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Posts Tagged ‘Gardens’

Here are the apples - L-R - Rubinette, Baker's Square, Golden Delicious, Steele Red, Wickson, Goldrush, Library, Honey Gold, Haralson

Here are the apples – L-R – Rubinette, Baker’s Square, Golden Delicious, Steele Red, Wickson, Goldrush, Library, Honey Gold, Haralson

2013 saw a lot of successful gardening and foraging projects, and none were quite as fun to participate in as the apple harvest has been.  Not only did one of our trees begin to reach its full potential this year (the Haralson), we also added close to 25 new varieties to our ever growing (but still small urban orchard), harvested multiple varieties from Son of !Frankentree! and located a few other nice neighborhood trees to forage from.

 

From our local bounty we have been eating fresh apples for the last month (and I suspect for at least the next few months to come), are in the process of fermenting about three and a half gallons of cider, have made a decent sized batch of spicy apple chutney, and have began to experiment with drying apple slices.  The limiting factor so far in our apple projects has not been a lack of produce to work with, but with not enough time in the day to do everything we would like to try.

 

While most of our trees are still very young, a few of the original ones that we planted well over five years ago are beginning to enter their early prime.  The Haralson was the highlight this year.  The tree was packed with apples early on, and after an initial thinning out of the fruit, we  saw a nice harvest in early September.  Most of the apples were in pretty good shape, but there was some internal damage on some of them that was most likely caused by the plum currcilio.

 

Our Rubinette and HoneyCrisp, both about the same age as the Haralson, were much more disappointing.  While it seemed early on that the fruit set was going to be great, we ended up losing many apples. The few that made it to harvest were quite ugly and riddled with pest damage, though we did find a small number to at least taste.

 

Bad years are going to occur no matter how much we fight against pest invasion and disease, but it also shows that we have a lot to learn as far as orchard upkeep, maintenance, and overall orchard health is concerned.  I have two books that I always come back to when I have a question about fruit tree health and orchard care.  The Holistic Orchard and The Apple Grower are both written by Michael Phillips who is on the cutting edge of organic orchard practices and Integrated Pest Management techniques.

 

The perfect inside of a Baker's Square apple ...

The perfect inside of a Baker’s Square apple …

I have made great strides and improvements in grafting skills, tree planting, pruning, and mulching techniques, but I suspect it will take me the rest of my life to get to a place where I can grow high quality apples on a yearly basis.  Ultimately my goal is not the perfect apple, but one that is grown under organic conditions, that keeps pest damage under control and aims to eliminate fungal and bacterial pathogens through probiotic, natural treatments throughout the season.  That is a tall order of chores, but one that can be accomplished if given the time, energy, and homework dedicated towards this project.

 

I could keep going on about pests and diseases, organic growing techniques, or about all the different culinary projects you could start using apples, but instead I am going to share with you the best part of this years apple adventure!  The results from the First Annual Gathering of the Autonomous Apple Tasters Collective are in!

 

While I am just having a little fun with the name, we did put on a small family tasting this year and it was a lot of fun.  As Son of !Frankentree! matures (along with all the other trees), there is a likely possibility that we could have upwards of 40 distinct varieties to sample sometime in the next few years.  This years panel is myself, my wife Karyn, and our two kids – Owen (8) and Freya (5).  Comments by the taster and what they thought about the apples they sampled are their opinion only.  Autonomy Acres will not be held liable for any disagreements or slander caused by, for, or against the aforementioned apples grown and foraged for this tasting.  Arguments between apple lovers and their significant others is their own business and shall remain that way.  Any comments, concerns, or corrections please contact the editor … Peace & Cheers

 

Results from the First Annual Autonomous Apple Tasters Collective

 

Rubinette – Rubinette is an apple bred in Switzerland in the 1950s.  A cross of Cox’s Orange Pippin and Golden Delicious, Rubinette is considered one of the finest apples in the world.  A smaller apple that is slightly orange with splashes of yellow and red.  Ours were heavily damaged this year, and the kids called them ugly and slightly bumpy.  Owen described his first bite as sweet and gritty.  Karyn said overripe and mealy.  Freya thought they were tart, and I thought they had an underlying sweetness with a mealy mouth feel.  This years Rubinette pales in comparison to one we had last year, but I am hopeful that in the years to come we will once again taste this apple in all its glory.

 

Baker’s Square – Baker’s Square is one of the apple trees that we forage from.  It is named after the place where it lives, on the boulevard outside of a restaurant here in town.    We ended up collecting close to two produce boxes filled with these apples.  Cosmetically the Baker’s Square apples were nearly perfect.  Virtually free of pest damage, and no overt signs of disease.  These apples are larger in size, with a green background and a pinkish/red overlay,  ripening to a shiny yellow background.  They taste like an apple.  The kids thought they were sweet, smooth, and fluffy.  Karyn was under impressed and thought they were dull, but would be good for cooking.  I thought they tasted like cider and  make for decent fresh eating.  While it is not the best apple I have ever eaten, I will gladly forage from this tree as often as nature lets me.

 

Golden Delicious – This is one of the apples we got off of Son of !Frankentree! this year.  We only had one apple to try, and it had a bit of pest damage.  Visually it was a small, golden/green apple, that was slightly pitted.  Upon the first taste Karyn felt a tartness in the back of her mouth and Freya thought she tasted lime or citrus.  Owen thought it was kind of bland, but that may be because it was not the best example of what this apple has to offer.  I love me a good Golden Delicious so I am looking forward to a better crop next year.

 

Steele Red – Steele Red is another apple off of Son of !Frank!  This apple was a show stopper for us.  Karyn described its appearance as rustic, and looking like an old painting, while Freya saw shades of purple and dark reds.  When I saw it cut open I described it as looking like a fairytale with an almost perfect white fleshed interior.  We were all in agreement that it was very crisp and really sweet with just a touch of sour apple candy in each bite!  Great eating that reminds us of what some of the modern varieties taste like, but much better.  A real keeper.

 

Wickson – Wickson is an apple that I was turned onto by my friend Steven who writes the blog Turkeysong.  Steven has been kind enough over the last few years to share many different varieties of apple genetics with me, and Wickson is one of them (also harvested off of Son of !Frankentree!).  Developed in northern California by Albert Etter in the early 1900s, Wickson is a crabapple with a sugar content of up to 25%!  A good addition to cider, or for a sweet treat right off the tree.  We only had one to try and it was described as small, darkish red, waxy, very tart, but well balanced with sweetness.  Once again, this apple shows a lot of promise in the years to come.

 

Goldrush – I did a review of Goldrush last year with an almost perfect specimen harvested from S.O.F.T..  Sadly, this year’s examples fall short to what we have tasted before.  While this years Goldrush apples were beaten up quite a bit, you could still glimpse (and taste) how wonderful this apple is.  Crisp, tart, and mildly sweet, Goldrush starts out slightly juicy and finishes dry in the back of your mouth.  Eating a Goldrush apple I can just imagine what a hard cider would be like when made with these apples!

 

The Library Apple!  A true beauty that deserves a real name ....

The Library Apple! A true beauty that deserves a real name ….

Library Apple – This is another one of the apple trees that we forage from, or should I say will be foraging from in the years to come.  I found this apple the day before our apple tasting while driving by our library.  This may or may not be a named cultivar, but my suspicions are that it is a seedling due to where I found it.  The Library apple is a very dark red, with a smooth shiny skin.  There are no stripes and almost looks like a velvety plum.  Both Owen and Freya loved this apple and it was described as “The best ever!”  Upon eating this last minute entry, the taste did not let us down.  It was soft, juicy, and very sweet with hints of berries and strawberries.  Library apple will have scion wood collected from it this spring and it will find a home in our orchard for further research and eating.  Delicious!

 

Honey Gold – Honey Gold has always been one of my favorite apples.  My first introduction to this apple was through the farmer’s market, and since then I have grafted Honey Gold onto S.O.F.T.  But the sample we had to taste this year actually comes from a tree that is growing at my in-laws property.    The general consensus was that is was very sweet, and well, tasted somewhat like honey.  Karyn also got hints of pineapple.  Honey Gold is a crunchy apple that is great for fresh eating, and an all round pleasure to have available to us.

 

A picture perfect Haralson.  I wish the taste would have been equal to its beauty ...

A picture perfect Haralson. I wish the taste would have been equal to its beauty …

Haralson – A popular Minnesota apple developed by the U of M in the 1920’s.  Red and russetting, this apple ripens a bit earlier and does not store super well.  So it is with great regret that I report the Haralson fared the worst in this tasting.  With words like astringent, bland, and UGHH being used to describe our homegrown local Haralsons you would have thought you were biting into a mass produced Red Delicious purchased from a Wal-Mart!  It really was that bad!  Part of the problem is that they were starting to loose their freshness due to age.  With a shelf life of only a month or two, a Haralson is meant to be used quickly and not put away on the shelf to be eaten later in the year.  Haralsons are great, and I know that in the past we have harvested a few really great apples off of this tree.  One year of pest damage and disease is not enough to stop me when I know the potential of this Minnesota classic.

 

 

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Here is a dark shot of myself and the giant puffball that I checked out from the library!

Here is a dark shot of myself and the giant puffball that I checked out from the library!

Two nights ago I found myself at our public library, diving deep into the bowels of what the Affordable Care Act will mean for my family and what our options for insurance may be.  Between looking at different websites trying to navigate this maze of government red tape, my mind would wander and my eyes would focus on the view looking down on the land outside of the library.  Our library was built over 20 years ago on land that was one of the last remaining farmsteads in W. St. Paul, MN and it still contains a few aspects of what it once was.

The fact that the county purchased this land for building a library (rather than a housing or commercial developer), was in certain regards a saving grace for some of the wildlife that called this little piece of Earth home.  So while there is a big library building and parking lot, there are a few acres of land that hold the remnants of a small oak savanna, a pond full of ducks and geese, black walnuts, birches, maples, delicious fruiting mulberries, aronia bushes, wild raspberries and many other species of plants and animals.

There is also a thriving underground network of mycelia; in other words mushrooms that also inhabit this small holdout of nature.  Sitting there in the library, daydreaming of affordable health care, my eyes were distracted by a large, white orb maybe 30 or 40 yards away from me.  From my vantage point looking through the windows, it was hard to tell exactly what it was – maybe a kid lost a ball, or someone lost a grocery bag to the wind, but whatever it was, my eyes kept coming back to it.  Something inside me knew what it was all along, so before it got too dark outside, I packed up my bag and made the short hike to find out what this mysterious object actually was.

giantpuffball

Thar’ she be gettin’ weighed in … Yaargh!

It took me less than five minutes to find what I was looking for, and let me say it was hard to miss!  I have seen some puffball mushrooms in my life, but nothing like this!  This Calvatia gigantea, or more commonly known as a giant puffball, weighed in at just over 2 pounds and was harvested at just the right time.  It was the perfect age for eating, and had no damage from bugs.  I gratefully harvested this gigantic fungi, and headed home to show my family.

Mushrooms are an interesting food in our household.  I am a crazy mushroom freak – I love hunting for them, eating them, and learning about them!  My kids are slowly following in my footsteps and becoming a bit more adventurous when it comes to eating mushrooms, and my wife is allergic to all mushrooms so she keeps her distance.  Needless to say, I am spoiled when it comes to mushrooms as there are very few mouths that I have to share my mushrooms with.

Knowing that I could only eat so much on my own, I brought some of the giant puffball with me to work to share with a few folks who I know would appreciate such a find.  Both of my bosses in the kitchen where I work love wild crafted mushrooms.  The day before my find, we tried some sulphur shelf mushroom (Laetiporus sulphurues), which is a bright orange, highly edible mushroom common to Minnesota and most of North America.  Two wild mushrooms in two days, not too bad!

I ended up cutting thick slices of the puffball and sauteing the pieces in butter with a little bit of salt and pepper.  How to describe them short of saying they were heavenly?  They are very light with a noticeable, but subtle, mushroom flavor and a texture that literally melts in your mouth.  In the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms, giant puffballs are described as choice, which means don’t pass these up when you get a chance to eat them!

bolete

Here is the unidentified bolete from the library. Any guesses?

Another mushroom that I found the next day, also on this same land at the library is some type of bolete.  There were a few dozen of them growing in the footprint of a birch, so it leads me to believe that it is the birch bolete, or Leccinum scabrum or possibly the Slippery Jack that is comprised of a few other varieties of boletes.  This is a perfect example of why it is so important to make a positive ID before consuming any mushroom.

According to my Mushroom Field guide, boletes contain the largest number of edible species of any family of mushrooms.  While there is a good chance that the one I found is edible, and most likely quite good, I will not be taking a bite until I can make a positive ID, which most likely will not happen this season.

Making a positive identification of mushrooms can be done in a number of ways.  The first and easiest is by visual observation.  This works for some mushrooms without any problems.  I was taught about the “FoolProof Four” which include Morels, puffballs, sulphur shelfs, and chanterelles.  I have found three of the four and am still trying to track down chanterelles.  From my understanding, chanterelles do have a few look alikes that are not good for you, so having some back up methods of making positive identifications for mushrooms is a good thing to know about.

Other methods include knowing whether a mushroom has gills, pores, or some other way disseminating its spores.  Aroma can also be a clue, like the first time I found Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus) there was an overwhelming smell of anise, which in the case of oyster mushrooms is an identfying characteristic.  Location of where it was found can be helpful, but by no means does it prove anything about the exact species.  And then there is a relatively simple test that you can do called a spore print (I will write about this sometime, I promise) that can also help you to ID a mushroom.  While I will not go into detail here about a spore print test, it is a very helpful way in determining what a mushroom may be.

Ultimately, if you are into mushrooms and enjoy hunting them and eating them, then educating yourself is the most important thing you can do.  The internet is very helpful, but personally I have found real life books to be more enjoyable when it comes to learning about mushrooms.  The National Audubon Society Field Guide To Mushrooms has been indispensable on my mushroom forays throughout the years, for it is full of great pictures and very scientific descriptions that have lead to some neat discoveries.  Another one that I have found helpful is Edible Wild Mushrooms of N. America by David W. Fischer and Alan E. Bessete.  This book is not nearly as comprehensive as the Audubon Field guide, but focuses more on edible mushrooms and all the wonderful ways that they can be prepared and preserved.

Just like gardening, tapping maple trees, or trying to catch a swarm of bees, mushroom hunting (and eating them as well) will always be an exciting and somewhat seasonal part of my life.  As I write, the seasons seem to be changing in front of me!  Cold winds blow out of the north, the leaves are changing colors and are falling to the ground, and I can see the Dark Days of winter looming not far off over the horizon.  But even with this season winding down there is always the hope of the future to keep us going and moving forward.  Soon enough the cold embrace of winter will keep me inside more than I would like to admit, but even winter does not last forever!  Before I know it, I will be out again, scouring the ground for the ever wonderful Morel!  Peace & Cheers

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Here are my two helpers.  We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard.  The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free.  They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

Here are my two helpers. We spent a morning picking apples off of a tree that we found a few years ago on a public boulevard. The apples are almost perfect, and nearly blemish free. They are large, slightly sweet and great fresh eating!

As happens this time every year, I have hit a lull in my writing.  Not that there hasn’t been plenty to write about, I just haven’t had the energy to sit down in front of the computer screen and pull all my thoughts together and put them into written words.  The summer of 2013 has seen our backyard bees doing great,  my wife just picked our first real harvest of Haralson apples, and it has been a very bountiful year for us on our urban foraging adventures which yielded us more than a dozen pints of mulberry jam and close to forty pounds of really great apples gleaned from an old neighborhood tree.

One reason for the lack of activity here at Autonomy Acres is that I am now working two jobs, and neither of them are the one that I have spent the last 10 years of my life working at.  Back at the end of May I called it quits at the adult beverage factory where I had worked and took the summer off to rediscover what it means to be human.  I was burnt out and depressed by the endless daily routine of factory life and knew I had to make some positive changes in the way I live and walk on this Earth.

Having a couple months off to gather my thoughts, and to let my body heal was the right medicine at the right time.  When I decided to take my life back, it was one of the most empowering moments I have ever felt, and the energy and self knowledge that I gained from that choice has changed my life.  I have realized that all the “Things” that society tells us are important and that matter are meaningless.  No longer will I let a “job” define who I am as a person.  The accumulation of money and “Toys” is not a measurement of happiness nor are they milestones that should be enshrined in our personal stories. Finally, it was reinforced in my mind that nothing is more important than our relationships with our families, friends, and the Earth.

While I wish I could say that I am now a gentleman of leisure, relaxing in a hammock sipping cold beer and reading Edward Abbey novels, sadly, I am still just a common worker!  I find myself back in my old haunts though – line cooking!  I worked restaurants for many years and truly enjoyed the kitchen work, but not the hours.  But I got lucky and I am now  slinging hash and eggs, cooking up real stocks and soups, and working with a terrific crew of Food Service Pirates at a local music college in the early morning, Monday through Friday.  It is nice to be appreciated for my talents and skills, and to also work for decent folks who treat me like a human being, and not a machine; a big change from where I previously worked.

I am also pulling a few shifts a week at a “Hip” national grocery store chain.  And while I do enjoy this as a part time gig, the pay is horseshit, and the health care benefits I was hoping to get through them just got put through the guillotine because of the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which translated means – the big bosses saw this as an opportunity to make a shitload of money.  At least I still get a small discount on groceries!

It is interesting though to see a new side of the food industry that I was previously only a spectator and consumer in.  While I have written extensively about the global food supply chain and how it affects farmers and communities, and how it is ultimately not based on sustainable and local means and resources, seeing this first hand has been very educational.

freshly picked Haralsons!  These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard - No semi-truck needed!

freshly picked Haralsons! These are an example of what can be grown in your own yard – No semi-truck needed!

It is easy to use Wal-Mart as the poster child for the just-in-time, warehouse on wheels delivery model, but it is everywhere, whether that be a grocery store or a local brewery.  Anyone who has spent time researching food, how it is grown, and then how it is shipped to all parts of the world has seen the figures that say if a natural disaster or collapse of some kind disrupts the supply chain, grocery store shelves would be empty in 3 days.  Seeing how a grocery store runs, is managed, and is stocked I completely believe this.

Our food supply chain is balanced ever so gently on a global house of cards that when it does fall, it will fall fast.  It could happen because of the loss of honeybees that is now in the news almost everyday, or it could happen from a natural disaster or escalating climate change, or in a worse case scenario could be triggered by a terrorist attack or a war that shuts down the supply chain.  Whichever way you slice it, this scenario is all the evidence anyone should need to dig up that lawn and get growin’ as much of their own food that they can and begin adding a bit of resilience into their lives!

To echo past essays here at Autonomy Acres and other sources that touch on these issues, this predicament of global climate change, energy descent and food security that we find ourselves in, need to be looked at as an opportunity to move the human race forward into the future.  While it may seem like a futile prospect to think we can take on, and ultimately overcome these challenges, the words of Permaculture Pioneer Geoff Lawton come to mind -”All the worlds problem can be solved with a garden”!

It may seem like an idealistic statement, but I truly think that there is a lot of truth and wisdom from such a simple idea as planting a garden.  If everyone who has access to a bit of land, whether that be in the city or out in the country began to grow a portion of their own food, we would realize the abundance that this Earth can provide for us.  And a garden is more than just growing food.  Once you make the leap to becoming a producer and not just a consumer, many other wonderful things follow in the footsteps of a garden.

Compost is one of them.  Food scraps, garden waste, animal manures, leaves and other plant debris can all be composted and be used to start healing our soils.  When our soils are healthy and filled with organic matter, not only can we grow lots of great food, the soil also becomes a living ecosystem, a sponge for holding water, and most importantly a place that can capture and store carbon.

When we start to tend the Earth as stewards rather than rulers, and begin to see how humans can have a positive impact on our surroundings, beautiful things begin to spring forth.  Where once there were manicured lawns that were maintained by a regiment of poisons and pointless labor, now there can be gardens packed full of both annuals and perennials providing food for humans, habitat and forage for wildlife, and many other products that range from fibers, fuel, and pharmaceuticals.

Where once there were boulevards and roadsides, those pieces of land that are cut off from each, now there can be fruit and nut trees, fruiting shrubs, and forage for all the pollinators.  These pieces of land can be reclaimed and planted with species that need little to no human maintenance that once again help to feed us, provide us with fuel, store carbon, and heal the soil.

My futue looks sweet!  We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive.  It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

My futue looks sweet! We took one frame of honey this year from our strongest hive. It is a dark, sweet honey, most likely foraged from local goldenrod.

The future is full of possibilities.  If we continue down the road we are on now, then there will not be a future for the human race.  Turning the ship around is not enough – we have run out of time to do that, we need to jump overboard and start anew.  It will not be easy, but for the sake of the generations that follow, and all the other critters and plants that call this planet home it is what we must do.

Starting over will require participation from everyone.  It will not happen because a government or a corporation tells us too.  It will happen organically, and from the bottom up.  When the people demand an end to the destruction of the planet and are ready to start the healing process, governments and corporations will have no choice but to listen, and eventually cease to be.

It is possible, and it is starting.  It is happening everywhere that there are gardens being planted, where land is being reclaimed, and where communities are being built.  It happens when people band together and stand against the machine of oppression.  It happens when people realize that everything we have been taught is an illusion, and that when we change our lives, we have the power to change the world!  Peace & Cheer

A great video about living a simple life …

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Our first ever plums!  On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum!

Our first ever plums! On the left is a Mount Royal, and the other is Superior, both off of Plumsy, our !FrankenPlum! Tree…

It is that time of year again here in the northern temperate climate of Minnesota when we start to see the abundance that pours forth from a well loved and tended garden.  Ripe tomatoes off of the vine, apples that will soon be picked, bags full of potatoes, and another successful harvest of garlic curing downstairs.

It seems like every spring I have reservations about the year to come – things like too much rain or not enough, how bad are the Japanese beetles going to be this year, or is a gigantic wind storm going to take out my fruit trees; and each year I am surprised by what happens and what thrives or what  completely fails.  But regardless of the overall outcome, we have always had something good to eat this time of year.  That is one of the benefits of planting a diverse garden, packed with the  many varieties of plants we have available to us.

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

This is a shot of the Superior plum. It was the best plum I have ever had, and I can not wait to have a whole tree filled with these little orbs of bliss sometime in the future!

When we diversify our gardens, regardless of the weather or pests, we can almost always insure some kind of harvest.  Right now, if I were so inclined too, I could walk out into the gardens and prepare any number of dishes using beets, cabbage, carrots, collards, kale, garlic, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, onions, swiss chard, green beans, a wide range of cooking herbs, eggs from our chickens, and if I felt like stealing a bit of honey from the bees, that as well.

This is not me trying to brag, but more to show what is possible when we decide to grow food, and not lawns!  Yes, it takes some work.  Yes you may get strange looks from your neighbors (but also gain some allies as well).  And yes, you will eat better and feel the benefits of joining the ranks of us crazy Urban Homesteaders!

As far as our gardens are concerned, self sufficiency has never been the goal.  For me the thought of trying to be self sufficient in food, whether that be in a city or a rural setting is a mute point.  The only way to be truly self sufficient is by building and living in a community that is based on mutual aid and respect.  When we can respect our neighbors and lend a hand when one is needed, than we can talk about being self sufficient, or more appropriately, self reliant.  Growing food is one of the ways we can start to build these kinds of communities, and start the process of reclaiming our culinary traditions.

For the rest of the essay I am going to highlight a few things already mentioned, the food that we receive from our generous gardens this time of year.

garlic

Here is a shot of some of the garlic we grew this year. We ended up with close to 250 heads, and almost all of them were as beautiful as these!

Garlic – Here at the Dead End Alley Farm we have been growing garlic for about 8 years.  The first couple of years were pretty rocky with very meager results.  But with a bit of homework, and some  perseverance,  we have now grown great garlic for the last five or six years.  Right now we grow 7 varieties – Chesnok Red, Georgian Crystal and Fire, Killarney Red, Marten’s Unknown (rescued from my neighbors garden), Mitachi, and Siberian.  All of these are hardneck varieties that are well suited to our northern climate.

Garlic deserves its own essay here at Autonomy Acres, and someday I will get to that one, but for now I will leave you with this.  Garlic is a heavy feeder.  I devote a large percentage of my homemade compost to my garlic planting every fall.  So if nothing else, I know that wherever it is that I plant my garlic, that space also gets a huge addition of organic matter and nutrients once a year.  Two books that have been influential concerning my love affair with garlic have been Stanley Crawfords A Garlic Testament and Chester Aarrons Garlic Is Life.  Both are more memoirs rather than growing manuals, but they are great reads and may get you addicted to growing garlic, just like they did for me!

Tomatoes – These do not need any introduction.  The whole world loves them, and for great reasons.  They lend themselves well to many different types of cooking.  They can be blanched and frozen as whole fruits, chopped and prepared as fresh or canned salsa, or cooked down into the classic sauce that fills the shelves of so many of ours root cellars.

These were harvested as I wrote this essay.  There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on.  All of them are great eating!

These were harvested as I wrote this essay. There is a mix of Big Ivory, Black From Tula, Hungarian Oxheart, and two Russian heirlooms that I have lost the name on. All of them are great eating!

For the last few years we have grown on average about 15 tomato plants, some years more, some a little less, but that usually yields us about 15 quarts of canned sauce along with quite a few pints of canned salsa.  That does not include what we eat fresh, or what we provide in our CSA shares throughout the late summer.

Tomatoes should be a part of any homestead garden, if only for the taste and beauty that they add to fresh summer meals.  Stick to heirlooms, but don’t turn down a good hybrid or two for early fruits.  Be diligent on lite pruning and trellising, and you will be rewarded in bountiful harvests!

baggedpotatoes

These 3 bags of potatoes hold close to 80 pounds of spuds! Not bad for a $10 investment!

Potatoes – Potatoes, also known as Earth Apples, are a staple crop here at our city farm, along with the garden we have been establishing at my in-laws an hour west of St. Paul.  I my opinion, they are the best bang for your buck crop.  Seed potato is cheap, and if given the right environment, will thrive and more than triple its mass in return.

This year at our “country” garden, we planted three rows each with five pounds of whole “seed” potatoes planted offset in rows about 15 feet long.  We ended up harvesting close to 80 pounds from those three rows!  Talk about a real investment!  Once again, potatoes are heavy feeders, so any compost, manure, and mulch that can be set aside just for them is well advised.

We also have a number of potatoes planted here in the cities this year as well.  They take up two of our raised beds and were planted with pre cut potato “eyes”.  As of right now the jury is still out on how well they have performed, the plants are still green and robust so we will allow them to be for now and keep growing into the early autumn.  Otherwise, potatoes are a great staple crop that can be grown in smaller spaces and provide a lot of calories that we can not get from other garden variety crops.

So to sum things up in this installment of Autonomy Acres, plant, plant, plant!  Grow whatever, and wherever you can, and realize the abundance that can be had with a little time and effort.  I am going to finish this short essay with one of my favorite youtube videos, a short piece from a South African farmer by the name of Jo Dyantyi.  I can only hope to have his outlook on life someday!  Happy harvesting Amigos y Amigas … Peace & Cheers

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Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden.  Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

Purple cone flowers and sunflowers in our back garden. Both are great pollen sources for pollinators and also add beauty to our landscapes.

It is a beautiful afternoon here in West St. Paul, Minnesota.  There are a few clouds in the sky and a light breeze keeping this early August day at a nice temperature.  I am enjoying the modern luxuries of a few cold beers and a laptop in my backyard, a pork roast and chicken breasts being slowly smoked on the grill, and looking out over a garden filled with apple trees, sunflowers, and all other kinds of plants that the bees, birds, and butterflies are loving!

 

There are a few monarchs flying about and perching on the purple coneflowers, presumably enjoying the sun just like I am, and aside from the honey bees, there are also bumblebees, solitary bees, mason bees, and many other types of pollinators that I do not know the names of.  Some are wasp like insects that are all black with a blue sheen and long abdomens, others appear to be half  honey bee half fly, some look like apis mellifera, but are just different enough to be their own species.

 

But one thing all of these little critters have in common is their love of a healthy place to live.  All of our gardens, but especially the backyard garden that I am writing this next too, is a fairly overgrown collection of native and non-native perennials, self seeding flowering annuals, fruit trees, cooking herbs, and an assortment of other “weeds” that call this piece of ground home.

 

A wild cousin of apis mellifera.  I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty...

A wild cousin of apis mellifera. I have no idea what this little critters name is, but it sure is pretty…

For at least the last ten years there have been no pesticides or herbicides used on my property.  While I can not say the same of some of my neighbors, most of the yards around here have a bit of a wild side on parts of them.  Our neighborhood is one of the older ones in this part of town with some of the oldest  houses dating back to the late 1800’s.  Due to this, the demographics around here tend to lean towards the lower-middle class end of the spectrum, and many people that surround us (but not all of them) do not bother with heavy chemical lawn and pest treatments, which, as far as the bees and other pollinators are concerned, is a good thing.

 

As a result there are catnip plants, thistles, burdock, wild lettuces, purple loose strife and all other sorts of flowering weeds along the forgotten edges and property lines throughout the neighborhood.  You do not have to look hard or far to find fall asters, lambs quarter or dandelions, and there is a perennial ground cover of Creeping Charlie and white clover in many of the yards around our hood.

 

While this may not be aesthetically pleasing to the city council, or the folks who tend to their lawns with a devotion that is on par to religious fanaticism, this is a good thing for the honey bees.  These overlooked edges, and backyard weed orgies may be the honey bees (and their wild cousins) best hope for their ultimate survival.  It could be argued that urban neighborhoods like mine, with all the traffic and smog of city living, may be cleaner places to live and provide a more complete, and diverse diet if you are a honey bee.

 

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

A bumblebee and another wild cousin foraging on wild lettuce flowers.

While I am not typically a doomer, and try to stay rooted in reality, the honey bees are in a bad place right now.  You do not have to look far in the world of online or print media before you come across a piece about the plight of the honey bees.  Millions of bees dead in Canada, CCD getting worse, and struggles to get crops pollinated are all making headlines on a daily basis.  Are these headlines exaggerations?  I do not think so at all.  While I do not think the honey bee is going to go extinct anytime soon, I do believe that the food production system (which is based almost solely on honey bee pollination) that we have built over the last 100 years or so and rely on for almost all of our food is in great danger of collapse.  Mainly for the simple reasons that it is too big, too polluted, too dependent on fossil fuels, and no less damaging to the planet and her inhabitants when compared to things like clear cutting, mountaintop removal, tar sands, or hydraulic fracturing.

 

It is almost a catch 22.  If it weren’t for the honey bee, we would never have been able to start growing our food the way we have over the last 100 years.  But now it is this same mode of food production, the megalith of industrial agriculture that would not be possible without apis mellifera,  that is killing off the honey bee.  Because we have plowed up so much land, or in the words of Earl Butz – “Fencerow to Fencerow”, and have replaced it with monocrops of  GMO corn and soybeans, almonds and other regional crops that are all dependent on huge inputs of fertilizers, fuel, herbicides, and pesticides; we have basically created food deserts for all of the pollinators and other wild critters that use to called these areas home.

 

So is it possible that urban and semi urban (especially those in lower income) areas could be the honey bees saving grace?  I think it may be so.  Acre for acre, more poison that is harmful to insect and plant life (and all life in general) is being applied to rural land, especially in the areas that are growing corn and soybeans.  Glyphosate and Neonicotinoids make up the majority of the chemicals being used in modern agriculture and are being implicated with each new study as one of  the main causes in Colony Collapse Disorder.  Add to that fungicides, loss of habitat, varroa mites, and an artificial diet of high fructose corn syrup that is being fed to the bees to replace their stolen honey and lost forage of flowering “weeds”, and you have a perfect man made storm that is wiping out the bee population around the world.

 

Now that we have a fairly clear picture of the situation that the bees and other pollinators are facing, we can start to act in ways that can benefit and promote their survival.  As far as our broad scale agriculture is concerned, it ultimately may not be salvageable, at least in a form that is recognizable to most privileged humans if we want to insure the continuation of pollinator genetics.

 

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Bee hives in an almond orchard.

Looking at the almond orchards of California as an example gives us a perspective of how large and complicated modern industrial agriculture has become. These orchards, which bloom once a year and cover an area of around 800,000 acres (or roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island), leave nothing else for bees to forage from after the spring bloom is done.  The orchards require close to one million of America’s honey bee colonies for adequate pollination each year, for about a three to four week period early in the spring.  Once the almond trees are done blooming, the migrating beekeepers pack up their bees by the semi load and move on to the next stop in their annual travels.  It may be fruit orchards in the Pacific Northwest, or tomatoes and melons in Florida, or fields of alfalfa and clover in the Dakotas, but the constant movement of the bees to one pollination center to another is also weakening them by exposing them to disease due to the high population density of bees from around the country.

 

If these orchards could move away from the monocrop mentality by reducing the amount of chemicals being used and provide other forage (perennial weeds, polycultural alley cropping, etc…) for the bees throughout the year, less bees would have to be shipped in each spring, and little to no high fructose corn syrup would need to be fed back to the bees, and we would start to reduce the demands that we have put onto a large segment of the bee population.

 

Will this happen?  Probably not anytime soon.  The almond business in California, the largest area in the world where almonds are grown, is a multi-billion dollar industry for California.  To question this industry or any other giant agricultural venture and it’s impact on the bees is bad business, and one of the reasons that our food system is balanced on a precipice overlooking collapse.  When we value money and profit over the health of ecosystems and all their inhabitants, we are no longer stewards of the land, but slaves to the almighty dollar.  Almonds, just like corn or soybeans (these two are not directly dependent on bees though), have gotten so large and complicated, that they are bound to eventually collapse underneath their own weight and hubris.

 

This is where the small scale farmers, urban homesteaders, permaculturists,  guerilla and backyard gardeners, environmentalist, and nature lovers can all play a huge role in supporting honey bee health, and ultimately their continuation on this planet.  It is true that it will take a massive paradigm shift to change agriculture as we know it, but we forget how powerful individuals, communities, and backyards can be.

 

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie.  This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

This is a polyculture of wild majoram, borage, winter savory, comfrey, apple trees, and creeping charlie. This area has been covered in pollinators for the last month and a half, providing nectar and pollen.

Let’s start in the backyard and boulevards of Everywhere America.  The first and most effective step an individual or family can take is to stop treating our lawns like it is royalty.  The lawn was a creation of the rich upper class in the 1700’s in western Europe, and was a symbol of wealth by showing you no longer had to devote your land holdings to food production.  This has continued on into the present and has only gained momentum.  There are whole sections of hardware stores and Wal-Marts devoted to this weekend pastime and all of the “Toys” you need to maintain a perfect Victorian lawn.

 

Lawn Boys and Yard Man mowers, leaf blowers, home scaled amounts of broadleaf herbicides to keep the dandelions (and other bee forage) at bay, and a whole universe of different sprinklers, fertilizers, and ornaments that tell your neighbors that you have succeeded in life!  All of these to some degree play a role in pollinator habitat destruction.  So the first simple step is to ditch all of these inputs and the traditional lawn and start planting bee friendly habitat.

 

While it has become my goal to eventually have no more “lawn”, I do still have areas for the kids to play on and the dog to roll around in.  However these areas are packed with creeping charlie and dandelions in the spring, and white clover throughout the summer, all forage for the bees.  I will never completely get rid of our lawn because my lawn is an ecosystem, filled with flowering groundcovers and nutrient accumulators that provide pollen and nectar for the bees. It is also a self fertilizing closed loop system that stays green most years with no water except for that which it receives from the rain.

 

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

One of our girls foraging on a catnip plant.

Lets now take a quick look at boulevards, those small strips of land between the sidewalks and the streets and are typically planted with grass.  Not only are these once again useless lawn spaces that require watering, fertilizing, and fuel for excessive mowing, they also shed water in huge amounts.  If we made it a national effort to start planting our boulevards into rain gardens that were filled with bee friendly natives, perennials, fruiting and flowering trees and self seeding annuals we could increase total acreage of habitat by thousands, if not millions of acres.  This is huge when you think about how easy it is to convert a boulevard (or a whole lawn for that matter) to a no-mow, low maintenance landscape that can provide pollinators with forage and retain water in our drying landscapes.

 

And briefly, let us discuss park lands, roadsides, and other forgotten parcels that can also aid the bees in their quest for survival.  In my essay Guerilla Forest Gardens I talked about taking guerilla gardening to a new level by starting and tending clandestine orchards and food forests using edible woody perennials, shrubs and groundcovers.  This same principle can also be applied when it comes to planting habitat for honey bees, and many of the trees and shrubs that may be used in a Guerilla Forest Garden also provide great forage for bees.

 

Focusing on trees, there are many different kinds that also provide great forage for our pollinating friends year after year.  Here in Minnesota great trees to have around for the bees are Basswood, Black Locust, Autumn and Russian Olive, Poplars (bees use resin from these trees to make propolis), Mountain Ash, and any of the common fruit trees that are found in backyards.  Even though trees like these only bloom once a year, they can provide so much pollen and nectar at such a crucial time in the season that the more of these trees that are around, the larger the population of bees that can be sustained and thrive in any one region or neighborhood.

 

Trees that thrive here in Minnesota are obviously going to be different than ones that thrive in other parts of the country, so find your local and regional equivalents and get your cities and counties to plant more of them!  And if you are so inclined to plant trees yourselves (whether on your own land or in a Guerilla Forest Garden), many extension and county services have tree sales each spring where you can pick up bundles of trees like these for wholesale prices.

 

So aside from making our own yards and farms, local city parks, boulevards, and highway roadsides friendly to bees, what else can we do to aid the honey bees?  Ultimately it comes down to education.  First and foremost is educating the next generation about honey bees specifically, but nature and biology in general.  There has been such a disconnect over that last few decades involving our youth and the natural world that first needs to be addressed.  This trajectory follows the bulldozing of what was once rural, agricultural and wild lands, and the rise of the ever present and sterile, cookie cutter suburbs.

 

Most kids no longer have the luxury of getting lost in the local woods, or having adventures around a small creek; mainly for the reason that places like this hardly exist anymore.  So not only do our kids suffer from growing up in artificial environments mediated by a TV, an Xbox, and junk food, but these same woods and stream banks that once fueled a childs imagination and play time can no longer feed and house our pollinators.  So if there is any hope for the ultimate survival of the bees specifically, and a diverse ecosystem to support them, it lays in the hands of the next generation of young people and adults.  People who are not scared of the outdoors or bugs, people who can appreciate simple pleasures, and people who care for the natural world are what we and the bees need to successfully move into the future.

 

And second we need to help educate our families, friends, neighbors, and communities about honey bees and what they need to live healthy, productive pollinating lives.  The good news is that everyday, more people are becoming aware about this issue, and all the implications and connections that can be made to habitat loss, GMOs, and pesticide use.  The bad news is getting people to act on this new awareness that they now have.

 

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

A bumblebee on a comfrey flower.

Not everyone needs to run out and become beekeepers.  Some people just aren’t suited for it, and that is okay.  But something everyone can do, and quite possibly more important, is help to create the habitat and healthy environments that the bees need.  Tear up your lawns and start planting food for yourself and the bees!  Plant your boulevards in rain gardens that provide forage for the bees throughout the seasons.  Quit using the pesticides and herbicides that are killing the bees.  Contact your local and state governments about these issues and advocate for ordinances and zoning laws that are friendly to beekeepers and bee friendly habitat.

 

On the local level we can change things, even if it is one small yard or park at a time. True change, no matter how small, starts at home and with ourselves. When our lives and our actions are put out there to be positive examples to others, we can start to change the world.  Have the conversations with people who are ready to hear about these issues.  Take a class at a local nature center and learn more about the bees.  Write letters to your state representatives, boycott and protest Monsanto, go to city council meeting and make your voice heard, volunteer to help out a local beekeeper for a day, read books and watch movies about the bees, and always keep educating yourself.  And if you are moved by these little critters to the point of becoming a beekeeper, go for it and find the joy in getting stung a few times (it is really not so bad)!

 

The problems that face the bees are huge and are bigger than any one person or homestead.  But just like a colony of bees, when we do our individual jobs along with what everyone elses contributes, cooperation helps us to reach our goals.  We all have a part to play, and if we can succeed and overcome these problems together, the world may just end up a sweeter place to live upon.  Peace & Cheers

 

 

 

 

 

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Figs in Minnesota!!??  Stay tuned for more details!!

Figs in Minnesota!!?? Stay tuned for more details!!

The fruits of our labor are starting to show themselves.  Everywhere in the garden that I look, I am seeing fruits and vegetables that are ready to eat, or soon will be.  Tomatoes and zucchinis, strawberries and raspberries, kale, and cabbage, and peppers.  But more exciting than that are some of the perennials that have been planted over the last five years or so.

 

I began to plant fruit trees in earnest about five or six years ago and have continued adding to the count every year.  I started out with a few apple trees and a cherry tree.  That first year I planted a Meteor cherry, Ashmead’s Kernel (which was chewed in half), Haralson, Rubinett, and HoneyCrisp apple trees.  Since then many more apples, cherries, plums, apricots, cornellian cherries, mulberry trees and other perennial fruits have been added to our foodscape.

 

When we plant annual vegetables, things like a tomato or a pepper or a kale plant, we reap the harvest in the same season.  Our culinary desires are realized in one summer of photosynthesis and our hard work of weeding, mulching, trellising, tying, and pest control pay off in the fall when we start to eat whole meals that come right from the garden.

 

But fruit trees are a little different.  They are slow growing, and mature at their own pace.  Sometimes they get chewed in half by a loving (but stupid dog – sorry Harvey!!), or they get planted in a bad spot and get moved three times before they find their final home.  Fruit trees are a test for us gardeners of how patient we truly can be and how well we design our forest gardens.

 

For myself the wait and patience is starting to pay off.  This is not the first time we have harvested fruit from our trees, but this year on a few of our trees we are starting to realize the abundance that our future holds for us!  Each year we have harvested a bit more than the last, and with each season the fruit improves in quality (most of the time).  A good place to start is our cherry tree.

 

A bowl full of Meteor Cherries!  They were delectable in homemade muffins for breakfast!

A bowl full of Meteor Cherries! They were delectable in homemade muffins for breakfast!

Over the last three years or so we have harvested a handful of cherries each season.  Although last year was a complete loss due to a fungal infection, this year, whether it be climate conditions or the tree starting to reach maturity, the tree has bounced back and we have had the best harvest we have ever seen!  While it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what we can expect in the coming years, the cherries we harvested this year were in almost perfect shape.  Very little damage from pests, and the fungal rot that appeared last year was virtually non-existent this time around.

 

Meteor cherry, described by Michael Phillips, in his book The Holistic Orchard is

 

“Montmorency x Russian variety, introduced in 1952.  Large, oblong, bright red fruit.  Juicy, dense flesh.  Natural genetic dwarf grows 8-10 feet tall.  Large leaves help shield fruit from sunscald.  Requires less pruning than average. Resistant to leaf spot. Spur type. Zone 4-8”

 

This description is fairly accurate with one major difference – ours is well over 10 feet tall.  I have done a lot of pruning over the last three years, but mainly just to open up the interior for airflow and access for sunlight and harvesting.  I suspect that in the next couple of years we will start to see the full potential of this tree for two reasons.  First is that we now have bees on our property.  I believe that our fruit trees have suffered because of inadequate pollination, and second, which goes hand in hand with the bees, is that I have grafted two other varieties, namely Evan’s Bali and Northstar onto our existing tree to aid in that pollination and also planted a Mesabi cherry in close proximity to the Meteor.  Many cherry trees are said to be self fertile, but having another tree(s) of a different lineage will definitely help out in proper pollination.

 

Here are some of our Haralsons.  There will be much pie consummed this fall!!

Here are some of our Haralsons. There will be much pie consummed this fall!!

Moving about 20 yards west of the Meteor cherry is our Haralson apple tree.  This was planted the same year as the cherry and this year it is finally showing us what it is capable of.  Though it is one of the oldest apple trees on our property, it is also one of the smallest.  But do not let the size of the tree fool you, this tree is loaded with greenish orbs with a blush of red starting to show that will be finished ripening in the next two months.  There are so many apples on this tree that I am probably going to have to put some support stakes into the ground to keep some of the overloaded branches from breaking (and this is after doing a major thinning out of fruit early in the season!)

 

Haralson was introduced in 1922 from the University of Minnesota fruit tree breeding program and was named after Charles Haralson, head of the program at the time.  It is an all around good apple, mildly tart that is good for fresh eating, for baking, or as an excellent cider apple.  Throughout the years Haralson has become a Minnesota classic and most orchards have dedicated space to this apple tree.  I am glad that it is a part of my small orchard and it is finally coming into maturity!

 

The White Niagaras!  I can't wait to taste them!!

The White Niagaras! I can’t wait to taste them!!

This year also saw the addition of three grape vines planted along a south facing privacy fence we have running through our yard.  They are using the vertical space provided by the fence and are part of a guild that contains apricot trees and strawberries.  We planted three varieties – Catawba, Concord, and White Niagara and all three are doing great, but the White Niagara is by far the most vigorous.  It has put on almost five feet of growth over the last few months, and has a small bunch of grapes ripening as well.

 

Grapes are a new plant for me and I have much to learn as far as proper pruning, disease, and pest control goes, but I am excited to have finally found a good spot for them, and even more excited to eat them!  I also wouldn’t mind trying my hand at some winemaking as well.  Now anybody who has followed this blog for any length of time knows that I am a beer drinker, but as far as homemade wine is concerned, I say “Bring it on!”

 

While there are many other things going on and growing here at The Dead End Alley Farm, that is a good review of the season so far concerning perennial fruit.  It is fun to see some of these projects, or should I say plants, that were planted so long ago, begin to enter a new phase of their life cycle.  Barring the premature death of fruit trees to disease or pests or strong wind, we can expect these trees to only grow healthier and produce more fruit with each passing year for a long time to come.  It is one of the beautiful things about woody perennials, you plant them once and can harvest off of them for years, and sometimes even for lifetimes!  Stay tuned for more fruit updates, I hope to do a few more apple tasting reviews this fall, as well as a few other surprises!  Until next time, enjoy the rest of the summer … Peace & Cheers

 

 

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Here is all the food I pulled out of my new favorite dumpster!!

Here is all the food I pulled out of my new favorite dumpster!!

Last winter I wrote an essay entitled The Tragedy of a Disposable Culture.  It was inspired by my observations of a world gone mad by garbage and a particularly good dumpster score at a construction site.  I ended up pulling out a bunch of 8 foot 2x4s, 2x12s, ½ by, 8 foot sections of plywood and other random, but useful materials.  Some of that lumber has been used in beehive equipment and a lofted bed for my son, while the rest awaits a future project of some kind to manifest itself.

My days as a dumpster diver started in earnest back when I was 19.  As a poor college student who excelled at missing class due to environmental activism, joint rolling, and hangovers, I had plenty of time to explore the small college town I was living in.  On the north end of town there was a grocery store that kept an unlocked dumpster.  I stumbled upon it one night and felt like I had hit a jackpot.  Inside the dumpster were pre made veggie platters, bagels, and bags of apples.

Being the good vegetarian I was back then, this was a great find.  I loaded myself up with as much as I could carry and headed back to the dorm to figure out how to proceed.  I got my friend Chris to join me, and we headed back up to the dumpster with some bags, warm coffee, and a joint we shared together underneath the stars.

That night we made it our mission to liberate as many of those goodies as we could; not only feed ourselves, but to feed as many other college kids as we could find.  We loaded up the veggie platters and apples, and also realized there was a whole garbage bag worth of bagels for the taking.  Without hesitating, everything that could be salvaged was, and we headed back.

As we entered into the main part of the campus, enough people were out walking around (it must have been a Friday or Saturday night) that we decided to just start handing out the bagels.  Some people thought we were nuts, but most (being poor college students like ourselves) were grateful for some free food to go along with their beer.  We nearly emptied the bag in less than an hour!

The next day I gorged myself on veggies and finished the apples, and with what I couldn’t eat fresh, I turned the excess produce into a big stew that contained broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots – nothing had ever tasted so good as that dumpster stew!  For the remainder of that year in Wisconsin I would often visit the dumpster.  Some days were better than others, but I usually came away with at least a snack to tide me over in those lean days of my failed attempt at higher education.

And so that is how I got my start diving into dumpsters.  Since those days back in Wisconsin, I have a hard time passing a dumpster without peeking my head in to see what might be hiding down in the deep, dark, and sometimes stinky depths.  Most times it is just truly garbage, but on those rare occasions something great is procured – romex wiring and brand new electrical plug-in boxes, boxes of nails, a whole universe of dimensional lumber, box fans, books, extension cords, a multi-tool, cleaning supplies,  and five gallon buckets have all been found in my local dumpsters and back alleys.  But it hasn’t been since the glorious food dumpster in college that I have had luck in finding high quality food for the taking, that is until yesterday!

Yesterday I was doing a bit of grocery shopping at a store that is fairly new to us and our area.  While it is not a store I typically shop at, I was intrigued by a flyer we had received with the Sunday paper and thought I would check it out.  Surprisingly, the prices are pretty affordable, and if you are an ingredients list reader like I am, most of the products I was interested in purchasing contained a short ingredients list that I could read and pronounce all of the words contained in the list with no problems!

I got the small amount of items I had set out for, but was amazed by a few things I noticed while walking the aisles.  Almost all of the fresh produce is over packaged – snow peas laid out on a foam tray wrapped up in plastic, individually wrapped cukes, two tomatoes to a tray – you get the picture.  Upon seeing this, my mind flashed backed to the dumpster of glory I talked about earlier – that dumpster contained the same kinds of things, over packaged produce that was still good for eating, and lots of it.

I paid for my items, and decided right then and there to see if my suspicions were correct.  I pulled my small car around to the back of the strip mall, found the proper dumpster, and casually went and stuck my head in.  WOW!!  Not only were my suspicions correct, they were exceeded by what I saw in there!  Snow peas, bunches of celery, cabbage, citrus, and a tray of multi-colored bell peppers that were just out of reach.

Being that it was the middle of the day and well past 90 degrees, I quickly grabbed what was within arms reach and got out of there.  Checking for cameras as I left (which I couldn’t find), I felt secure about going back later in the night to check back in on the dumpster.  On that first trip I left with a perfectly good head of cabbage, a few trays of the aforementioned snow peas, and celery.  Because of the heat I ended up feeding the peas and the celery to the chickens, but still a good use of otherwise unwanted food – spoiled veggies turned into egg protein!

As day turned into night and I finished my evening chores, I suited up in working clothes, put on my boots, grabbed a flashlight and a couple of buckets and headed back to the dumpster.  This trip was even better!  I ended up leaving with 8 pints of grape tomatoes, a bunch of organic bananas, 3 oranges, and more celery.  I was stoked!

With the tomatoes we are going to make a salad with mozzarella balls, and basil from the garden, and salsa using cilantro and purple jalapenos from the garden as well.  The bananas, just slightly soft to eat fresh are going to be turned into banana bread with some sunflower seeds in it, the cabbage is most likely going to get fermented into a small batch of kraut, the oranges are perfect for eating by themselves as is, and once again the celery went to the chickens.  What a great abundance of food that otherwise would have been tossed into the landfill.

It breaks my heart knowing that this dumpster is filled with food almost everyday.  What is even worse, is that there are millions of other dumpsters just like it around the world.  Lucky are the ones that are not kept under lock and key and compaction, but most are.  So really, the crisis of kids going to bed hungry, and people not knowing where they are going to get their next meal is not a matter of there not being enough food, but a problem of distribution.  If a company can’t make money off of the product, it is easier to just toss it, rather than offering it to food shelves and kitchens or directly to the people.  This is insanity, and it is wrong!

FNBWhile this topic is too big for me to tackle in one small essay, there are solutions to this problem of distribution.  The group Food Not Bombs who I used to work with back in my punk rock days is one of these solutions.  Founded in Massachusetts in the early ‘80s by anti nuclear activists, Food Not Bombs has grown into a worldwide movement of independent collectives that serve free vegan and vegetarian meals at rallies, protests, and impromptu gathering.  Lots of the food that FNBs uses is dumpstered and donated, and then cooked up and offered for free to anyone who is hungry.

Food Not Bombs, along with many other groups that have similar intentions, are fixing that distribution issue.  Just like in Permaculture where we can take the problem and turn it into the solution, FNBs is liberating perfectly edible food from dumpsters and feeding those who are in need of a good, wholesome meal.  Not only is this act one of compassion towards our greater community, it is also a shot across the bow of the corporate, food elites.  It is taking the food back to where it belongs, in people’s stomachs regardless of who they are or how much money they have to their name.

It is hard to imagine what the possibilities might be if all the food that can be found in dumpsters – fruits and veggies, packages of cheese, and crates of olive oil (just to name a few) were to make it into the hands of the people who need it the most.  What would happen if everyone went to bed with a satisfied belly?  What would happen if we no longer equated the ability to eat with how much money you earn?  What amount of resources could be saved if we ate all this food (or at least fed it to livestock or even composted) instead?  These are questions we can ponder all we want, but in reality it comes down to one thing – If you have access to a dumpster(s) like this, take full advantage of it.

Take what you can and eat it yourself.  Experiment with recipes using what you have on hand.  In the case of the cabbage, practice preservation techniques like fermentation.  Or if you find a bag of lemons, preserve them in salt or make lemonade.  The possibilities are endless.  If you find more than you can use or preserve, share it with friends or family.  If you have a local chapter of Food Not Bombs, or some equivalent organization, donate the food to them and even better, volunteer and get involved (This is something I need to start doing again as well).  And if you have produce that is not fit for human consumption, feed it to your chickens or other livestock.  Novella Carpenter, in her book, Farm City describes how she fed her two urban hogs a diet of dumpstered fish parts, peaches, and other produce that Bay Area residents discarded on a daily basis.  Whatever you decide to do with your dumpstered food, the important thing is removing it from the waste stream and keeping it out of the landfill.

As for me, I plan on visiting this new dumpster a few times a week.  While my family is not starving from a lack of food, I plan on taking full advantage of this resource and using it in conjunction with our garden produce and eggs from our chickens.  I have no qualms about eating produce or other grocery items out of a dumpster, and if I can cut down on my monthly food costs, and fill up my larder at the same time, even better.  And if I come across someone in need in my community, I am going to share this little secret of mine with them so they can reap the benefits of this magical dumpster as well!  Peace & Cheers

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