Monthly Archives: January 2014

Farewell to Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger’s music and life work has always been dear to my heart, and it was with very great sadness  that I learned of his death yesterday. No matter how long they live, or how well, I feel a terrible loss when old-timers pass.

In my life, Pete’s songs have been the stuff of campfires and car trips, rallies and demonstrations, long days gardening and late nights canning. They touch me, and I am grateful to him.

I grew up thinking ‘Inch by Inch,’ written by David Mallett and recorded by Seeger and many others, was my song, and it’s still one of my favorite garden tunes to belt out. Today on the radio I heard Pete’s ‘Well May the World Go.’ I can’t say it better than this.

Safe passage, Pete.



Little Free Library Meets Community Seed Exchange

Over a year ago, I stumbled across my first Little Free Library. It was just a glass-fronted box with a roof in somebody’s front yard, and it was full of books. A sign on the side read, “Take a book, return a book.” I thought it was just one person’s cool idea. Little did I know it’s a worldwide project. As soon as I searched the Internet, found the website, and saw the world map dotted with locations of tiny libraries, I wanted one to nestle into our (future) front yard garden.

I love books, and I love the idea of people in our neighborhood stopping in front of our house to pick a book out of the library, and perhaps return one of their own.

More recently, I’ve been toying with the idea of adding a curbside seed exchange to this vision. Kelly and I are committing ourselves this year to growing only open pollinated seeds and saving them in a more organized and intentional manner for future planting. Why not invite our neighbors to share our seeds and offer their own? Combining a library and seed exchange seems, somehow, very appropriate.

It was only this week that I made a trip to the thrift store with my dad, not really expecting to find the perfect library/seed exchange vessel, but hoping. And there it was: $5 and covered in dirt (I hope it was dirt, anyway!). The cabinet is a little bigger than I’d imagined, and I wobbled home with it protruding from my hatchback. Fortunately, some neighbors took pity on me and helped carry it to the garage.

This is going to be a library in my front yard, I told them. You should come back and check it out. I’m not totally sure they got it, but they smiled at me before retreating across the street.

Now for layers and layers of bright paint. I am trying to be patient, as I wait for paint to dry and ruefully inspect yet more accidental drips that will require yet more layers of paint. Egad.

Picture me at 10:00pm in clogs and Carhartts painting by the light of Kelly's headlamp and the dim overhead garage bulb. That's how crazy and excited I am.

Picture me at 10:00pm in clogs and Carhartts painting by the light of Kelly’s headlamp and the dim overhead garage bulb, and fretting over whether ‘Candy Apple Red’ and ‘Tropical Sky’ really go with ‘Mango Madness’. That’s how crazy and excited I am.

When the new little garden library is ready for its debut, Kelly insists we should distribute announcement flyers to neighbors and invite them to a grand opening reception. I feel slightly foolish, but I do secretly hope that at least some of them will be as delighted as we are by this addition to the neighborhood.

Why Growing Food Matters

In my ongoing love affair with gardening, I occasionally stop to ask myself why I care so much. Why does gardening bring me so much joy, and why do I feel so passionately that it matters?


I know I’m far from alone in being overcome by the seductive power of growing food. Take one look around the Internet, and you turn up blog upon blog about edible gardening, urban farming, and local eating. I’m also sure that each gardener and backyard farmer has his or her own reasons for producing the ultimate in local fruits and veggies.

For some, I think, the motivation is a deliberate, rational desire to cut costs and raise one’s own standards of eating. For others, it is a moral calling—a drive to walk the walk of one’s green living ideals and follow a gentler path on our overburdened planet. Finally, there are those for whom the call of the asparagus bed is more akin to a spiritual journey; both literally and figuratively, gardening can ground us, connect us, make us feel alive and touched by the divine, bountiful world.

Today is Overall Gardener’s second birthday. 2014 is young and still full of possibility. Solstice is behind us, and the light is returning (if only the rains were, too). In the darkness before this year’s planting of seeds, I feel moved to not only reflect more on a topic I already enjoy immensely, but also to push toward a better understanding of why growing and gathering food for ourselves really matters. In doing so, I hope I can better advocate for these most important of human activities. No, really, I’m not just being dramatic; I think it matters that much.

Edible gardening and urban/suburban farming have become awfully fashionable in America. While hunting for a book on home distilling for Kelly before Christmas (egad—how very illegal!), I perused the gardening/home brewing/green living sections at a number of local bookstores. Without exception, they were chock full of books on growing your own food, making the most of small gardening spaces, transforming city lots into productive mini homesteads. These books are filled with sleek pictures of perfectly designed urban farmscapes. They make me all quivery and melty inside.

But while there is undeniably a craze for super-local urban farming and food gardening, it’s difficult to find anyone growing food in their front yard. In effect, as much as we pledge our love for edible gardening and our commitment to personal food production, this is still an activity to be kept discreetly out of sight. Are we afraid someone will steal our blueberries (Kelly is)? Are neighbors’ judgments, local ordinances, and HOA rules dissuading us from getting down and dirty with curbside artichokes? In many cases, unfortunately, yes.

But I think there is also a way in which many American city dwellers just haven’t made that cognitive and cultural leap. Gardening is great. Homegrown melons are fabulous. But lawns and birch triads and privet are comfortable and orderly and proper front yard fare.

Sadly, my front yard faces north. Add to that Kelly’s love of ornamentals, and you have the reason why our front yard is no edible jungle (and why we haven’t been able to agree on what to plant there and have left it barren and sheet mulched for two years now). But there is adequate curbside light for artichokes, a sunny spot I’ve wrangled as a future site for five blueberry bushes, and a 15-gallon ‘Wonderful’ pomegranate waiting patiently by the garage.

I think it’s important to grow food where passing strangers can see. I want my neighbors to know that I grow food proudly, and I want them to think about what they might grow on their own piece of earth—be it a sprawling backyard, or the narrow patch of dirt in front of an apartment. I think food is beautiful. I think gardeners everywhere need to get up their gumption, throw caution aside and do their lawns in. Imagine what your town would look like if this happened. Imagine all the food people could produce if they stopped limiting themselves to backyards. Imagine how much more interesting your neighborhood could be.

Several years ago, I resolved to photograph front yard food gardens. Where are these gardens, I wondered? I spent an afternoon driving through my town and those adjacent to it. It’s upsetting how little food you see in my area when you do this. Citrus is just about the only acceptable front yard crop, apparently. I have to add here that I live in California’s Silicon Valley—an area where wealth, status, and image are paramount for many.

Squinting from behind the wheel, I occasionally spotted a raised bed, or apple tree, or bean teepee, and I would slam on the brakes and start snapping pictures. These gardens didn’t, generally, look like the pictures in those snazzy urban farming books. They were imperfect—weedy, vegetables past their prime, hose left in a tangle. Some yards sported lawns edged with tomatoes and peppers. Some yards were bare dirt with one sprawling squash plant. But they were useful and beautiful in their own right.

Front yard apartment edible garden.

Apartment gardening.

Just when I was beginning to despair at how few people let their gardens loose out front, I crossed over to the ‘poor’ side of town and found a different world. Front yard edibles still weren’t the norm, but they were more common. In a single block I found three cramped front yards overflowing with produce. Here there was corn and prickly pear cactus, squash peeping from behind a chain link fence, apartments with tiny gardens between stairwell and sidewalk.



I won’t pretend to know all the reasons behind these gardeners’ efforts, though it would be tempting to venture that they garden from a combination of necessity and cultural values brought with them from outside the inhibited American gardening mentality.

Why do we garden? Why does it matter to us—especially when so many of us live hectic lives and have access to good fresh produce from grocery stores, farmers markets, CSAs? Urban farming is not just the property of upper-middleclass professionals browsing bookstore shelves and consulting specialty landscape architects. And, lest I sound too judgmental or self-righteous, urban food growing no more belongs solely to the urban poor. Food gathering and cultivation is each of our birthright, and it’s in our blood.

Growing food is nothing new, but our relationship to it is. In 1900, 38% of the American work force farmed. By 1990, only 2.6% of Americans made their living farming. It’s also true that agribusiness has radically altered farming, but the statistics are depressing nonetheless. In a few generations we have literally forgotten or abandoned essential knowledge that our grandparents and great grandparents held dear. Growing up, my grandmother was the fastest prune picker of her seven siblings. I’ve never eaten a prune, let alone grown and picked one. My grandfather was a  nurse, not a nurseryman, but he still knew how to graft fruit trees.

At no point in human history have we lived lives so disconnected from our sources of nourishment. Surely this at least partly explains the visceral delight so many gardeners feel plunging their hands into rich damp loam, hauling a basket of onions in from the cold, spotting the first tiny growth that pushes up after planting seeds.

And maybe we haven’t really forgotten at all. Maybe this is why so many of us still come home from a day at the office, turn off the computer, and head outside to weed the beets.

How to Make Loquat Liqueur

Honey bees love loquat blossom nectar as a winter food source.

Honey bees love loquat blossom nectar as a winter food source.

Our loquat harvest was incredibly small last summer, and something special seemed to be required. Rather than make loquat jam with so little fruit, I made liqueur this year, using the entire harvest – 4 1/3 pounds of fruit.

Liqueur making takes patience and it felt a long way from summer when I finally bottled the loquat liqueur this chilly morning. Small though my sips were, I can say it’s one of my favorite liqueurs that we’ve made so far. The flavor is subtle, but sweet and well-rounded.

I’ve started using shochu, or Japanese vodka, for most of my liqueurs. It doesn’t have the alcoholic punch of vodka (it’s 48 proof, compared to 80 proof vodka), and its very slight sweetness makes it compatible with most fruit. Read on for my original recipe and notes.

Loquat Liqueur ingredients

• 4 1/3 pounds loquats, washed, flower end removed, halved and pitted to yield 2 pounds of fruit

• 1 cup sugar

• 1 large handful of green coriander sprigs

• 1 750ml bottle shochu

Loquat Liqueur directions

1. Put fruit, sugar and coriander sprigs in jar and add shochu. Shake until sugar is dissolved.

2. Store in a cool, dark place, and continue to shake occasionally over 6 months. Discoloration of the fruit is normal, but watch for mold (I didn’t have any problem).

3. After 6 months, secure cheesecloth to a container, and strain liqueur through cheesecloth. Allow fruit solids to sit in cheesecloth overnight.

4. In morning, remove cheesecloth and gently squeeze into the container.

5. Bottle liqueur.

Additional tips for homemade liqueur

1. In my original recipe, I used a medium handful of green coriander sprigs (cilantro plants gone to seed, before seed dries). I’ve increased the measurement here because I can’t really taste the coriander in the liqueur, and I’d like to. Next year, I’ll increase the amount of coriander. You can leave out the coriander, or substitute a different spice or herb.

2. I actually used one bottle of shochu plus about 1/8 of another bottle, which was leftover from some other liqueur project. Obviously, you can adjust the quantity of shochu and sugar, depending on how much loquat fruit you have on hand. When I first started making liqueurs, I aimed for a 2:1 ratio of fruit to sugar (by weight). I’ve since been experimenting with less sugar, and with honey also. I then add alcohol to fill whatever jar I am using.

3. Be sure the lid to the jar has a good seal. If it doesn’t, add plastic wrap on the inside of the band before closing. This helps prevent mold, though it isn’t common for mold to form in the presence of alcohol.

4. You can use cheesecloth or any similar type of cloth or bag to strain the finished liqueur. The tighter the weave, the better: this helps strain out the sediment.

5. I let my liqueurs steep for six months. When I made my very first plum liqueur, the recipe called for six months. The results were awesome. I’ve followed this timeframe ever since. You might be able to subtract some of this time for other fruits, but I wouldn’t with loquats. They have a very subtle flavor, and the timing allows for maximum flavor extraction.

Just before straining.

Just before straining.


This is what loquats and coriander look like after six months in shochu.

Loquats and coriander after six months in shochu. We usually discard the fruit after straining.

 We make lots of other yummy home alcohols, and you can too! For instructions on how to make plum wine, check out our post, Homemade Plum Wine Results; for additional tips and tricks (this year’s batch is based on that first recipe, but is turning out much tastier!) check out Homemade Plum Wine, 2013; to learn about the hands-down yummiest plum liqueur on the face of the earth, take a look at Not-Traditional Umeshu.  

2014 Garden Resolution #1: Improved Garden Record Keeping

Happy New Year to gardeners and gardens everywhere! I have two gardening resolutions for 2014. First: improved record keeping.


Keeping garden records

This year, I aim to faithfully record all of our planting and harvesting, as well as calculate the approximate monetary value of the harvest. The idea of keeping gardening records delights me (no, really, I’m weird like that). Unfortunately, despite my best intentions over the years, our garden records remain mediocre at best.

As I explained in a garden record keeping post almost two years ago, we (usually) keep track of our planting and harvesting using a binder method I developed after interning on a small organic farm/CSA. In theory, these records are quite detailed, including date sown, vegetable variety, quantity sown (and age of seeds), number of plants to emerge, the bed in which they are planted, transplant date, units harvested/pounds harvested, date of harvest, and a section for additional notes. Ha!

Many other food gardeners and small-scale farmers make a point of keeping careful records and tallying money saved. Their blogs inspire me toward better self-discipline, and I am grateful to them for reminding me that really good record keeping is not only ideal, but also possible. Thomahaak Family Farm keeps fabulous records of produce harvested (right down to herbs weighing fractions of a pound).  I appreciate Dog Island Farm’s tally of both farm savings and expenditures. Starving off the Land has gone so far as calculating calories harvested, setting goals for the percentage of household caloric need met by first-hand food.

Recording small harvests

Aside from lack of consistency in actually writing things down, one of the most challenging aspects of garden record keeping for me is the fact that we often harvest very small quantities of veggies and herbs. If, as occurred yesterday morning, I wander outside in my pajamas to pick a few sprigs of parsley, a small bunch of cilantro, and about five leaves of kale to throw into a smoothie, how do I effectively and efficiently record this?

It was January 1st; my resolve was brand new, and I had nowhere to rush off to. Under Kelly’s skeptical eye, I got down the small kitchen scale and attempted to weigh the bounty. The parsley and cilantro each weighed in at approximately 1/32 lb. The kale was more like 1/16 lb. That’s if I trust my scale—an old, non-digital thrift store find.

Kelly pointed out that she doesn’t see how keeping these kinds of records actually benefit our gardening efforts. She also informed me that she was not prepared to follow my example. She suggested that employing a rougher estimate of our planting and consumption habits still allows us to adjust future planting accordingly, without going off our gourds trying to weigh every sprig of parsley.

I see her point.

Still, I am moved to redouble my record keeping efforts and to experiment with how to do this in a sustainable and useful manner.

Keeping records for smarter gardening

I would argue that good garden records make for smarter gardening. It’s easy to implement changes in the garden when you have the facts in front of you. We have adjusted the varieties of onions we grow based on our yearly yield. This is possible because we weigh the harvest every spring and compare varieties. If we tally money saved on produce grown at home, we can make smarter choices about how to prioritize space in our veggie gardening beds.

Record keeping can also serve as justification to ourselves for how we allocate our time and resources. I grow food for many reasons—not all of them rational. But record keeping can illustrate the good, solid, sensible reasons to grow food. It can provide us with data and supportive evidence for the difference our gardening efforts make in our diet and budget.

I can promise right now that this year’s records won’t be perfect, but I will experiment to improve our system and our consistency. In the first two days of the new year, I’ve started jotting records on our 2014 calendar. I think this method will be especially useful for tracking eggs—an almost daily harvest. I am also considering creating standardized measurements for certain common small harvests. For example, knowing the weight of the small bunches of cilantro, parsley, and kale I add to our smoothies, I may record these harvests as ‘small bunch cilantro,’ rather than weighing each bunch.

How do you keep your garden records? And why do you keep them (or not!)?