I decided that tonight was the night to cook up a batch of the amaranth seeds I picked up last week. Iain and I share the cooking in our household pretty much right down the middle, and we eat supper together practically every night. However, this past week has been a bit hectic, and I think we only ate together once or twice. I decided that I would make a special Sunday supper, because I love to cook and haven’t tried any new recipes for awhile, and because we were finally able to sit down to a nice meal together. I paired the amaranth with maple salmon and steamed broccoli, and made banana bread with walnuts for dessert. The amaranth was super easy – all I did was cook it with an equal amount of water til the water was absorbed, around 12-15 minutes or so. It had a nice, chewy texture with a bit of a nutty flavour. There were some leftover cooked amaranth that I think I’ll try tossing in a stir fry. I think combining it with veggies and a sauce would make for a nice combination. I was also reading online that it’s possible to pop amaranth on the stove like popcorn, and I think I’ll try giving that a whirl as well. I think I’ll have to try cooking it in a few different ways before I’m totally sold on it, but for now it seems like a great new addition to our pantry.
Yesterday, I went foraging with Iain and a friend. We returned to the abandoned orchard in the hopes of finding some wild treats. Unfortunately, we seem to be right smack dab in a transition time for the orchard. The wild raspberries are done, and the wild grapes and apples aren’t quite ready. That didn’t stop me from munching on a few almost-ready grapes and apples, though. The fruits were quite sour, but definitely still edible. Our friend collected some clover and mullein to brew into a tea, and I found some Queen Anne’s Lace flowers that had curled into themselves and looked just like fairy wands.
As we traipsed through the tall grasses, we stopped to look at snails and insects and nests and flowers and any other little things that caught our eye. As I peered down a rotted out tree branch and spotted several snails and a reddish spider living peacefully in the cool, dark shelter that the wood provided, I was really struck by the fact that the wild orchard is a great example of a mature ecosystem. The soil is shaded by a variety of plants, and this vegetation lessens the harsh effects of the sun, rain, and wind. Microclimates are produced where seeds quickly germinate. The growth of root systems is beneficial to worms and other creepy crawlies. The soil captures nutrients which are then recycled through to plants, rather than being washed away. Everything is food for something else.
This type of mature ecosystem is very different from how we usually garden. Gardens are typically kept at the stage of an immature ecosystem. Plants tend to occur in only one layer, a few feet high, in rows or clumps. The soil is bare most of the year. Fertility must be imported in the form of fertilizer. As Toby Hemenway writes in “Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture”:
With its plants being uprooted every fall, low diversity, and high susceptibility to weeds, pests, and disease, an annual garden is unstable and easily harmed (23).
Allowing our gardens to mature means that we’re able to share the work of gardening with nature. Rather than fighting against nature’s tendency to mature, we can carefully plan our garden’s design with this tendency in mind. I’m finding a lot of the suggestions in Hemenway’s book helpful for that. And visiting places such as the wild orchard will also get my garden-designing juices flowing as well.
The other day, I biked across town to Value Village (a used clothing chain store), which is where I do most of my shopping for clothing and stuff for the house. I never really know what sorts of things I’m going to find when I go, but this time I lucked out with three super cute tank tops for $1.99 each and a sturdy pair of capris for $5.99. I buy used clothing for a bunch of different reasons. I like being able to buy clothing at a significantly lower price than what I’d find at the mall. It means that my budget stretches farther, and I’m often able to find eclectic pieces that I end up keeping for ages. But that’s not the only reason I buy used as much as I can. It’s a form of consumption that I generally feel better about. The fact that there’s a market for used clothing, furniture, and other things means that these items are sold to consumers rather than ending up in a landfill. Buying used also often indirectly helps non-profits and charities. When I was an assistant at L’Arche Cape Breton, I regularly bought clothes from their two thrift stores, The Ark and The Hope Chest. The money I spent there stayed in the local community and was going to an organization that I believed in. For me, it’s important to try to remove myself as much as possible from the corporate system that’s driven by over-consumption. That’s not to say that I never buy anything new – just that when I decide to buy something, I check to see if I can get it off of Kijiji or from a thrift store first before I buy it new. It’s a form of voluntary simplicity that is very much tied to the way I practice my feminism.
Reading about the soil food web has totally changed the way I think about soil. Having a grasp on what, biologically speaking, is going on beneath my feet gives me a whole new appreciation for gardening. In the second half of “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” (I briefly discussed the first half here), Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis delve into the practical applications of cultivating the soil food web. The key takeaway point from this book is that soils can be either dominated by bacteria or by fungi, and plants have a preference over what type of soil they’re growing in. Generally speaking, most veggies, annuals, and grasses prefer bacterially dominated soil since they prefer their nitrogen in nitrate form. Most trees, shrubs, and perennials do best in fungally dominated soil as they prefer their nitrogen in ammonium form.
The three main tools for the gardener who wants to use the soil food web to her advantage are compost, compost tea, and mulch. Applying compost can alter or maintain the soil food web in a particular area, since adding compost (each batch of which has its own food web) will inoculate the soil with the same soil food web. The same is true of compost tea. This means that if you’re growing veggies, you’ll want to develop compost and compost teas that are high in bacteria, since this is the type of soil that veggies grow best in. And how do you do this? Well, a general rule is that fresh, green organic materials support bacteria and aged, brown organic materials support fungi. As for mulch, if it’s laid on the surface it tends to support fungi and if it’s worked into the soil it tends to support bacteria.
These three tools – compost, compost tea, and mulch – can be used to alter or maintain the soil food web in a particular area. This means, for example, that if an area is fungally dominated and you want to grow veggies, you’re actually able to alter the soil food web to create a bacterially dominated soil in that area without ever resorting to chemicals. In fact, the authors point out that using chemicals actually totally disrupts the soil food web since entire populations of teeny tiny organisms are wiped out, which then has ripple effects throughout the food web.
I would totally recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about their soil. Using the soil food web to your advantage means healthier plants, since they’re getting the soil they need. And it also means less work overall for the organic gardener – you’re using the natural food web to your advantage rather than fighting against nature to establish plants that aren’t intended for the soil you’re using.
Iain and I were over at a friend’s place the other day, and as chance would have it, two people we’ve been hoping to connect with also stopped by. These two brave and beautiful souls have started up their own farm here in London, complete with raised bed gardens (I think they said they have nine) and a field of amaranth. I had met them once before, but only heard about their farming from our mutual friend, so I was eager to hear more from them. It was really inspiring to talk to them, and I’ve since become somewhat enamored with amaranth. We’re thinking pretty seriously about growing some ourselves.
What’s amaranth, you ask? It’s a high-protein plant which hails from South America, and has been cultivated as a grain for over 8000 years. Amaranth is somewhat similar to quinoa, and although it’s treated as a grain, it actually has broad leaves, unlike true grains. Nutritionally, it’s off the chart – according to Salt Spring Seeds, it’s about 16% protein and contains vitamins E and B, calcium, iron, and phosphorous. It’s also high in lysine, an amino acid that’s not in most grains. And since amaranth isn’t a true grain, it’s fine for people who can’t eat gluten. Plus, our friends were telling us it’s absolutely amazing to watch grow, as it’ll shoot up several inches over the course of a night, and it has a beautiful flower. Iain had actually heard of amaranth before (I hadn’t) but only as a decorative flower.
I’m going to make a trek over to our local organic food store tomorrow to see if they have any amaranth in stock. I can’t wait to try cooking it, and (who knows?) maybe before too long we’ll have our own to taste-test.
I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the type of community I want to build on our farm. About what values and principles I want to cultivate, and what the best ways are to go about doing so. Of course, a lot of this will develop organically based on input from the people with whom we’ll eventually live, but it’s important to me to spend time now reflecting on the sort of life I want to build for myself. Developing and strengthening my vision for the farm will also allow me to find ways to start creating that vision right now, right where I am.
I’ve been finding the site Intentional Communities really useful for this. They have a wiki page with tons of great resources for people interested in starting an intentional community (check out Starting a Community for a great entry point to their site). They suggest that setting community goals and values is a crucial aspect of the creation of an intentional community. Since reading it, I’ve been mulling over what sorts of values I hope to live on the farm (and what ones I want to live now, since that’s exactly what this year of preparation is for).
Healing our relationships to ourselves, to one another, and to the Earth is a major part of my vision for the farm. Personally, this means practising mindfulness, and working to become more aware of my own emotional patterns and responses. It means living well with others, and working together to create a space which is open and welcoming, and which challenges oppressions and inequities. And it means loving the Earth and using her resources in a respectful and sustainable way.
It’s fun to think about the future, about the farm, about the community we’ll build. But it’s just as important to start creating that future right now, in whatever way I can. And becoming aware of what sort of values I want to embody is one way to do that.
The other day, I did some much needed mending. I had a duvet cover and a shirt which had each popped a button, and a summer dress with a busted strap. It took me maybe 15 minutes in total to grab my sewing stuff and do the needed repairs, but the emotional payoff was pretty great. I love being able to fix something… it gives me such a feeling of accomplishment, even if it is just reattaching a loose strap. It’s so easy to throw something away in our consumption-driven society, and just buy a new replacement. It’s more convenient, and less work. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. But what about the hours of work that are required to be able to purchase the ripped garment in the first place? We spend our time earning money which we then exchange for goods. Reducing the amount of money we need by repairing our ripped or broken things reduces the amount of time we need to spend working. The bonus of this is that we then free up our time for other pursuits. And a full life, I’ve come to learn, is more than just the accumulation of material things. I think this goes back to my post earlier this week about emotional well-being as a sustainability skill. Finding meaning without consuming is a skill that we need to develop, and one which is stunted by cultural messages which encourage passive consumer attitudes. But when I think about the times I’m happiest, and the times I experience lasting feelings of satisfaction, these are rarely the times I spend shopping. Reading in the park, talking to my dad on the phone, and yes, even fixing one of my favourite sundresses – these are the things I smile back on at the end of my day.