Toward a Resilient Personal Food Strategy – Part 3 – Vegetables

This is the third article in a series about our personal food strategy here at Longleaf Breeze. Yesterday we looked at breads and grains; today our focus is vegetables.

It’s remarkable how recently we were concerned that we might not be able to grow enough vegetables to feed ourselves. In
our podcast in early July, 2010, we worried that we were still needing to buy vegetables at the farmer’s market and the produce stand in the height of the growing season. veg-for-siteWe no longer have that concern. As I noted a couple of days ago, Amanda, the Farmer-in-Chief, has become adept at working with nature’s gifts and is bringing in from Veg Hill each day a steady stream of squash, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, zucchini, okra, peas, and cabbage. What you see in the photo is just a portion of one day’s harvest. Not shown are the dozen tomatoes, two watermelons, two other squash, and a fistful of rattlesnake beans she brought in at the same time. We didn’t get summer collards planted this year, but we will plant them shortly and will enjoy them in the fall.

It is with a mixture of pride and regret that we are able to say we no longer are supporting the farmers market in Tallassee, at least not with the purchase of vegetables. We have become comfortable eating whatever is lovely and in season rather than looking for off-season vegetables in the grocery store. We enjoy spring peas in April but don’t expect or need to eat them in August. August is time for okra and beans. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the ease with which we can grow vegetables during the winter. Admittedly, the variety is limited; basically, we can grow brassicas – brussels sprouts, broccoli, cabbage, kale,  and collards. We hope to add cauliflower this year.

Planting veg in early September means that after we get them past the first six weeks using insect barrier, we have few problems with weeds and even fewer problems with bugs. Everything grows more slowly in the winter, but it does grow. And our fall veg is hardy enough to last through our mild winters. Last December it took a wallop in the form of temperatures falling to 17 degrees – pretty cold by central Alabama standards, particularly in December. Only the broccoli succumbed, and even it came back later in the spring. Later in January, the veg took a 15 degree morning and just smiled. The term “fall veg” is a misnomer; it’s really fall, winter, and spring veg, and that’s the main way in which it has been such a success. We begin harvesting from the fall veg in mid-November, about the time the last okra gives out. We’re able to pull from it throughout the winter, and when the weather begins to warm in the spring, we experience a new spurt of growth and productivity that carries us right into the first production of peas (and we hope one day soon, asparagus) from the early spring planting.

Now about that asparagus. We both love it, and it helps to fill a void in the early spring when other vegetables have not yet begun production. Asparagus is an exercise in delayed gratification. You plant it this year, you get just a taste the following year, you get a nice helping or two the year after that, and then for the next 20 years you just relax and enjoy it. We have not yet planted asparagus, but we have already decided where we want to plant it this fall. It will be a LOT of work, because it requires digging up a deep bed and then slowly refilling it with soil as the asparagus crowns grow. We think we’re ready, though.

If and when we build a greenhouse, we may venture into growing “summer” veg like tomatoes and peas through the winter, but even without it, we are well-positioned to enjoy vegetables 12 months of the year. Not only do we have the delight of fresh vegetables from Veg Hill through the winter; we also have summer veg put up in the form of soups and stews. A week or so ago while our daughter Adrian and her fiance Eli were here, we made five quarts of fish stew. And just last night, we put up six quarts of vegetable stew with a chicken base. We bought the chicken at the store, and we added a couple of small cans of mushrooms. Everything else – the squash, the zucchini, the onion, the garlic, the blackeyed peas, the peppers, the beans, and the okra – grew on Veg Hill.

The ability to put up stew is a godsend. Nighttime arrives early during the winter, and we love “burrowing in” for the night with the wood stove and a steaming bowl of soup. Amanda and I have learned that neither of us really likes the taste or texture of vegetables that we have frozen or canned separately. We own a pressure canner, but we rarely use it for anything but water bath canning of preserves. This last Spring, we were able for the first time to start tomatoes and peppers from seed successfully. We had tried it the year before, but the resulting plants were leggy and weak. This year, they were stout and healthy, and we think we can do even better next year. We assume we will be able to start other veg from seed in future years.

We are dependent now on seeds and plants we buy offsite. We’ve known all along that we want to begin working to save seed each year that we can plant the next. We’ve dabbled in it a couple of times but certainly not in any sort of coordinated fashion. The ability to save and use our own seed is a project for the future.

Veg Hill wasn’t particularly fertile when we started using it. We have managed to improve its vitality and productivity each growing season with our own compost as well as the judicious use of cover crops. We expect to continue using compost and cover crops each year indefinitely. In addition we have purchased and applied two 1/2 loads of “super soil” from Froggy Bottom, a local materials provider. Super soil is a wonderful mix of one part mushroom compost, one part ground wood chips, and one part sand. It’s great for growing, but it’s too expensive for us to keep buying it, so we don’t expect to continue that. And we don’t expect to need it. All but one of the 13 rows on Veg Hill have been “sweetened” now with either super soil or compost, and we expect to have enough compost to apply to two or three rows each year, which should help us keep Veg Hill fertile.

Strengths: ability to grow seasonal vegetables in sufficient quantity, including fall veg grown through the winter, and the ability to start plants from seed.
** Fertility of Veg Hill, dependence on buying seed off the farm Key Projects:*** ** Saving seed, growing summer veg through the winter using a greenhouse** ** ** ***Overall grade: A- ** ** ** Tomorrow’s focus: (3) Fruits.

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