A unique and viable approach to establishing local food self-reliance and building stronger communities.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

"Yes, money really DOES grow on trees!"

Did you know that the average-sized deciduous tree can provide fertilizer for your garden worth about $50.00? This article outlines a few ways to utilize this mineral-rich resource, primarily through composting.
Greetings friends, here in our part of the world, we're headed into winter; the Gardens have (mostly) been put to sleep and we have time to reflect on this past season and share with you in a deeper way. Here's a post about  our new "budding" relationship with our local Grade School, and their help in gathering leaves for the Sharing Gardens.
Early in autumn, we were approached by the science teacher for 12-13 year-old students at the school that shares our back fence-line - Monroe Grade School. Marie-Louise has a classroom window that looks out on our gardens and had been curious for many years about a way to partner with the Sharing Gardens on a mutually-beneficial project. Her class was doing a unit on "Sustainability" and needed to find a way to perform "community service" (volunteering) that was related to living a sustainable lifestyle.

It's challenging enough to keep a small group of college-age students focused and busy so we needed a project appropriate to a large group of 12-13 year-olds!
We knew, from our experience coordinating "community service" projects with Oregon State University that it can be a challenge to focus the attention of even a small group of college-age students for an extended period of time so we had some concerns about bringing much larger groups of 7th-graders to help us directly in the gardens. After brainstorming for a few minutes, Chris had a great idea when he suggested we coordinate a leaf-raking project in our small town of Monroe, Oregon.
Llyn and Chris presenting info about mulching and compost.
In order to provide a context for the leaf-raking, Chris and I visited Marie-Louise's classroom with some samples of leaves and grass-clippings in various stages of decay to show the students how the leaves turn into soil-fertilizer. We explained that, at the Sharing Gardens, we no longer buy fertilizer from stores but create soil-fertility primarily by feeding the worms and micro-organisms in our soil. (We also use wood-ash from heating our house). The fertile soil then grows the nutrient-packed vegetables that we share in the community with those in need. (If you want to know more about how the Sharing Gardens work, click this LINK.)

We brought compost in various stages of decay...
A week later, the two classes of 16-18 students each, took a short, walking 'field-trip' to the Sharing Gardens. We toured the grounds in two smaller groups so they could continue to make the connection between raking leaves, and growing food, and living more sustainably. We were happy to see some of the young people show a real interest in what we do and how we live. One girl asked, "What's it like to be a vegetarian?". Another asked sincerely, "How do you cook anything without a microwave oven?". One young man found a moth that had landed on a plant and wondered if it would be alright if he picked it up. "Sure," I said, "as long as you're gentle. The insects are our friends in the garden." I watched him gingerly pick up the moth and shepherd it around for the rest of the tour, placing it gently on another plant as he left.
Garden tour: "Wow, compost!"

Garden tour: Everybody loves shelling beans!
We decided to make the leaf-raking itself - truly voluntary - so we wouldn't have a lot of students dragging their feet and resenting being required to do it. We set aside two Saturday mornings (and later picked one) in hopes of having good weather, and to assure that enough leaves would have fallen to make it worth everyone's time. Chris and I rode our bikes around town the afternoon before the Leaf-Raking Day in order to map out the route to rake the most leaves. Marie-Louise had her students make a few posters which they hung on community bulletin-boards so people would know we were coming. We also made fliers to distribute on the day of the raking that explained the project and told people how to donate more leaves, if they were interested.

It's easier to fill bags if you work as a team.
We picked a day after the leaves had really begun to fall in quantity.
We had a beautiful day to do the raking with crisp, sunny weather. We had eight or nine students come help with the raking along with four parents. We raked for about two hours and collected 37 giant bags of leaves. One of the parents had also done some raking with her two children at home and brought another nine bags!

Someone had heard we were coming and piled up all her leaves so all we had to do was bag them.

It takes a lot of leaves to mulch our entire garden, the orchards and greenhouses! So far, we've never had too many leaves but this year, we just might get close!
Leaf-raking isn't all work; here's one girl jumping in the raked pile.
Special thanks go to:
First Alternative Food Co-op - $30 gift certificate to buy organic apple juice and popcorn for snacks
Monroe's United Methodist Church (our neighbor) - who provided bathrooms for the rakers to use before and after the project
The parents who chaperoned
The students who helped with the raking and especially to Marie-Louise for reaching out to us and for doing all the extra work of getting permission-slips signed, buying the snacks and all the other steps that made this a successful project. We look forward to continued collaborations in the future!

Here is an article that we wrote about using grass-clippings and leaves as fertilizer.

Feel free to pass this post along to the teachers in your life. Raking leaves can be a fun and meaningful way for students to be of service in your community. We'd be glad to share our experience and provide templates for permission-slips and fliers.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Give Till it Feels Good!

This post is meant to share with you a bit of the philosophy behind the Sharing Gardens.

Many times, when people visit the SG for the first time they notice a pleasant feeling on the land and they comment on it. They ask, "What makes this place different?" or, "How does this garden work?". We believe that they are feeling the effects of our gardens being non-commercial in nature. All help is voluntary, there are no membership fees, we never sell the food that we grow and we have made it a priority to provide food and habitat for wild animals to be at home in the gardens as well.

It's not a perfect system. Sometimes we have felt taken advantage of and have had to create healthy boundaries towards those who take more than their share -- like putting up a fence to keep the deer out, or signs at the food pantry guiding people to take smaller amounts of the produce in short supply. On occasion we've even asked certain people to stop volunteering at the gardens when we felt that their attitudes were not in alignment with the values of the project (though in truth, there have only been a few).

Some 'people' are not very good at sharing. Deer are voracious eaters and it's difficult to convince them to leave behind plants for others to enjoy. We've heard of people who have established a truce with deer through communicating with them in their hearts and minds but we haven't refined the skill well enough yet  to take down our deer-fences.
But overall, people haven't abused the project's generosity. We find that people are instinctively drawn to the Gardens because it is a sanctuary apart from any kind of commercial transactions. It is a relief to let go of accounting for ones giving and receiving and to step into "nature's economy"; a miraculous web of interconnected relationships that, if honored and respected create sufficiency for all.

The project still isn't self-perpetuating in terms of the cash-outlays we must make to pay for things like gas, electric and phone bills and other materials we must purchase new. But overall, we see a growing trend of support coming from the small town of Monroe where we live; in our relationships with people and institutions in the surrounding areas, and others in the broader community we touch through this blog. We are grateful for this growing web of community-connections and remain curious to see how this experiment in 'full-circle' generosity will continue to be supported.

The SG's are meant to demonstrate what can happen if we gradually begin to expand our definition of "family" to include people who we share common values with; the natural world that supports us in its web, and through our donations to local food-charities, to stretch ourselves also to care for those in our immediate environment who are struggling just to get by. Most people take care of their families without charging money, or keeping track of how much they are owed (can you imagine if your parents had kept a running tab of all the time and money they spent in raising you and presented you with a bill once you left home)? They gave to you out of a natural spirit of generosity and wanting you to thrive. You are an extension of the Life they were freely given. We believe it is with this same spirit that the gardens continue to thrive and grow.

Sabine, her Mom and her baby Caleb - How would our world be different if we cared for each other, and the environment as an extension of our family.
By continuously 'giving without thought of receiving' we have been delighted and amazed at the many miracles of generosity that have blessed us, and the project. (HERE is a brief history of our lives since we began the project illustrating this path we have chosen.) (Here is a link to a post chronicling the long stream of generosity that has blessed us since the gardens began in 2009:  - It Takes a Village

If you've ever wondered what it is that inspires us to keep going, it is the generosity of others -- not necessarily just towards us either. When we read stories on the web, we are always filtering for examples of others who are living examples of  'nature's economy'. We love what Nipon Mehta is doing with Service Space and Pay-it Forward Restaurants, and Peter Owen Jones through his experiments in living without money, and boldly stepping into the 'Age of the Environment'. Here are links to some of their presentations: Peter Owen Jones - What Future?
Nipon Mehta - Designing for Generosity 

And, as a wise man once said:

Give Long and Prosper

Abundant peppers!
Greetings dear people - Well, the gardens are basically done for the season. We still have some lettuce, kale and beets to harvest but all the heat-loving plants are done. These past few weeks we've been removing the old plants and beginning to prep the beds so they'll be ready for next year's plants.

Here in the USA, it's time for the holiday of Thanksgiving.  Typically this is a time for gathering with family and friends for a big feast and reflecting on all we have to be grateful for. We'd like to use this time to express our gratitude to the many supporters of the Sharing Gardens - human, and non-human alike!

Chris and Adri washing carrots together for snack-time.
Below are examples of how community-support has been manifesting at the Sharing Gardens in 2017. If you appreciate what we do and would like to express your support, here is a LINK to our wish-list. And thank you for the ways you are already expressing generosity beyond your own inner circle - extending the definition of "family" to include people you are un-related to, and the natural world within which we live and are intimately dependent on for all our needs.

First we'd like to extend our gratitude to all the staff at Oregon State University (OSU) who are developing a strong curriculum for sustainable living and for the myriad of students who come to the Sharing Gardens each year for 'service-learning' and give of their time to help the project move forward with the 'big strokes' -- tasks that would be prohibitively time-consuming for Chris and I and our core group of volunteers to do on our own. This includes things like planting trees, sifting manure, compost and coffee-grounds, dismantling garden-beds and mulching them for the fallow season. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
OSU students offering the ancient greeting of all happy volunteers: "Give long and prosper!"
Next, we'd like to extend a hearty "thanks" to all the people who come and actually help us in the gardens with the tasks great and small; those who are willing to get their hands in the dirt in service of the project. We call them "share-givers":

Sabine, shelling walnuts, has been coming for three years. We never know what sort of "organic" treats she's going to bring -- to share at snack-time, or leave in our pantry.
Jim and Cindy Kitchen flank Chris with a tray of home-grown watermelon; they too bring us gifts of food, clothing and housewares, garden-tools and building supplies and have begun to include us in their family gatherings as "uncle" and "auntie".
Rook Stillwater has become a regular addition to the 'sharegiver family'. His soft-spoken nature and willingness to learn and to serve are a real delight.
This year we have also been grateful for intermittent volunteer help from other folks in the Monroe community: Eva Fife (who also donated surplus apples from her trees, building supplies salvaged from a previous employer who needed to sell her property suddenly). Christina O'Bryan who, despite having very challenging health issues came consistently for several weeks during peak-weeding season. She also gave us a spade fork for extra-tall people and  introduced us to her neighbor George Estey who used his professional sharpening tool to sharpen our riding mower and refused to take more than $10 for his services! Wanda Foster also joined us during our peak weeding season and, when she had to leave town for a few weeks brought back a big bag of wild Chanterelle mushrooms she'd gathered. The first of the season!

We are grateful for our neighbor, John Kinsey who shares with us hundreds of pounds of coffee-grounds he gathers from a local coffee shop, worm castings/compost he makes from kitchen scraps, leaves and lawn-clippings.
 George and Irene Dougherty always donate lots of leaves and this year, when they heard of our herbicide contamination gave us about a dozen zucchini plants as well! Steve Rose - tomato starts, grass hay, mushroom spores to start our own mini mushroom farm. Pete Alford - picks up surplus produce from the Gardens and delivers it to Local Aid - a Food Pantry in a nearby town.

Tina and Swede Johnson donated five "rescue" blueberry bushes and about 8 gallons of un-shelled walnuts they gathered from their tree. Yummm!

We have several neighbors who donate leaves. Here's David Crosby with his helper Brandon. Victor Stone also contributes leaves from his 20+ maple trees. Stay tuned for our post about the Monroe Grade School's leaf drive.
Janaia (l) and her partner Robin (not pictured), on a visit last year, brought many hand tools, DVD's and books they thought we'd find useful that they'd culled from their storage unit in a thorough 'down-sizing' process. Here's the journal entry Janaia wrote following this dinner of almost entirely local foods: "Not food? No eat!".
Mid-summer, we had a huge give-away of surplus accumulated pots and flats that had been donated over the years and were way more than we could ever use! Four different groups of people came , each filling their car or truck! The last two, Gloria and Lynda insisted on leaving us with a $40 donation!

Much of what we need to run the gardens comes in the form of donations of time and materials but for those things that require money, we're very grateful for cash donations.

Llyn's mom Judy,  always comes for an extended visit to help in the gardens and makes a generous annual donation. Thanks, Mom!
Rob (pictured) and his wife Elisa made two significant cash donations this year. Rob also brought a huge load of high-quality potting soil we'll be using with next year's 'starts'.
We love our local Food Pantry!
The South Benton Food Pantry - who receives the majority of our garden-produce, donated $500 cash for the third year in a row. When we have extra garbage (the rare items that can't be recycled, re-purposed, composted or burned!) the SBFP lets us add it to their weekly pick-up service. This year they also paid for the Gardens to buy a used-refrigerator that we could set up in our garden shed for the massive amounts of surplus produce that need refrigeration until it can be distributed to charities. LINK

We have a funny story about the refrigerator that the SB Food Pantry donated to our project. We already had two refrigerators on the premises - one in our kitchen and one on our back porch. The porch one was mainly used for surplus garden-produce that we were going to 'can' or dehydrate but, in peak season, we also stored produce waiting for distribution at the Food Pantry as their three fridges are often too full to receive any surplus.
Sometimes, during times of peak-production, we have too much produce to fit in our refrigerators! That's what we call a "high-quality problem"!
We went to St. Vincent de Paul's - a store for used-items and picked out the one we wanted. As they were setting up the delivery time, they asked us if we already had a fridge (they give priority to people who are without a fridge). We didn't know that and said we already had one so the manager, Jennie, said she thought it would come in about 10-days. "Ten days!?!" we exclaimed, "That's too long to wait!". We told her about our project and what the fridge would be used for and she said, "In that case, how about we deliver it in three-days?". "Much better." we said, "That would be great.". Two days later, we got a call from Jennie and she said, with a smile in her voice, "How about the guys bring it over in a few hours?". Perfect. And they did.

Garden abundance!
The real punch-line of this story is that, that very same night, with no warning, our porch-fridge just completely died on us. We discovered it the next morning before things had had a chance to warm up or thaw very much and we transferred everything over to our "new" fridge. If it hadn't been for Jennie's generosity and persistence to get our fridge delivered as soon as possible, it's likely that much of the food on our porch-fridge might have been irreparably spoiled.

Gratitude to the children who come to the Gardens and remind us to keep things fun!
Gratitude to the birds, the bees and other pollinators, worms, snakes and great Web of Life that makes this all possible.
 And remember...

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Grow Your Own 'Blue Corn'

Jim husks blue corn.
Part of becoming more self-sufficient has been to grow our own corn-meal. We chose an heirloom-variety of blue corn called Hooker's Blue because it's easy to grow, has high yields and makes delicious corn-meal that can be used as hot cereal, and in baked goods such as corn bread and pancake mix.

Our first corn crop was in the summer of 2015. We'd been given a small, shriveled ear at a seed-swap. The corn was already two years old and, since corn seed degrades faster than most, we weren't sure how viable it would be. In this case we pre-sprouted it and only planted seeds that germinated. Our young friend Serenity patiently and diligently planted the corn in cultivated soil -- 5" apart and 1" down, gently covering the seeds with soil as she went.

This is the cob-size we used to start our first crop of Hooker's Blue corn, which we grew out and re-planted as seed. Just two years later, our harvest is enough to feed Chris and I for a year with  enough surplus to share with the garden-families who help us (at least 10-gallons of shucked corn! This was from four, sixty-foot rows.)
We have a lot of blue-jays in our neighborhood, and some crows - both who love corn! One year we planted corn, saw the new seedlings sprout above-ground in the afternoon -- a whole long, row of them, came back the next morning and discovered that each and every one had been dug up and eaten! So, to prevent this happening again we covered our newly planted corn with 'floating row cover' (brand-name: "Reemay") a synthetic, white cloth that lets rain and sunlight reach the plants but protects them from light frosts and hungry garden-creatures! Reemay must be pinned in place, or held down with bricks or stones. It can be left on till seedlings start pushing at it from below at which point it's unlikely that birds/animals will dig up and eat your plants.

Covered row cloth protects young crops from mild frosts and animals that might eat the tender, new plants. Remove once plants are pushing up on bottom of cloth. (Pic credit)
The soil we planted in was fairly poor and newly tilled so once the seedlings were a few inches above-ground, we gave them a thorough soaking with compost-tea.

Compost tea is steeped in large batches and then poured generously on crops to fertilize them.
That first year, our harvest was moderate but plenty for a large seed-crop to plant in our second year. Since we had plenty of fresh seed, we used a different method for planting. We prepared the ground by spreading a light sprinkling of wood-ash LINK. Chris tilled this into the soil as deep as the tiller would go. He then scattered a combination of corn seed and kidney bean seeds (a 'bush' variety that we dried and shelled for use in soups and chili). He then set the tiller to a very shallow setting - about 2", and tilled both varieties of seed into the ground. We then marked the row with string so no-one would walk on it and waited for the seedlings to emerge.

The orange string (around bed to left of hose) is used to mark newly planted soil so no one walks on it by accident.
Corn is typically a heavy-feeder (it needs rich, fertile soil). If your soil is depleted, your corn-crop will benefit from additional feeding as it grows. This past year, about mid-season, after a thorough weeding, we added a thick layer of partially composted leaves and grass-clippings around the base of the corn and bean plants. Then, whenever we watered, the plants were fed.

Shucking corn and shelling beans are a favorite autumn activity at the Sharing Gardens.
Corn is pollinated primarily by wind so it is best if you plant either multiple rows, near to each other, or wide-beds (the width of the tiller - as we did). If you are growing a small crop, planting it in a solid square, or block works well too. Since the beans and corn are both left till dry on the plant, you do not need access to the plants in the center of the patch during the growing season. (Note: Hooker's Blue corn is also quite tasty as a sweet-corn if you harvest it once kernels are fully formed but still soft and yellow. Cook as you would regular sweet-corn).

Hooker's Blue corn, though not very tall at full height (typically 4 to 4 and 1/2 feet) yields large harvests -- one to two 4"-6" ears per stalk. Here, students are mulching an adjacent bed with wheat straw.

In this picture, corn has finished ripening, and partially drying on the stalk. Christie harvests the ears to be husked and further dried in our greenhouse.
Because we use the corn to make corn-meal, we leave it on the plants, in the field, till it is quite hard and has turned dark purple (almost black). We check it every few days by pressing a fingernail into the kernels of corn. It's done when you can no longer dent it with your nail. Ears of corn are then harvested, husked and left to dry on racks in our greenhouses. The dryer it is, the easier it is to remove the kernels from the cob (shucking). If Fall weather starts getting too damp for the corn to dry properly, we bring it inside and put it on shelves above our wood stove to finish the process.

Christie and Chelsea remove husks and lay cobs onto a drying table to continue to dry. Corn is easiest to remove from the cobs if it is dried well.
Shucking can be done simply by twisting the cobs in your hands to break loose the kernels (you might want to wear gloves!). If you have a lot of shucking to do, here's a simple tool Chris made that really speeds up the process!

Home-made corn-shucker. The cob is twisted against protruding screws.
Close-up of corn-shucker. Long screws are driven in from four sides leaving an interior hole ~ one-inch in diameter so cob fits but corn is rubbed off; wood is added at ends to prevent splitting and the handle makes it easier to use.
A tub of dried corn-kernels.
Lastly, be sure to store your corn in a cool place, in air-tight containers. Because of corn's high oil content it can go rancid; this ruins the flavor and makes it unhealthy to eat. Be sure to set aside enough seed for next year's crop. To ensure best viability, we freeze our corn-seed in air-tight containers.

Grinding corn: Obviously, if you're growing your own corn for grinding, you're going to need a grain-mill! After carefully comparing reviews of different brands and models, we chose to invest in a top-of-the line Diamant grain-mill. This is considered an 'heirloom' appliance in that, with proper care it will last for generations. Ours came with a handle for hand-grinding, can be hooked up to a bicycle for larger, human-powered batches or hooked up to a small motor (which is what we did) so we can grind large batches with ease. If the price-tag is prohibitive, consider purchasing one with your neighbors and setting it up in a central location for all to share.

Mill hooked up to motor for faster grinding. It comes with a handle, for hand-grinding and we also have seen instructions for hooking it up to a stationary bicycle.
Close-up view of Diamant grain-mill. The 'can' on top has an open bottom and allows us to pour more grain in at a time. The knob at left adjusts the fineness of the grind.
Close-up of mounted engine.
Variety we like: Hooker's Blue corn
Obtained from Native Americans in the Pacific NW (Washington state, USA) in the 1950's. It is an Heirloom, non-hybrid variety that will "grow-true" year-after-year so you can save your own seed.
Description: 75-80 days - to maturity. The 4-4 1/2 foot stalks produce 5-7 inch ears of some of the finest tasting corn. Ears typically have 10-12 rows of kernels that dry blue-black upon maturing - 1 or 2 ears per plant LINK - Reviews of Growers.
Why we like it: Does well in a cooler, damper climate. Because of its short-stalk, it won't 'lodge' (fall over) as taller varieties sometimes do. Grinds into the sweetest cornmeal! Can be as much as 30% higher in protein than regular 'sweet-corn' LINK-nutritional facts.

Favorite recipes: Hooker's Blue corn is deliciously sweet and nutty-flavored. Here are some ideas for using it in recipes.

Hot cereal: Stir ground corn into lightly salted water in a 2:1 ratio (twice as much water as corn). Gently heat the corn  and water together, stirring occasionally and simmer on low heat, in a covered pan for ~20 min.

Crumb-Free Whole Grain Corn Bread: We make a large batch of the dry-mix ahead of time so it's easy to just add milk, eggs and oil for a quick batch of corn bread or pancakes. Yum! LINK-Recipe

Whole Grain No-Knead Bread: We've adapted Jim Lahey's delicious no-knead bread-recipe to incorporate whole wheat flour and blue-corn meal. So tasty and nourishing! LINK-Recipe

Scarlet Runner Beans: Here is a post about "Growing Your Own Protein - Scarlet Runner Beans" - LINK. Beans and corn together give you all the essential amino-acids needed in one meal (a complete protein) and it's delicious too!

Beautiful scarlet runner bean blossoms!
Leave us your tips for growing, and links to recipes in the comments below! (But please don't include ad-links to our 100% ad-free site - thanks!)

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