin."

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Fulltime Writing, Ready Or Not

This is a post adapted from my old blog, The Daring Novelist, a post I wrote after I got laid off from my day job and decided not to seek a new one.  I think it describes what this new blog is about -- the concept of Wordsteading -- better than any introduction I could write for this blog:


Full-time Writing: Ready or Not?

I am not ready to make a living at writing.  Far far far far far from it.  Before I got laid off, my plan was to write seriously for two more years, and then get serious about the business, and only then start thinking about things like making a living at writing.

And yet, unprepared as I am, I am dancing in the streets anyway.

The truth is, even though my writing business is not ready, I am ready. Spiritually, professionally, financially. I am ready for this.

But I'm not sure most people in my situation would be.

Everyone in my father's family had a side business.  They were farmers and teachers and they lived in a place with a seasonal economy, so they did all sorts of other things too.  That's just how you get by.  You pack stuff away for the dry times, and you pick up work where you can, and you make and buy and sell a little something on the side: whether it's spare berries from the patch, or home crafts, or copy editing, or real estate.

Building tennis fence with high-end tools
When I was in high school, we boarded horses on our farm to support my horse. Then my dad converted one of the pastures and built three professional-level clay tennis courts.  He did it by hand, totally on a shoestring.  Wheel barrel, shovel, sifting clay on a bit of screen on a frame. He'd buy some hardware here, and hire a local farmer with a backhoe/bulldozer to do a little digging or smoothing there.

We didn't have much in the way of cash. My dad was a teacher in a poor district.  So every summer, my parents would give tennis lessons, and hold tennis tournaments -- every single weekend -- and maybe rent out the courts to some up-and-coming player who was looking for more experience on clay before a big time tournament. We had two antique pop machines -- purchase at a garage sale for maybe ten bucks each -- which sold pop to the trickle of customers.  Sometimes we would spread a sheet on the tennis court fence and projected 16mm film and have a Movie Night, with popcorn and hot dogs.

I have an uncle who made (and lost and made again) many fortunes with bigger versions of that sort of thing, but for us, it was just the way we lived.  Just a way we could have a life we wanted. Boarding horses meant I could have a horse.  Tennis lessons and tournaments meant my dad could play with dirt and play tennis all summer.  Selling pop out of a machine meant we had pop.

Sis' lemonade stand. I am customer.
And so that just seems to be a natural way to live for me.  I never had a lemonade stand (though my sister did), but instead of comic books, I liked to read Mother Earth News, especially the "bootstrap businesses" column.

So it was perfectly natural for me to start a business selling buttons at science fiction conventions when I was in college, and especially after college. It paid for the computers I used to design and create the buttons.  And the car I used to transport them to the cons.  It was also natural to take the job as a noon-time playground supervisor, and do tutoring, and help people write their resumes and fix their computers, not to mention freelance script analysis, and um, you know... writing fiction for magazines!  I did these things in lieu of regular work, and in supplement to it.

So I never really saw any source of income -- even my Day Job -- as anything but another income stream.  The Day Job was like showing movies on that tennis court: it was fun, rewarding, and it kept me in hot dogs and chips.

So I was never emotionally dependent on that job.  It was never my identity.

What that job did for me, though, is allow me to become financially complacent.  Sure, while I worked there I still designed t-shirts for Printfection, or wrote SEO articles for eHow on the side.  But I didn't need to, and so I didn't do it "for reals."  It was more experimental than lucrative.

I never made a lot of money at those other activities, and one thing this 25-year temporary job did for me was to give me cash for investment. Which is the other thing that makes this transition go better.

Investing and Saving

Because of my squirrel-like upbringing, I have a tendency to pack stuff away for winter. It's not just my bank account, and my IRA, and my brokerage account.  I have nuts buried all over the place -- from penny jars and first edition books, to tiny amounts of stock in direct investment programs.

My investment secret is this: Stock is a cool toy.  If you feel like buying yourself a cool toy (like, say, a wireless mouse) buy stock in the company that makes it instead.  (Or some other company you've already vetted.)  If you buy a toy, you'll have some fun, and then a year or two down the line, you'll have junk to get rid of.  If you buy stock, you still have the value of the stock.  Even if the price goes down, you've got more than you had with the toy.  (And over time, stock prices trend upward.)

And because I am a squirrel, I am always thinking of what value something could have later -- in the long term.  Amusing anecdote from work: long ago I had a coworker who was a neatnik. He would go nuts throwing everything away. But he noticed that when did, I'd often pull stuff out of the trash and stick them in my crowded office (not everything, just a few key items).  Then later, when we had a crisis, I'd pull out one of those items to save the day.  After a while, he started asking "Can I throw this out!" (with an exclamation point at the end, not a question mark) and I'd give him my assessment of the item's possible non-standard usefulness, and then he could decide for himself.

Among assets I pack away are my writing and art.  My blog posts are savings bonds.  I don't have time or energy to convert them to cash right now... but down the line, I have some potential books or booklets out of it.  That sketch I did of a policeman and a trench-coated reporter way back at the beginning of this blog... that could adapt into an interesting book cover.

I have a freezer full of rice, and you'd be really shocked at how much you can get out of even 10 square feet of garden, if you work at it and go vertical. (Also if you're home and not too busy to notice whether the beans are setting seeds. Whoops.)  I know how to grow cucumbers and how to bake great bread from scratch.

I think one of the reasons that going over to the freelancing lifestyle is hard for most people is because it's not just about schedule and time. It's not about what you do, it's about how you think -- and that way of thinking takes years to develop. It takes years to know what works for you and what doesn't. Sometimes you do something for one reason, and fail, but you find some other value in it.

In some ways, the freelancing lifestyle is about always making lemonade out of life's lemons.  You fail constantly, so you recycle, and sometimes even come up with something much better than if you'd succeeded.

But here's the thing -- if you know how to do this, if you are adaptable and always ready to think outside the box, and have skills and knowledge to get around barriers, you're often at less risk than you would be with a regular life and job.  Living on your own terms can mean you have more margin for error, and greater options... at least if you do it right.

So now, on the new blog, I will be talking about self-sufficiency, and adaptability, and finances, and about research and history, and about my great grandmother Gramma Lu (whose voluminous memoirs I am transcribing) and other pioneers who created a life for themselves.  I'll also likely talk about the Vortex of Life That Eats Your Writing and other such subjects.

This weekend I'll be talking about my garden plans -- probably a weekly update -- and next week I will talk about a couple who took the idea of self-sufficiency to extremes, back in 1932, and ended up the gurus for a whole movement -- Scott and Helen Nearing.

In the meantime, see you in the funny papers.

Tennis Tournament 1979. See horse peeking out from beyond those barrels.