Monthly Archives: July 2012

Hard Right

Home Work

Dear Reader:

Following is a snippet of conversation I had on a social networking site. I was commenting on the following quote which had been posted as a photo from something called Suzie’s Daily Quotes.

“It is wrong to tax a working person almost to the breaking point and then give it to someone who is able to work but refuses to.”

Twenty people had already “thumbed-up” their approval of the statement with no question, no mention of nuances, nothing. Being me, I rose to the bait. In that respect, I guess I got what I deserved. Read on.

Shelley : I agree, too, except.. it is hard to get a job in this economy, especially if you are maybe not above average in smarts, didn’t get a chance to go to college, and used to work in a paper mill or shoe factory or textile shop. What do we do about people who want to work but there is no work because we’ve shipped all the blue-collar jobs to sweatshops in third-world countries?

Dorcas Hardliner (name has been changed): To Shelley: Why can’t you take a job, such as McDonalds, or is it because they don’t pay what you used to get at your old job? I’m sick and tired of hearing that there are no jobs, when the paper has them everyday! So quit bitching and go find a job! If I can take a lower paying job than what I was used to, than you can or anyone can!

The conservative political right. They may have some decent, worthy ideas. They may be good, hardworking, nice people in general. But boy, oh boy, do some of them have a problem with communication.

This is the topic of today’s ruminations, my dear readers. The comment above exemplifies everything I despise about the voice of the political right in this country. Its vitriol. Its condescension. Its resentment. Its hate.

I was shocked by the absolute venom spewing forth from “Dorcas” aimed at a person she a)never met b)knows absolutely nothing about and c)said she partly agreed with her. And on a Facebook wall, to boot!

(Not to mention the fact that “Dorcas” so quickly assumed I was a welfare recipient who wasn’t even trying to find a job. I’m not, by the way. Interesting how people read so much into a little Outside the Box thinking? Or maybe it’s just “thinking” that throws them? Hmmm…)

Read it again and ask yourself, is it any wonder that some of us have a hard time separating the right’s IDEAS from its ATTITUDE?

There’s nothing wrong with sharing political statements/satire/photo commentary on a social networking site. This one was simply one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of facile quips that validate certain personal prejudices and political beliefs. Here we have one that is politically conservative, but as such it is no different from the silly little leftist sentiments that get thrown around regularly on the sites.

Ironically, I also happen to agree with the statement–but only if it is taken literally.

It IS wrong to take money from a hardworking person and to then give it to someone who CHOOSES not to work but instead to live off state and federal welfare. (Apparently 20 others did as well, as they all signaled their approval in the usual thumbs-up fashion.)

However, there is something insidious about the statement. There is hidden between the facile lines an implication that welfare is wrong. We hear a sly whisper that anyone who takes welfare is lazy and could get a job if he or she really wanted to. There is an attitude of “I’m better than you are simply because I work and you don’t.” It implies that all taxes are going to worthless bums, conveniently ignoring the reality that taxes also go toward defense (a pretty large chunk, in fact), Social Security, Medicare, education, the arts, medical research, etc.

In fact, I recently read in Harper’s magazine about the number of families in poverty receiving federal cash assistance. Back in 1996, 68 out of 100 families with children living in poverty received help. In 2010 the number was 27 out of 100. (July 2012, “Harper’s Index”, pg 9.)

According to the pg 54 Index Sources, this info came from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Click HERE to read a report on poverty put out by the CBPP. The gist of the report? We are sinking further into poverty every day of this recession.

Thumbs-up on that anybody?

I wrote back to Dorcas with the following:

Like I said, I agree in general. I worked as a cashier at Shop n Save while putting myself thru college and was not too excited to see people on food stamps eating steak while I made do with hamburger helper. That being said: Dorcas, I’m glad I’m not in that position, I’m grateful that I made good choices, and I’m super grateful I didn’t have some tragedy happen to me and I really, really hope nothing tragic happens to you so that you have to listen to someone say this sort of thing to you. ps: I’ve never been on welfare, but I do practice compassion.

I just can’t believe the incredible ill-will and vitriol spewing forth… there are people who use the system and there are people who are truly in a scary situation. And I’ve always said this about government: Government steps in only when people fail to act. If compassion and charity had been adequate from the private sector (churches included), then the government wouldn’t have had to step in in the first place. Soo, if we don’t want government taking our money and distributing it, then maybe we should start giving it to those in need who we feel truly need it. Just a thought.

And…wow…I wasn’t even talking about me (I’m quite comfortable financially, thank you for your concern). It was a generalized point about the loss of good American jobs because we like our cheap stuff at WalMart made in Chinese sweatshops. You know who benefited from the off-shoring of our jobs? CEO’s and big-time investors in the stock market. We want people to work? Buy American. Buy local. Hire someone local to sew our clothes instead of schlepping down to Wamart or Target. Until we start buying local and stop shopping at those places, we have nothing to complain about. But that’s just my opinion.

Not too surprisingly, “Dorcas” hasn’t written back. A few others did chime in with more thoughtful, helpful, insightful, rational commentary–so the right isn’t completely wacky, I guess. Still, there seemed to be a general resentment out there that people less fortunate somehow were “taking” from them, even “killing” them. Really?

Look, people. Many folks out there are in tragic circumstances. Some people make bad choices as young adults (and haven’t we all? and aren’t we kinda’ lucky those bad choices didn’t end up defining us?) and have a hard time pulling themselves out of the mucky mess they are in. Bad things DO happen to good people–sickness, injury, car accidents, death, divorce. There aren’t alot of good-paying jobs out there. Unemployment is high. We can’t all work at McDonalds.

(And what about those awesome McDonald’s and Walmart jobs? If anyone is interested on how easy it is to live on Walmart wages, read NICKEL AND DIMED, please!)

Yes, there are chronic welfare abusers. Yes, there are generations of families who have lived off the hard work of good, decent, honest people and have done nothing but pop out litters of kids. Yes, I think that the MOST money a welfare-recipient receives should be LESS than the lowest-paid employed taxpayer earns. Yes, job training programs are better than simple handouts. Yes, food-stamps should have stricter limits on what people can buy. Yes, the government is really not that adept at ferreting out the abusers from those who need a hand up. Yes, yes, yes. I agree.

I’ll tell you what, though. Telling someone on Facebook to “quit bitching and go find a job!” isn’t going to strengthen this country, and it isn’t going to solve the problem.

In my opinion, the best way to solve the problem is to a)support local businesses b)buy locally-grown food and products c)support local charities who know the needs of the community.

The best way is to make big government unnecessary by taking care of our own.

And that’s MY hard line. . . Outside the Box.

Adventures in Window Cleaning

Vinegar and Water Solution

Dear Reader:

There comes a time in every person’s life when she looks out her window and sees only one thing: dirty fingerprints.

Okay, not really. She sees dirty fingerprints, dirt, bird seed from the window feeder, spider webs, pine needles, and dog-nose smears.

With my freshly-painted walls and new furniture arrangement (Hubby and the Teen both approve) mocking my disgusting window panes, I decided to tackle at least one window a day until they are all finished, and this brought me to a project I’ve been meaning to try, namely, “eco-cleaning.”

Now, this blog isn’t focused so much on “going green” as it is on “going local,” but it seems the two concepts (ideals?) converge quite often. Take cleaning products, for example. It’s not like your local farmer’s market carries a line of locally-produced cleaning products, right? There may be a cottage industry somewhere in the neighborhood that concocts hand-made soaps, lotions, and potpourri, but as yet I haven’t run across anyone selling cleaning fluid. Why? Because ANYONE can make their own cleaning fluid, and your own kitchen is as local as you can get. Here’s what I found out.

A few years ago I was browsing in the book area of One Earth Natural Food Store in Springvale, Maine when I came across a little gem called CLEAN & GREEN by Annie Berthold-Bond.

I haven’t used the recipes for “nontoxic and environmentally safe housekeeping” as much as I’d like, but today was the day to try the glass cleaners. First up, the simple vinegar and water in a spray bottle. I used an old, washed-out spray bottle, poured in the recommended amount of plain old cider vinegar (now see, this is where we could get local out of this. I didn’t have any Maine-produced vinegar, but I will be on the lookout for some in the future. THEN, I’d have a totally-Maine cleaning product), and sprayed the panes of my kitchen door.

The book also recommended using newspaper to wipe the windows. I have a nice stash of old WEEKLY SHOPPERS and SHOPPING GUIDES hanging around, so I took a couple sheets and went to work. Scrub, scrub, squeak, squeak. Did it work? You bet! However…

Printers Ink on Yellow Gloves

I was not happy with the black ink getting all over my gloves and imagining what my fingers would look like if I didn’t have said gloves, and let’s face it, yellow rubber gloves are NOT locally-produced. Also, I found the solution to be kind of, well, wet. I know, I know. Of course it was wet. But it was wet in the droplet sort of way versus a spray sort of way, if that makes any sense.

I decided to try another recipe in the book, called “The Best Window Wash.” I should have tried the best first, probably, but I was drawn to the simplicity of a two-ingredient solution. The Best Window Wash called for the addition of a teaspoon of vegetable-oil based soap. I’ve been using Murphy’s Oil Soap for a long time, and so had this on hand. Plop! I added the teaspoon directly to the vinegar and water solution bottle.

The Best Window Wash ingredients

I also decided to use an old sock instead of the inky newspaper. The addition of the soap made for a much smoother application on the windows, the sock worked fine, and I finished up with a nice polishing with a dust cloth. Now, in a pinch, I could go with the local vinegar/water/local newspaper combo, but I did prefer this soap additive.

I wonder how one makes vegetable oil soap? Could someone take local corn, for instance, to make the vegetable oil and from there make soap? How exactly does that work?

I’ll let you know if I find out.

Clean Window with spider plant

In the meantime, I recommend Berthold-Bond’s book if you are interested in low-cost, environmentally-friendly, and kinda’ neat ways of cleaning your house. Oh, and that spider plant in my window? According to the book, the plants act as natural air purifiers along with aloe vera, English ivy, fig trees, and potted chrysanthemums. Green may just be my new favorite color!

Pumpkin Star

Pumpkin Blossom

Dear Reader:

‘Tis the season of squash–zucchini, yellow, pumpkin. The blossoms burst open every morning, surprising beneath the dark green plates of the light-gathering leaves. I stand at the window with my morning coffee and gaze out at the beautiful golden-orange stars and wonder, “Will I actually get any fruits from these flowers?”

The answer, I am happy to report is “Yes!” In spite of some weird blossom die-off and more than a couple of shriveled, aborted little summer squash that died on the vine, this morning I was pleased to pick not only one, but TWO good-sized summer squash.

They are reclining inside on my windowsill now, keeping my first heirloom Brandywine tomato company. Tonight I will slice them up and sautee them in a little bit of olive oil along with some green garlic from around the crab-apple tree and basil and oregano from the garden.


And look how pretty the eggplant blossoms are. I love the delicate pink-purple color and the shy way the blossoms bend their heads toward the ground, like Victorian young ladies demurely casting their eyes down and waiting for some eligible young scions from good families to ask them to dance.

Ladybug on the Dill

All is not sweetness and light in the garden today, however. I was disgusted to discover the extra-large “leavings” of some large-breed’s morning constitutional right IN MY GARDEN BOX. The stupid dog must have had to work really hard to balance just so over the corner of that box. I will spare you photo evidence, but I’m considering buying a super-soaker water gun to fill with dye. Red? Green? What do you think would be the most annoying splotch on the backside of a purebred Collie? (I’m pretty sure the neighbor’s male is the culprit).

Anyway, the star of the day is the pumpkin blossom. I’ve been reading about stuffed squash blossoms and thought I might look up a recipe or two. The favorite combination seems to be a soft cheese with herbs for the stuffing, dipping the blossom in egg and beer batter, and frying until golden brown. Click HERE for a recipe from the 99 Cent Chef blog if you also have a bunch of squash blossoms sparkling in the firmament of your summer garden. (Of course, I recommend finding a local source of chevre or some other soft cheese, local eggs, and a good local microbrew for your recipe. It’s also the perfect time of year for a nice basil pesto to go along with the stuffed blossoms.)

And that’s it for today…Outside the Box.

My Gardening Arsenal

Garden Arsenal

Dear Reader:

There have been so many cool local goings-on I hardly know where to start: do I finally blog about my incredible Goodwill fashion finds? Or the awesome certified organic farm stand up the road? Or my trip to the Portland Museum of Art plus dinner at locally-owned restaurant, Nosh? Or the wedding shower I went to recently for my cousin’s fiance (Hi, Holly:) where the presents were either local, organic, natural, homesteady (think canning jars and cookbooks, perennials and pot-holders) or… red wine?

With so many topics, I chose the most local of all: my front yard garden.

Straw bale in May

Remember this?

Now it looks like this!

Straw Bale in July

There is a real difference between the tomato plants on the house-end of the bales and the road-end. I think the house-end plants get just a smidge more sunlight…enough to make a huge difference, not just in tomatoes but also in the pumpkin plants on the very ends as well as the corn and beans on the ground below. (I couldn’t resist a Three-Sisters planting or four!) While the Early Girls are already ripening and the two German Striped heirlooms are setting on fruit, the large brandywine in the center back bale has an issue. There have been plenty of blossoms, but then, sadly, the blossoms break off at the stem-bend just where the plant should be pumping some energy to create a band of strong material to hold a big, plump, juicy fruit.

Thinking maybe I’d either over-nitrogened the thing and underfed it some other vital nutrient, I got down to Plummer’s Hardware to pick up some organic fertilizer specifically for tomatoes and veggies. This one has nitrogen, posphate, potash, calcium and sulfer made from feathers, poultry manure, cocoa meal, bone meal, alfalfa meal, greensand, humates, sulfate of potash, and gypsum. Ask for Espoma Organic Tomato-tone at your local garden center. I noticed a big difference right away in all the ‘matoes…they all grew even taller and lusher within the week. Now I’m waiting to see if old brandywine there actually sets on some more fruits other than the two bottom ones that popped out just after getting home from Snell’s greenhouses.

Healthy Bee Balm

Now, some of you long-time readers will remember my past gardening woes including powdery mildew and Japanese Beetles. (See Of Pests and Powdery Mildew from August 2010) I am sad to report that the beetles are back, along with new friends–aphids and ants. My poor crabapple tree is an infested mess!

It’s my own fault. People gave me advice about sprinkling some kind of powder underneath to kill the beetle larvae. Instead, I planted garlic around the tree, hoping it would somehow repel the pesky pests. No such luck, though I do hope to have some green garlic soup very soon. In the meantime, I continue with my usual methods of pest control: a jar of bleach water for the beetles and a quick pinch and pull to get rid of the aphids and the ants milking them. Yes, ants “raise” aphids and milk their secretions. Gross, except, well, think about us with cows and goats. By the time I get to the aphid farms, the little stem or branch of the tree is pretty sick and generally comes right off in my fingers. Then those ants get angry and bite me! I’m serious. They are NOT happy to lose their farm at all. I say, go west, young ant!

And then there is the powdery mildew. Now, you all know my thoughts on trying to be a food producer here on my wooded, exurban, one-acre lot. It’s pretty much an exercise in futility, really. I keep trying new things, but in the end I may be defeated. I thought I’d come to terms with the pine and beech tree shade and the sunny but tragically unusable leach field. The new garden boxes were to be my saving grace, my compromise with reality. I could practice vegetable gardening in the miniature, experiment with many types of plants, and treat said veggies like highly-irregular ornamentals…that I could nibble. They do look fabulous. See how the pink & black box has grown.

On May 30th

This was Memorial Day weekend.

July 18 garden box

Now, the cucumbers are running like crazy, and by that I mean they are flowing out of the box and onto the ground like leafy snakes. Tiny cuke-spikes grow behind the pretty yellow blossoms, fatten, and lengthen until they just aren’t pickling size anymore at which point I pluck them, peel them, and serve them on salad for dinner.

Beautiful Cuke

I’ve picked six of these babies so far…and there are more to come as long as nothing happens to them. The zucchini are blossoming. The summer squash are already beginning to fruit. All looks well until…

I notice the big patch of bee balm in my front perennial bed, just beside the cuke and squash boxes, is covered in powdery mildew! Now, we’ve had so much heat and humidity that I shouldn’t have been surprised. A little more research, and I learned that overcrowded conditions also contribute to the mold problem. That bed was looking a little crowded this year. Looking back at previous photos, I see that some of the old plants in the bed had powdery mildew in previous years, so the spores were probably there in the ground just waiting to bloom.

No matter. What mattered was that if I did nothing, that mold would spread to the just-about-to-produce squash and cukes and kill all my hopes and dreams for fresh garden salads and zucchini cooked over the grill and summer squash casserole. I got out my gardening blades and chopped that darn bee balm right off and buried it in a pile of leaves in the woods far from the boxes. Now my perennial bed looks like a second-grade boy with a summer buzz-cut and I’ve pretty much decided to plant shrubs in that spot this fall (rhododendron? azalea? winterberry?).

Squash Blossoms

In the meantime, my cucurbits are in grave danger. I noticed one small summer squash had already turned brownish on the blossom end and had gone soft and limp. It was dying, if not already dead. And this was before one sign of mildew on the leaves! I did moreresearch and learned that while you can’t reverse an infestation of mold, you can prevent it with anti-fungal sprays. There are commercial products, but I was intrigued by the remedy recommended on a number of organic gardening sites: baking soda, vegetable oil, and water.

Now, the baking soda is supposed to change the pH of the leaves, making them inhospitable to the powdery mildew. The oil helps the solution cling to the leaves. I made mine with 1 tablespoon soda, 1 tablespoon Maine sunflower oil, and 1 quart of water. I mixed it in a pitcher, poured it into a plastic spray bottle, and sprayed all the leaves on top and underneath after fertilizing and watering this morning. A healthy plant is much less susceptible to any sort of pest or problem.

Why do I have powdery mildew problems, anyway? Simple. Mold likes moisture and heat. We’ve had high humidity and high temperatures. In addition, my lot is surrounded by tall trees acting very effectively as windbreaks. Nice in the winter (except when said trees fall over), but in the summer that means the tops of the trees across the road may be tossing in the wind, but in my garden the pretty little set of chimes Hubby gave me doesn’t even let out a single cling…or clang, for that matter. In other words, we get no air circulation thanks once again to the trees.

I pulled the peas up today to give the zucchini and summer squash in that box a little more breathing room. Hopefully that will help. But to be honest, I may not do veggies again. Or else, forget the cucurbits. I can buy plenty at the local farm stands and farmer’s markets.

On a happy note, an application of tomato food to the greens boxes has made a huge difference. Take a look!

Romaine and Greenleaf and Chard

Small cukes, green beans, spinach, lettuce

Out of the micro micro-greens that refused to grow, I decided to pluck up everything but the spinach which looked somehow…different, as if it had potential. My instincts appear to be correct as it is now growing nicely behind the shade of the green beans. Perhaps the greens boxes get more sun than they need? Maybe I should grow a sheltering row of flowers or something in the front squares next year? The last-ditch planting of kale seeds in all the squares where nothing grew has produced some sprouts, so perhaps a fall crop of greens will be forthcoming after all.

What I’ve learned? Fertilizer helps. I love the idea of using only home-produced or at least locally-produced compost, but I’m beginning to suspect that in order to get all the nutrients needed for a really good crop in a box, a balanced fertilizer is a necessity. In a double-dug bed, some of those nutrients would be present in the soil, and perhaps a yearly application of good, home-grown compost from the remains of plants grown in those beds would suffice. Or maybe growing a cover crop of some nitrogen-dense plant would work. But in these self-contained garden boxes? I think a little extra additive is a necessity.

Which brings me back around to my other point. Do I continue to play with vegetables? Or do I simply work with ornamentals and use my money to support the local farmers? Imagine what they could have done with the $200 plus I spent on straw bales, boxes, compost, additives, seedlings, seeds, etc. Probably fed a couple of families, while I get few handfuls of peas, some pickling-size cucumbers, thirty or forty tomatoes (please, oh please!), some basil, some squashes…

It all depends on what happens with those squashes, people! If they don’t work out, I will cast around for another direction for my one-acre “homestead.” I still have this idea about growing shiitake mushrooms

Stay tuned for more … Outside the Box.

Strawberry Chocolate Mint Jam

Beautiful Locally-grown Strawberry

Dear Reader:

I finally got up to the local fruit farm, Dole’s Orchards, where I lucked out. It was the last day of strawberry picking and the picking, I must say, was GOOD. I filled seven quart containers in about an hour, and a quick taste test proved that all the sunshine and copious amounts of rain had come at just the right times and in the right amounts to create plump, sweet, flavorful berries–the best I’ve tasted in a few years.

Dole’s is located on top of a hill, apple and peach and plum orchards spreading out from an old yellow farmhouse and barn and neighboring hillsides in the distance drawing the eye with various shades of blue. The air is sweet up there on the hill. In a week there will be raspberries ripe and fat on thick canes and new peaches to pluck from leafy branches. Blueberries are ready for picking, an early season. Come fall, the Dole’s will be open for apple and plum picking, and on three consecutive Sunday afternoons there will be a hay-bale maze, music performances, a long stack of pumpkins from which to chose your jack o-lantern, and a farm store full of cider and Nancy’s deep-dish apple pie…

Chocolate Mint

But now it is summer, and I have a hankering to experiment with fruit jams. In the past I tried a recipe for blueberry-chili pepper jam with cilantro and thought it was fabulous–sweet, zippy, fragrant. What could I do with strawberries? What did I have growing in my garden boxes? The answer was obvious: Chocolate Mint.

Chocolate mint does really have a taste of chocolate. The more I learn about mint, the more admiration I have for this vigorous, hardy, versatile plant. You can find spearmint, peppermint, lemon, and many other varieties. It can be used for desserts, teas, baking, and jams. My grandmother used to make a beautiful green mint-apple jelly. What could be more perfect for strawberries, I thought, than chocolate and mint?

Strawberry Chocolate Mint Jam

The recipe is simple, based on one from the Betty Crocker cookbook:

4 cups ripe strawberries, crushed
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice, fresh squeezed
2 tablespoons chocolate mint leaves, snipped very fine with kitchen scissors

Prepare 2 half-pint canning jars on 1 one-pint jar. Boil in water to sterilize. Follow canning directions if you plan to store these unrefrigerated.

Put strawberries, sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan on high. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to keep a boil, stir occasionally, cook for about 25 minutes. Skim the light pink foam from the top. Mix in the mint and stir for one minute. Remove from heat.

Pour into jar(s). Finish processing if you are storing them outside the ‘fridge. This is such a small amount that I simply put the lid and screw-cap on and will eat it within the next couple of weeks. The sugar is a preservative.

Here is the finished product. I “tasted” the jam from the spoon, but the real test will be when the preserves have cooled and I’ve spread some on a homemade scone. I’ll let you know! In the meantime, don’t be afraid to experiment with jams, jellies, preserves, and chutneys. You can generally make a small batch and eat it up without having to invest the time to process it in a canner. If you like the results, well then, make a big batch to can and give away to your lucky friends and family. What special or unusual recipes have you tried lately? Drop me a recipe…Outside the Box.

Strawberry Chocolate Mint Jam

Economy of the Miniature?

Five Weeks’ “Growth”

Dear Reader:

Okay, so I moseyed on down the road a few miles with my good friend, Sandi, to check out a MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmer’s and Grower’s Association) certified farm stand. Piper’s Knoll Farm in Newfield, Maine exemplifies what I consider an ideal local business. Yes, they are certified organic, but according to their website, farmers Karl and Cynthia Froelich use farming methods that go BEYOND organic…including permaculture and biodynamic techniques, managing natural woodland and wetlands for native species of medicinal plants, and using season-extending methods such as hoop houses for greater productivity (they’ve had carrots already, started in the hoop houses in February! Amazing!).

Karl is a stonework landscaper. Cynthia is a Master Gardener and herbalist, and she also conducts workshops on eco-spiritual topics. In addition to their farm-stand, the Froelich’s participate in the farmer’s market in Saco, Maine. They are diversified…just like their farm.

This week I’ve been reading a new book on sustainable life called SMALL, GRITTY, AND GREEN by Catherine Tumbler. A journalist and historian, Tumbler spent a few years researching and touring small cities, specifically “Rust Belt” cities–the old industrial cities left crumbling and emptying in the wake of suburban development, highway-bisection of neighborhoods and downtowns, and the de-industrialization of the American economy as trade agreements launched the flight of production to cheap labor overseas. Tumbler agrees with people like James Howard Kunstler (author of the New Urbanist book, THE GEOGRAPHY OF NOWHWHERE) who believe that in a post-oil world, our small cities–not our small towns or metropolises–are best suited for a new way of life, one that is sustainable, human-scale, and doable in a low-carbon future.

These cities–in Maine, I think of places like Biddeford/Saco, Sanford, Waterville where the textile mills once ran three shifts a day–still have infrastructure intact that could be used when we inevitably must begin producing things here in the U.S. of A again. These small cities are surrounded by smaller rings of suburban and exurban development than the big metropolises–meaning the farmlands are closer to the urban center. Taking a look at the numbers, Tumbler makes the case for small-scale farming over commodity farming, retrofitting empty retail “malls” and concrete big box structures into sustainability centers–even hydroponic farms and raised-bed crop-raising on top of the parking lots, and the breakdown of highways instead of the constant necessity of maintaining them.

So, imagine a small city with parks and mixed-use architecture and Broadways and downtowns. Imagine a bus system, walkable neighborhoods, sidewalks, and fewer cars. Imagine suburbs with community gardens and backyard chickens. And then imagine a ring of fertile farmland cultivated by thoughtful, intelligent people like the Froelichs who provide food and medicine for the people in the city and suburb. Imagine a city without a Walmart but instead a bunch of locally-owned shops–a Plummer’s Hardware, a Betty’s Dress Shop, a bakery, a butcher shop, a bookstore–not just downtown but in many neighborhoods. Imagine a downtown district with a department store, a theater, a park, upscale shops, a music hall, City Hall, art galleries, restaurants…and lots of interesting people to watch when you sit down for a latte at the cafe.

Early Girls

Okay, so I am drifting into a utopian fantasy. Or else I’m reminiscing about a time in America just before I was born, before the rise of the cookie-cutter suburb, the two-car family, the two-income household, NAFTA, GATT, off-shoring, and the shrinking of the middle class.

What about today? What am I doing living in a single-use exurban housing development that is really like living at camp year-round? How can I work toward that other, larger vision? I garden, and I tell myself I am keeping some knowledge alive. Honestly, though? The economy of my miniature garden box garden is really pitiful!

I spent about $100 on “ingredients” for my straw-bale tomato experiment. The bales were pricey, considering. Then I had to add in the nitrogen fertilizer–not exactly organic farming practice there, folks. I bought three heirloom tomato plants, and if all goes well I may actually be able to save some seeds for next year. The other three (Early Girl) are not heirloom, and I have no idea if the seeds are viable or not. If these six plants produce thirty or so pounds of tomatoes all together, I suppose I may break even.

As for the other garden boxes, these are really nothing more than fun. I might as well have planted all ornamentals, since the small (miniature) scale of my garden-box garden will produce nothing more than a few servings of each kind of veggie, even if the plants produce well.

For instance, my peas are beautiful and blossoming, but really I may end up with a pound of snap peas at most. At Piper’s Knoll today, I bought a pound of snap peas for $3. The radishes have been fun, but I could have bought a bunch for $2.50. A large bag of greens was only $4. Sigh. My greens boxes have been the biggest disappointment of all: the spinach went to seed at two-inches tall, the arugula hasn’t even sprouted, the micro-greens did no better than the spinach. There is probably something wrong with the pH balance in the soil (all those pine needles?), though the romaine and green leaf lettuces are still growing if slowly, slowly…

The basil plants look great. The cucumbers are blossoming, and I’m hopeful for a good harvest. And if the zucchini and summer squash don’t end up with that gray mold stuff, I COULD have squashes coming out my ears in another month or so. Let’s hope! But in the end, this sort of gardening will never feed the family. Another $100 for ornamentals and cuke, fennel, basil, cabbage, sage, and pepper starts will, if I’m lucky, provide enough produce to pay for itself. If I’m lucky. Otherwise, I can put it down on the books as “entertainment” or maybe “education.”

Really, economically-speaking, I would be better off putting that $200 toward membership in a CSA farm like Piper’s Knoll. Maybe they’d let me come over and do some weeding now and again because…

I attempt to garden because I want to keep the rhythm of the growing season beating in my heart. I want my daughter to see me digging in the dirt and pulling a round, purple radish out of the ground, grown from a seed I planted. I want her to taste a cucumber right off the vine so she can appreciate the difference between it and the tasteless thing that rode on a truck from Mexico all the way to Maine and landed on a supermarket shelf.

Will I do this again next year? Yeah, I probably will. I’ll also buy as much produce and meat and eggs locally and in-state as I can…because those farmers are the people who will feed us in a low-carbon future. I encourage you to search out small-scale, diversified, biodynamic farms in your area and support them with your food dollars and your friendship. I think you’ll be glad you did.

Bean on the 4th of July

Bean Pot

Dear Reader:

What could be more Maine than a pot of baked beans on the 4th of July?

The tradition of slow-cooking beans with molasses, salt pork, and salt goes way back to Puritan New England when the church-people were not allowed to cook on Sundays. Using the Yankee ingenuity we still celebrate today, those good church-going Protestants figured out that if they put beans into a hole lined with hot coals on Saturday, they would have a steaming, wholesome meal to eat on Sunday–without lifting a banned wooden spoon! The Puritans came from a part of England where foods were baked into stews and pies rather than frying, so it was natural for them to incorporate traditional cooking methods when they transplanted themselves here to the New World (see Wikipedia article for some dubiously-fact-checked reference material for these statements.)

While Massachusetts is known as the official “Baked Bean State,” we Mainers can also claim this savory dish for ourselves. After all, Maine was once part of Massachusetts, and like it or not, we do share some cultural quirks with our counterparts just south of us on I-95. Maine baked beans are a Saturday-night supper staple. You will also find a pot or two served at just about any public supper, family reunion, or informal celebratory event…like the 4th of July.

Canoe on the Saco River

In honor of my traditional Maine roots, I put a pot of beans into the oven on Independence Day and left them there to simmer and bubble for six hours. Later, following a leisurely afternoon kayaking with friends down a sleepy stream, we all tucked into the beans served with potato salad, coleslaw, pickles hamburgers, and radishes from the garden–a feast in honor of great American cuisine on America’s Independence Day.

Hope you all had a Happy 4th of July. Here is a family recipe for Maine Baked Beans. Enjoy!

Maine Baked Beans

2 pounds beans (we like yellow-eye; Maine-grown if you can find them)
1/2 pound salt pork (or 1/8 lb butter or even olive oil if you are vegetarian)
1/4 cup dark brown sugar
2/3 cup molasses
2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 1/2 Tbs. salt
1 medium onion

Rinse beans and soak overnight in water. In morning, parboil beans until skins crack when you lift them out and blow on them (use a wooden spoon to lift a few out). Cut up the onion into fourths and put in bottom of your bean pot. Drain the beans, reserving the liquid in a bowl. Put beans into bean pot. Put pork on top of beans. Mix brown sugar, molasses, mustard, pepper and salt with one pint of the bean liquor. Pour this mixture over the beans. Bake at 300 degrees for 6 hours or more, adding more boiling water if the beans begin to dry out on top. Serve with slaw or potato salad, brown bread or biscuits (really good to eat biscuits with butter and molasses…yummy!)

You can also put this all into a crock-pot and cook on low for ten to twelve hours. The beans get better as leftovers, too, soaking up more and more flavor from the molasses and spices. You can also freeze leftovers to warm up later for quick meals.

Well, the buzzer on the stove just went off, telling me that the strawberry-rhubarb pie I stuck in there forty-five minutes ago is done. More on that next time…Outside the Box.