Beginning Again


Welcome home! Watch your head!

I’m back on the Coteau after the nine-week legislative session which at times felt unbearably long and now feels like, “wait, it’s over already?” After a brief stop down in Southeastern SoDak to pick up my entitled feline, I made it home just in time to come down hard with the Capitol crud I’d managed to avoid while I was in the thick of things.


Still, a hacking cold doesn’t excuse a gal from glorying in visions of spring, regardless of the snow mountains piled everywhere in my little town. Especially since I picked up three weeks’ worth of mail, and among the bills and shoppers and credit card offers were three packages of seed I’d ordered in a fit of desperation during my last long weekend in Pierre.

Of course I’d done a seed inventory in late December, and of course I left my garden journal here at home, but I figured I remembered most of what I really needed. Unguided figuring coupled with websites full of glossy veggie and flower images is more than a little dangerous, but I didn’t get too far out of line. I set a budget of $100, and I managed to stay under it even with those seductive buy-this-much-get-free-shipping offers. I was disciplined.

OK, well, I was disciplined in that I kept my trio of orders under $100. And, I did order pretty much everything I needed, which wasn’t much. And then, in superbly un-disciplined fashion I ordered a bunch of other stuff that wasn’t on my needs list because I was still under my $100 limit.

I’m still amazed at how little seed I need and how much weird and wonderful stuff I can get now that I’m pretty much just growing for myself. The small amount of money and discipline necessary for making a seed order as compared to my CSA and market gardening days still blows my mind–at the same time, it’s difficult to force myself to choose the smallest pack size rather than, say, a pouch of five thousand.

Civilization as we know it could collapse. What if I didn’t have enough turnip seed to isolate, grow out, pollinate, and make more turnip seed? What if some rogue grower up the block (I’m lookin’ at you, Kim!) was growing out Chinese cabbage for seed at the same time, and it crossed with the last of my turnips and formed some mutant Brassica that not even flea beetles found appetizing? Do you think the Svalbard seed vault would save us? It’s already sprung a leak from melting permafrost!

I think we’re on our own. The last defenders of the Family Brassicaceae.


onion harvest
Seed-grown storage onions

Actually, I didn’t order turnips this year. I still have two packs in my seed stash. What I did order was storage onion seed because I’m tired of getting crappy onions from the store that go moldy in less than a week or have soft, rotten layers undetectable from the outside. Onions are easy to grow from seed; it’s just that they take some time. I much prefer starting them myself (if I can) than buying plants or sets.


Onion sets are an absolute last resort because they have a much greater tendency to bolt–and an onion that sends up a seed stalk is an onion that won’t keep through the winter. I seed my onions in 4-packs with 4 plants per cell as Eliot Coleman suggests in The New Organic Grower (though he uses soil blocks), and I agree with him that this makes weed control much easier than with a single row of onions. It doesn’t adversely affect the size of the bulbs.

I started my onions today, as well as Blue Solaise leeks, a superb variety of flat-leaf parsley from Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Brilliant celery root, which I grow every few years because it’s hard to find in grocery stores, it stores well, and it’s really delicious. Also on the celery theme, I’m starting lovage from seed–a huge, deep-rooted herb whose young leaves taste like very strong celery, but that I don’t usually eat–I grow it because it’s cool-looking, pollinators love the big umbels of yellow flowers, and it’s a tough-as-nails perennial. And, you know, if a civilizational collapse causes a desperate celery situation, you’re covered.


lovage flowers
Pollinators love lovage!

I ordered other stuff for the pollinators, too–borage and anise hyssop from Pinetree and swamp milkweed and cup plant from Seed Savers Exchange. (Turned out I already had seed for anise hyssop and cup plant–that’s the danger of ordering away from home.)


I also ordered and started rue (Ruta graveolens) plants because I saw very few Black Swallowtail butterflies here last year–I think I glimpsed one or two all season. Elsewhere, when I’ve had rue growing in my gardens, they seem to prefer to lay their eggs on it even more than dill, carrots, fennel, and parsley (which I’ll also grow). Rue is also a tough perennial–even when eaten down to a nub by hungry caterpillars, it’ll make a comeback the next season.

cooler tomatoesOne thing I pledged not to order this year (and was nearly successful in avoiding) was tomatoes. While browsing Territorial’s site, I found a variety of sauce/slicing tomato I had great success with in the past but has fallen out of my collection in recent years. So, Cuore di Bue will be back in the garden, along with one or two other varieties that somehow slipped into my stash during the Deuel County Women Farmers seed swap.

After last year’s multiple marathons of tomato canning, I’m thinking I’ll cut back this year and give myself a break. Wish me luck…er, discipline!



I sure do know how to rock a staycation.

I was hired for my current organizing position close to a year ago. I was living down in the southeastern corner of SoDak at the time, and initially I was hired as a lobbyist, so getting the job basically meant I had to up and move to Pierre the following week.

But, the organizer part of my job post legislative session required me to relocate somewhere closer to the Brookings office. And that meant getting my finances in order and house-hunting on weekends in between the madness of legislative weekdays.

My budget being what it is (and my entourage including a weekend teenager, a large dog, and a grumpy cat), Brookings itself was out of the question. I scoped out a few places in surrounding communities, and found the sweet spot in Toronto–where the population and property prices are low, the yards are big, and “urban” agriculture is a given.

I closed on a good-sized place with 1/3 acre–not as big of a lot as I wanted, but looking back I’m relieved I didn’t hold out for something even more time-consuming to maintain. And I moved in and got started at my organizing duties pretty much immediately upon returning from Pierre in the spring.

The compressed time frame meant that instead of doing the whole Rug Doctor dance, I gave the place a good vacuuming and then carried my stuff in the door. For those who recoil in horror at this–well, what kind of timeframe and more importantly what kind of help do you have going for you? The place looked decent enough; it didn’t stink; I moved in and got my butt to work.

Fast forward to the end of the first year. With the house closed up for winter, I notice that the furnace filter needs changing pretty often. There’s a kind of mustiness which is probably emanating from the dug-out basement (mine is the second-oldest house in Toronto, I’m told), but, you know, the carpets.

As awesome as my vacuum is (and it is super-cyclonic!), there’s no real substitute for  a machine designed to get down in there and suck up as many years of gunk as is possible without ripping up the floor coverings entirely. When I saw the opportunity for a few days off toward the end of the year, I also saw the opportunity to do the spring cleaning I didn’t have time to do this year, and I won’t likely have time for next year, either.

The first two calls I made to price renting a machine led me to one quick realization: the majority of people  must either have a lot of stamina or very little carpet. Who rents a Rug Doctor for one day? In my case, two carpeted bedrooms and a hall upstairs, the actual stairs, plus the living room and office on the main floor were not going to get clean in one day. And probably not two.

Maybe when normal people do their deep cleaning, it’s not that deep. I’m not a neat-freak (I let things go–and go–and go), but I grew up in a cleanliness-next-to-godliness household, which means that when I do deep cleaning, not only does the place really, really need it, I know how to get in there and do it like a gal who’s had warnings about doing a “half-assed job” worked into her brain from infancy. If I’m going to rent a carpet cleaner, I’m going to rent it for a week because I intend to make every inch of that carpet forget it has a history.


So, the third call was to a rental center in town. I asked if they rented “Rug Doctors” because I guess I thought that was shorthand for a carpet cleaner the way that “Kleenex” is shorthand for facial tissue. I got corrected on that, but in the process of the explanation of the difference between machines, I learned that they had a commercial hot water extractor machine, and I sorta decided that if I was going to do this thing I was going to do it like a professional. A professional on staycation.

This sucker is big, it’s awkward, and it was absolute hell to get out of my car, onto my deck, and to lift-and-push one step at a time up the steep and cornered staircase to the second floor. It has two long cords I was advised to plug into separate circuits in my house to avoid blowing a fuse.

Yes, I have some fuses. I also have some circuit breakers. Maybe you have a hybrid car. I have a hybrid house.

I dragged all the furniture out of the first room. Luckily, I have one bedroom upstairs that is not carpeted, so I crammed everything in there. I crammed it more tightly when I realized that as I cleaned my way down the carpeted hallway, I’d have to back into that room with the machine and all of its hoses in order to do the landing at the top of the stairs.

I checked the fuse box map and figured out where to plug in the vacuum and spray line separate from the tank heater line. I filled the tank and measured the cleaning solution. I turned the machine on; the vacuum was sucking like Nebraska, the sprayer was blowing like North Dakota (this is the punchline to a joke about why it’s windy in South Dakota). The tank heater was…kaput.

I checked everything over again. In part because I really wanted it to work and in part because, as a woman, I knew the kinds of questions I would likely get from any man who answered the phone at the rental place. Questions suggesting that I lack a basic understanding of machinery and electrical systems and that the failure of the machine to operate was a failure on my part.

Studies have shown that being able to answer those kinds of questions before they’re asked is a safe and effective way to reduce your blood pressure and also avoid ripping someone’s head off.

On closer inspection, I could see that the protective cover on the tank heater switch was missing, and that there was moisture inside the clear inner part of the switch. Bingo. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t going to work no matter where I plugged it in. I hashed out the problem with the rental place (and sent them a picture), and they suggested that, if I didn’t want to drag that thing down the stairs, load it in my vehicle, and drive the 50-mile round trip back to the store (and then try to find someplace else to rent one), I could simply heat the water on my stove top and pour it in the tank.

The reservoir on this machine is 5 gallons. The machine is upstairs. The stove top is in the kitchen on the main floor. Umm…no.

So, another thing I learned on my staycation this year is how to crank up my water heater to the temperature that ground beef is supposed to be cooked.  That’s 160 degrees–which is not as hot as the machine’s tank heater was supposed to get, but it’s hot enough to burn the heck out of your hand if you go to wash your dishes and forget you turned your water heater up that high.

I sat on a folding chair in the bathroom and filled buckets of scalding water with the shower head (low-flow, extra-slow) and finished the upstairs bedrooms and hall in two days. Tomorrow I put the upstairs furniture back in place and then start moving the office and living room furniture out of the way to do the next round of cleaning on the main floor.

The good thing about the professional hot water extractor is that it takes extraction seriously–very little water stays in the carpet, so it doesn’t take forever to dry. But it’s still not instantaneous, and with all the extra furniture from the carpeted bedrooms crammed in the guest room, it’s looking like I’ll be having another exciting staycation adventure tonight…

…sleeping on the couch.






A Little Post…and More to Come

Now that I am actually starting to work off-farm a little (and putting together a super-exciting project proposal I’ll blog about if it goes through), I thought it might be time to get some content flowing here again!

Here’s a small thing I’ve worked on in the past couple of days, since returning from the Spirit Camp north of Cannon Ball, ND very early Sunday:

photo 1(24)
[Most of] Whatever’s ripe goes in the pot…
Of course, when I returned from a few days on the road there was a crisis of deliciousness in the gardens begging to be harvested. Since I planted so late this spring (umm…summer), the warm-season crops (which were all that I attempted to plant) began to bear fruit a couple of weeks later than normal. That means the main canning season is also starting a couple of weeks late, and I’m scrambling to put up in jars what I’m able because freezer space is very limited.

Hence, this stew of skinned and cut-up tomatoes, red okra, roasted peppers and eggplant. With freshness like this, there isn’t much need for doctoring with spices, but I did add a little salt, a couple of cloves of garlic, and some chopped stems and leaves of a cute little celeriac that has been growing companionably in the pot with my bay tree ever since late 2015, when it suddenly germinated out of the batch of cell packs I’d given up on in spring (over a year ago!!!) and redistributed the seemingly barren potting soil among the houseplants.

Talk about a late bloomer (well, OK, it didn’t bloom):

photo 2(23)

I only ended up with eight pints of the pressure-canned stew (plus a little left in the stockpot for supper), but eight shelf-stable pints is better than no pints, and it’s also better than using half my available freezer space for one small project.

Now, to consider options for the wave of beans, cukes, and tomatillos coming next…

Chokecherries: A Little Creativity Would Be Appreciated

After searching for pie cherries and coming up nearly empty (I found about a gallon to pick a bit past their prime), I am positively overwhelmed with chokecherries at the farm. I’ve picked a few gallons at this point, and I haven’t even gotten out the ladder for the fruit at higher elevation.

photo 2(22)

Yeah, I could say screw it and let the birds have them, but that seems wasteful when there are loads more of them on shrubs in the convoluted downer-tree grove for the fruit-eating bluejays and redheaded woodpeckers and all.

With a bounty like this, I’ve decided I want to be a little more creative–beyond the cordial, jelly, and juice. I’m curious about combining flavors and entertaining new ways to use chokecherries. Surely, others (and more specifically, others with some measure of creativity in the kitchen) have experienced this kind of over-abundance?

photo 3(13)

According to my so-far searches on the internets–apparently not. Yes, I’ve got a promising wine recipe, and I’ll be picking up equipment for that very soon. Otherwise, the only somewhat “different” recipes for chokecherries involved drying them and pummeling them into flour, which apparently has a pleasing almond flavor (imparted, I suppose, by the cyanide-producing compound in the pits). Not having a flour-making device and also feeling a little sketchy about the whole cyanide-pit thing, I’m just flummoxed by the total lack of interesting recipes for the juice and pulp.

So far, I’ve canned five quarts of juice (plus not quite a sixth living in the fridge), and with today’s picking I attempted a cordial which ended up gelatinous once chilled (I won’t cook the berries and sugar next time) plus a pint and a half of syrup spiked with basil (Meh. OK.). I’ve got plenty of herbs this year, so I might also try sage and maybe rosemary as well. Bay leaf infusion? A few spices from the cupboard might also fall in the pot in further experimentation. It’s hard to go wrong with cinnamon.

photo 4(9)

I’ll let you know if I come up with anything promising.