Farmer Interview - Jody Osmund - Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm

We're back! Sorry for the lack of posts in the last few weeks, we've been dealing with some unforeseen circumstances in our household. Nevertheless, we're working on getting back on track, and we have a special treat for you! Below is the first part of a two part interview with Jody Osmund of Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm. Jody wears a lot of hats when it comes to advocating for sustainable local food in our region. This first part will cover his farm specifically, and in part two you will hear him talk about his work with Band of Farmers, the Chicagoland CSA coalition.  Jody Osmund

  1. In a paragraph or two, please introduce yourself and tell us about how you became a farmer (what did you do before farming, how did you make the transition, how did your family adjust, etc.).

I grew up on a diverse grain and livestock farm - cattle and hogs, oats, wheat, hay, corn, and soybeans. My mom kept a flock of 150 laying hens and egg sales supplemented the grocery budget.  I was mostly involved in taking care of the animals, and I spent a lot of time helping in the ¼ acre family garden.

This background, however, was not a straight line to me becoming a farmer.  I graduated from high school in the middle of the farm crisis of the late 1980’s. Farming as a career looked pretty bleak, so I went off to college and a professional career.

Fast forward a decade and a half…  On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at an apple orchard in the northwest suburbs with our almost 3 year old son for a daycare field trip.  We rode a hayrack, picked apples, drank cider, and ate apple cinnamon donuts.

On the bus ride back to the daycare, we went from the peace and joy of agricultural idyll to a reality of fear and uncertainty.  The events of September 11th were a turning point for our family. We re-evaluated our life direction and priorities. Like a lot of people, we yearned for something more simple, more tangible, more real. (My career at Allstate in e-commerce software testing and my wife Beth's professional skills training position at Arthur Anderson both seemed pretty abstract.)

When the Enron scandal caused Arthur Andersen to collapse and family land (and farmhouse) came available in 2002, it was an easy decision to move to the farm. Our suburban friends thought we were crazy – they probably still do – but were supportive nonetheless. One of our friends gifted us (thanks Vickie!) Eliot Coleman’s book, The New Organic Grower which became a much used reference and the chapter on marketing inspired us to jump into Community Supported Agriculture.

  1. Tell us about your farm, where it is located, how big it is, and what you produce there.

Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm is a few miles north and east of Ottawa, IL. The total acreage is about 90 acres, but over half of that is taken up by woodlands, wetlands, and riparian habitat. We have about 40 acres of the arable land in pasture (mixed grasses, legume, and forbs) where we raise cattle, pigs, meat chickens, layer hens, and a small flock of Navajo Churro sheep.

  1. If we were to visit your farm, what would we find distinctive or unique about it? What makes Cedar Valley shine?

We’re really proud of our farm’s biodiversity.

This diversity extends well beyond the livestock (Duroc and Hampshire hogs, Angus cattle, 8 breeds of laying hens, and Navajo Churro Sheep). Our farm hosts a number raptor species (Bald Eagles, Red Tail Hawks, Kestrels, owls), water fowl (ducks, geese, Sandpipers, and Great Blue Herons), song-birds, predators (fox, coyote, racoons, opossum, mink), herbivores (deer, rabbits, beaver, voles, gophers, squirrels), along with countless insects (including a lot of native pollinators and butterflies, some feral honeybees, and dragon flies), and incredibly active living soil. It’s much different than the sea of corn and soybeans on the farms that surround it.

The Stream

The most distinctive feature of the farm is the creek that runs through it. It is the highlight of our farm tours, provides a peaceful picnic spot, cools us in the hot summer, and occasionally provides a meal of fish for the table.

  1. Why did you decide to run a meat CSA out of your farm, as opposed to other options like vegetable farming, or selling meat wholesale to restaurants?

Actually, Cedar Valley Sustainable (CVSF) started out as a vegetable CSA in 2003. We started on 2.5 acres and increased to a maximum of 5.5 acres. We added livestock over time, started the first meat CSA  in Illinois (while serving a 70 member vegetable CSA) in 2007, and fully transitioned to meat and eggs in 2008.

  1. How did you decide to raise beef, pork, and chicken? Which did you start with and how have you scaled up production over the years?

The first animal we brought to the farm was a dairy cow. Next we added a flock of laying hens. Meat birds followed, along with more cattle and then hogs. We raise all meat chickens and eggs for our CSA on our farm, but not all of the beef and pork. Over the years we’ve developed relationships with neighbors who breed incredibly high quality pork and beef that supplement our production.

Animals

These relationships extend the scope and breadth of our work toward more sustainable farming, writ large. They also give us flexibility and elasticity to deal with the ebbs and flow of CSA membership and farmers market demands.

When we started working with pork breeders  Mark and Kristen Boe of La Pryor Farms, they were considering getting out of the pig business (commodity pork prices were very low and they were losing about $40/per pig they sold to Tyson). We helped them develop a profitable farm-to-restaurant business for their hogs and they have since started their own beef herd. They make weekly trips into the city supplying top restaurants and artisan butcher shops with their pork and beef.

Pigs

I love seeing new pig and cattle paddocks when I pick up market pigs at the Boe’s farm. They’ve moved to a more pasture-based growing since they started working with us. WIN!

  1. What’s the most gratifying part of owning and running your own farm?

Sure, I get to do physical work outside every day and produce really delicious food, but the most gratifying part of our job is the relationships – customers, CSA members, fellow farmers, food advocates/activists, friends, family, and community that are nurtured by our farm. The image of the independent farmer, alone on the prairie is an unsustainable myth of “modern” agriculture.

A farm dinner in full swing

True resilience and sustainability are supported by an inter-locking bulwark of interdependent relationships. Adding strength and branches to that weave is what Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm is all about.

Many thanks to Jody for sharing about his and Beth's lives as the farmers at Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm. Keep an eye out for a second post from him about his work with Band of Farmers - The Chicagoland CSA Coalition. We will also be preparing a post for CVSF's blog that we are very excited about, so be sure to follow us on Facebook for all the updates! 

Are there posts you would like to see from Sustainably Queer? We've got ideas for miles, but we'd love to hear from our readers first! Please let us know in the comments, on our Facebook Page, or join us in the Sustainably Queer group for more lively conversation! 

Grocery Delivery Series: CarShare and Public Transit

To conclude our series on grocery delivery, we decided to go in a little bit of a different direction and "deliver" groceries to ourselves. This is a comparison of two weeks of groceries. One week we rented a car from Enterprise CarShare to go get groceries and this week Rachel went to the store via the Chicago Transit Authority. This was also our attempt at a control in this experiment, so when we wrap up for you, you can have a pretty good idea of how the different delivery options compare to getting your own groceries. For those of you who were hanging on for the CSA post, we are still planning on a future post about what to expect from a local CSA farm share in the Midwest, including a compare and contrast of some of the more popular Chicagoland CSAs. When we talked about selling the car, it was always part of our plan to join one of the car sharing programs in Chicago. Sometimes it just makes more sense to take a short trip in a car. Time, location, and even cost can often make using a car the most reasonable option. Conveniently, Enterprise and Zipcar both have cars within a couple blocks of where we live. Also, they both have plans that meet our needs, and they are competitively priced. We chose Enterprise because they have electric cars parked at Uncommon Ground Restaurant, and we wanted to have the option of using an electric car. I mean, we are Sustainably Queer after all.

Rockin' out with our carshare

 

In regards to the CTA, for those of you who live in the great City of Chicago, this is old hat, but if you don't, a ride one-way is $2.25. There is a Whole Foods in Evanston and a Whole Foods in Boystown that are about equidistant from the train. We tend to go to the store in Evanston because it is less busy and occasionally cheaper for some things. This week Rachel did the shopping by herself and so it only cost $4.50 to "deliver" the groceries, but she couldn't carry as much as we could have had we gone shopping together.

Grocery shopping for ourselves!

 

On to the groceries! Turns out, we spend way more on groceries when we are in the driver's seat. Our total at the Whole Foods from the CarShare trip was $90.58. Dude. What happened? Well, first off, we had friends over for pork tacos that Monday, and we got high quality pastured pork shoulder for that. That alone was $36.55. We aren't mad about making delicious pork tacos from relatively happy pigs, but that's an unusual expense. Take the (pork)fat off the top and we're down to $54.03. This is still a little high, but more in our typical range.

Here's the rest of the list:

3 Pears - $2.48

1 bunch Green Onions - $0.77

3 Avocados - $3.00

1 Yellow Onion - $0.67

1/2 lb Mushrooms - $2.99

Ginger Root - $0.51

1 Garlic Bulb - $0.55

5lb bag Carrots - $4.99

1 head Cauliflower - $4.99

1 lb Spring Mix Greens - $5.99

3 Baby Bok Choy - $1.01

Hungarian Paprika - $0.32

Soy Sauce - $2.99

Nutzo Nut Butter - $10.99

Green Salsa - $3.99

Cottage Cheese - $3.19

Ok, so obviously, we do not buy soy sauce, paprika, nut butter, or salsa every week. Great! Then, if we remove non produce items, we only spent $32.55, which is the lowest amount that we have spent on produce, specifically. So, really we didn't spend more. We were just stocking up on pantry items we were running out of. Also, other weeks, we had to make multiple trips to the store, and last week we didn't.

However, was this the most sustainable week? Our trip in the car cost us $17.06, and it also cost the atmosphere some burnt gasoline. Could we have gotten similar groceries and kept one more car off the road?

Here's a random picture of Rachel on the CTA.

Well, what did Rachel get when she went shopping solo on the train? Here's the run down:

1 Bunch Green Onions - $0.77

1 lb Spring Mix Greens - $5.99

2 Bunches Kale - $4.00

4 Pears - $2.84

1 Celery Crown - $2.01

5 lb bag Potatoes - $5.99

2 Jewel Yams - $5.10

2 Red Grapefruit - $3.17

1 Avocado - $1.50

4 Golden Beets - $7.12

Cottage Cheese - $4.69

The total for this trip was $44.22. Who knows why golden beets are so freaking expensive, but we will treasure them as we eat them. For traveling on her own and not having extra arms to carry things, Rachel actually didn't do too bad. The number and cost of produce items was slightly higher for this trip than the average. It's a tricky time of year for produce. Prices will go down once Midwest producers start putting out their own vegetables again.

We will use Enterprise CarShare again, it's a smart program and it certainly makes sense in a crowded urban environment. We will do a full review of it after we've used it a couple more times. I'm not sure that it will always make the most sense for us to use to run to the grocery store. Granted, taking the car only took us a little over an hour. It took Rachel two and a half hours on the train. Sometimes, time is money. Luckily for us, there are small grocery stores dotting our neighborhood and there is an Edgewater Whole Foods slated to open at the end of April. This will make it a lot easier for us to get groceries without having to worry about a vehicle at all.

What we are looking forward to most is the growing season and farmer's markets starting up again. Fresh local food trumps all when it comes to deliciousness, affordability, and sustainability - you've just got to know what you're looking for.

Let us know what you think of this series in the comments! Have you used grocery delivery or a carshare to get your groceries? What has your experience been? 

Grocery Delivery Series: Introduction

Last weekend, Kristl and I took the plunge and finally sold our little blue 2005 Hyundai. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with it, but our big goal this year is to aggressively pay down Kristl's student loan debt, so we're cutting the chaff. Plus, it wasn't the best for winter driving and we found that we were maybe using it once a week. It is pretty simple to transition to living car-free in Chicago, especially when you live as close to work and transit as we do. Of course, we're planning on blogging about our experience with being car-free, so you have that to look forward to! Our main difficulty with being car-free is figuring out how to do our grocery shopping. As part of our debt-reduction plan, we have agreed to only eat out once a month. You read that right - once a month. Combine that with the fact that we don't really eat very many processed foods and that adds up to a lot of perishable groceries. A whole lot.

In the growing season, we get our produce directly from a farm, a farmers market, or a CSA, but in the cooler months, we tend to go to Whole Foods, Costco, or our neighborhood grocery store. We are super lucky that we have 3 small, locally-0wned grocery stores within walking distance of our home that have a decent selection of local, organic foods, but they often don't have the amounts we need. We are not dye-in-the-wool Whole Foods groupies, but because we tend to choose organic for the majority of our produce, it is often the best option because they have quicker turnover. They tend to sell their produce more quickly, thus, the produce you see on the shelf has been restocked more recently than what you may see at a smaller store, even if they are coming from the same regional distributor.

A Whole Foods is opening very close to us at the end of April (hopefully!), which will be very convenient, but in the meantime, we are doing some interesting research into grocery delivery programs. We will review one each week in March, for our knowledge and yours.

Here is our planned schedule of reviews:

Each week we will post a new review and link it to the list above. We have done our best to choose 4 different types of grocery delivery options so that we can provide options for the vast majority of our readers. These options run the gamut from almost-immediate-gratification-someone-else-does-your-grocery-shopping-for-you  to hyperlocal, seasonal CSA. We will compare price points, ease of use, reliability, customer service, and quality of produce. We hope you're as excited as we are!

 

Farm Focus: Radical Root Organic Farm

Tomatoes in the Hoophouse Some folks find it straight up unbelievable that I plan to live in the third largest city in the United States of America and be a farmer at the same time. Unbelievable. Everyday, however, it becomes more reasonable to think about farming as a career choice in big cities and small cities alike. City governments are becoming more friendly towards the interests and needs of urban farmers and urban farmers are gaining an economic foothold in the markets where city people buy their all-important fresh vegetables. It's a win-win situation.

However, no matter how fabulous and rich urban farming becomes there is always going to be a niche for what we (in the business) call para-urban farming.  This is roughly suburban farming.  These farms are far enough away from a major city to have large tracks of land available (in some way) for primarily farm work, but close enough to the city to get the business from those consumers who are not willing or able to grow their own food. Where urban farms may be small enough to only use hand tools, para-urban farms may warrants a tractor or a backhoe, if they're into large scale machinery.

Just a good ole farm scene

In our study of urban farming this spring, we took a very exciting and very muddy field trip to visit a para-urban farm, Radical Root Organic Farm in Libertyville, Illinois. Radical Root is lucky because they are living and growing on land that is owned by a conservation organization.  It is bordered by parkland on one side and land owned by another municipality on the other side.  Alex, the farmer and our guide, noted that there was no way he and his family could have afforded to buy the land they live on and they were also lucky that alfalfa had been growing organically on the land for some time, so gaining "organic" status was not as tedious a process for them.  They had started their farm at another location known as a farm "incubator", which not only helps farmers improve their skills at farming but also at the business of farming.  They have a lease on the land for ten years, and the Civil War era barn on the property was retrofitted for a weekend market and post harvest handling, mostly to their specifications.  Basically, it's a pretty sweet deal.

The day we visited Radical Root was very muddy.  We were split up throughout the day, I spent the morning in the hoop-house (a semi-permanent plastic greenhouse) "bumping up" tomatoes to bigger seedling pots.  The cold spring we've had has made it difficult to get hot weather crops (like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc) in the ground early, so Alex was giving his tomatoes more room indoors so the plants would be bigger when he could finally move them outdoors.  In the afternoon, we planted all manner of things outside in the mud, including cabbage, fennel, and lettuce.  I have heavy-duty, water geologist-approved muck boots, but I was still up to my ankles in mud and slipping all over the places.  It was a day of hard work at the farm, but it was fun to see how things get done at a farm with a little more space and less infrastructure to deal with.

My mud covered boots

Alex already has 300 chickens who Kristl and I got an egg share from last summer and they are planning on moving up to 600 chickens, but this year, they are only including egg shares on their vegetable CSAs.  If you interested in a CSA and you have not committed to one yet, I can highly recommend these farmers and their products.  They definitely know what they are doing and they will make sure you a delicious box crammed with fresh organic veggies every week all summer.  They drop off at the Uncommon Ground in Edgewater, Green City Market by the Lincoln Park Zoo, or the Logan Square Market, so there's options for everyone.  If you aren't into commitment, they sell veggies at Green City and Logan Square Markets a la carte as well.

Check out their website here for more information: http://www.radicalrootfarm.com/

Our Friends the Chickens

How We Do Sustainable Living - Year Two

Hello friends and readers! We have just entered the second year of this blog and another year of concentrated sustainable queerness! Last year, shortly after starting our blog, we provided you with an introductory post about why and how we live sustainably and call ourselves Sustainably Queer.  We decided that as a means of looking back and celebrating our one year anniversary, it would be fun to revisit that post.  Please find a revised and annotated version of "How We Do" below! Spoiler alert: there have been some pretty big changes!

Note: This may go without saying, but new actions/changes are listed in bold, things we are no longer doing are crossed out, and notes are in green. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions.

Projects related to housekeeping:

  • Making orange infused vinegar for cleaning   - We decided that we don't mind the smell of vinegar enough to go through this process regularly, plus the one batch I made last year lasted almost an entire year. We may do this again, but it's not high on the list.
  • Woodworking with reclaimed wood - We took one class from the Rebuilding Exchange, but we haven't continued woodworking. We still have three unfinished table tops chilling in the basement, so hopefully eventually they will become tables, but who knows when.
  • Using rags instead of paper towels - We do this as much as possible, though we still haven't found a good substitute for paper towels for draining bacon (we're going to try some of these options soon).
  • Buying post-consumer recycled paper products and aluminum foil
  • Giving away two items for every one item we bring into the house - This is still the rule, but we've been scaling way back on our buying, so sometimes we give away things even without buying something new. A larger purge is planned for early summer, so we can put stuff away without feeling cluttered about it.
  • Trying to buy things with as little packaging as possible
  • Switched to wind powered electricity (it’s cheaper too!) - Still going strong!
  • Using homemade washable swiffer pads - Love these still!
  • Recycling basically everything we can - We are planning a "How to Effectively Recycle in Chicago" post at some point, there are tricks to it.
  • Leather-working with Chicago School of Shoemaking - You can check out our blog about the experience here. We're currently saving up to take Leatherwork 201, with the end goal being saving up enough to take the Beginning Shoemaking class because, really, what's more awesome and sustainable than being to make your own shoes?!
  • Large-scale refrigerator/freezer organization - Things got real about a week ago when we bought some Fridge Binz. Yes, we try to avoid bringing more plastic into our home, but we also try to avoid wasting food. We weighed the pros and cons and decided to go with the plastic bins for now, with the idea of switching to bamboo or metal sometime in the future, if we find something that fits our needs. 

Projects related to self care:

  • Using baking soda as shampoo - It took her years, but Kristl finally figured out a way to make this work for her hair. She's planning a post on it soon.
  • Making homemade deodorant - Rachel uses this exclusively, Kristl's pits are more delicate, so she's still searching for a recipe that her skin can handle.
  • Making homemade lotion/balm
  • Making homemade facial oil blend
  • Using Chinese medicine/natural healing home remedies instead of Western medicine cures - With the addition of epilepsy to her life, Rachel is now obligated to take a Western medication to control it, but otherwise, we are mostly reliant on acupuncture, chiropractic, and herbal medicine to keep us healthy.
  • Using OraWellness tooth oil instead of toothpaste
  • Receiving acupuncture/chiropractic/massage regularly for health and balance
  • Meditation practice - We both really could stand to meditate more often and for longer, but it's still helpful even in small doses!
  • Using eco-friendly, reusable menstrual products - We're planning a post about menstrual cups and cloth pads/liners in the next few months. 

Projects related to food:

  • Making stock with veggie scraps and chicken bones
  • Saving bacon fat and using it to cook other things (like sweet potatoes, yum!) - This isn't actually a new thing, we just forgot to include it on our initial list.
  • Making staples for the week (baked/boiled eggs, congee, etc) - We still do this, though the staples themselves have changed.  Recently, we've been making a lot of breakfast bars, and soups/stews that are good for eating over 3-4 days. 
  • Making bigger batches of the meals we create so we can freeze portions for when we aren't able to cook - This has saved us on many occasions! We can pull a container out of the freezer and have it for lunch or dinner instead of going out to eat or getting takeout. 
  • Making homemade drink syrups (to flavor carbonated water)
  • Infusing liquors (vanilla vodka and ginger vodka so far) - Rachel has infused vodka with all manner of things, including pineapple, blueberries and a specific spice blend to make it taste like gin.
  • Drinking vinegars, a.k.a. shrubs  - We love a good shrub, but we make so much kombucha now, making drinking vinegar also would be too much
  • Making our own kombucha - So much cheaper than buying it!  
  • Making ricotta, yogurt, mustard, cheez-its, etc from scratch - Again, the actual things we're making from scratch has changed, but we are still committed to buying as few packaged/processed foods as possible.
  • Canning, fermenting, and dehydrating food for long term preservation
  • We bought an upright freezer - We can keep more meat and veggies in the house and put up fruit and veggies from the summer without messing with as much canning. We now have more versatility in how we "preserve" produce.
  • Bringing lunch to work/school
  • Trying to eat locally sourced, humane and organic food as much as possible
  • Signing up for CSA and egg share  - We've changed our approach on this since Rachel is in farm school this year.  We will probably have some access to vegetables that we didn't have before and hopefully we will be able to grow more than we did last year.  The egg share we had last season has been restructured to only be offered to CSA members, so we are no longer getting a carton of eggs a week.  This is kind of a relief, as at one point last summer we had 4 dozen eggs in our fridge.
  • Joined a meat and egg co-op - True Nature Foods has a relationship with a local, pastured farm where the consumer pays $60 a year for membership and is then able to order/purchase a wide variety of meat products and eggs for a reduced price.  This makes eggs cheaper than our egg share and we only have to buy them when we need them. We are doing our best to only eat meat from local, pastured, humane farms.
  • Using all of an item if we buy it, e.g. whole chicken, eating beet greens and broccoli stems
  • Choosing to eat at restaurants that serve sustainably sourced food - This is a huge consideration especially where meat is concerned.  Every choice you make about where to spend your food dollars impacts how safely and sustainably food is produced, in general. Cheaper food is almost always cheap due to government subsidies or externalities (pollution, run-off, inhumane practices, lack of oversight, diminished workers' rights, etc), higher quality food is often more expensive because care was put into it's production and little harm was done to third parties (consumers, workers, animals). Not only do you vote with your money, you also farm with your money, by proxy.
  • Participating in community food events, like the Chicago Food Swap, Soup & Bread, Good Food Festival

Miscellaneous Projects:

  • Not buying cable
  • Homemade gifts - We didn't buy any Christmas presents in 2013.  We either created or re-gifted everything we gave out or we didn't give gifts at all.  It worked out perfectly.
  • Feeding our cat and dog grain free/raw pet food
  • Using community garden plot and backyard to grow food - We just got clearance from our landlord to use some of our backyard space to grow more things.  This is a very exciting development and we are still deciding how to make it functional and beautiful.
  • Reusing jars and bottles for all forms of storage
  • Worm composting - Worms and composting took a little bit of a hiatus over the winter.  They hung out in our basement because the "earthy" smell was a bit much for us in the apartment.  The basement was cold, given our wily winter, but I have seen signs of life, so hopefully worm composting will be back in order soon. 
  • Bugeting via You Need A Budget (YNAB) - With Rachel quitting her full-time job and Kristl going through an office relocation, we knew 2014 was going to be a different picture financially.  We took the pro-active approach and started zero-sum budgeting in December with a program called You Need A Budget.  Things have been going very well so far.  We have been able to save in advance for big bills (like car insurance) and put money away for upcoming big expenses (new car?).  It's pretty awesome. They offer a free trial, so you have no reason to try it out for a bit. Full disclosure, if you sign up using the link above and subscribe after your trial ends, we'll both get one month free - it's a win-win!
  • Tithing/giving to projects and people who are trying to make the world a better place in a sustainable way
  • Kristl is moving her practice to a location with-in walking distance of our house - This exciting for all kinds of reasons, but primarily because she will not need to use the car!

Well, that's about everything, it is a bit overwhelming, but we're managing ok on a day-to-day basis.  As always, feel free to check out anything we link to and ask us more questions about the products/processes.  We are always willing to write posts based on reader interest, so if there are specific topics you want to hear more about, please let us know in the comments below!

Thank you for all your support! Here's to the success of year one, and plenty of sustainable queerness to fill year two and beyond.

Garden Update: The Setup!

If you have been following us on Instagram, you know we have a lovely 4’x8’ garden plot in Peterson Garden Project’s Vedgewater garden. Vedgewater is at the corner of Broadway and Magnolia and has ~180 plots. The land is on rent from Loyola, and this is their second year in operation. I’m hoping--pretty securely because I’ve seen several groups from Loyola working in the garden--that PGP’s lease on the space will be renewed. This is the closest community garden to our house and it’s almost like having a backyard garden. I started my garden planning back in March. I knew I would be growing things this year, because it was the first time in four years I would not be picking up and moving somewhere else. I got a huge stack of urban/small space/container gardening books out of the library. My favorite of all was definitely Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail. Briefly, because this was not meant to be a book review post, this book is great because it goes through prepping a raised bed or container garden, the pests you might encounter, and the natural fertilizers you can use. Plus, it has plant-by-plant breakdowns of what you need to know to raise them. It’s super informative, and while I read it cover to cover once, I wanted to reference it so many times after returning it to the library that I just went and bought it.

Check out our seedlings!

Check out our seedlings!

Armed with knowledge, I set about the process of buying seeds and starting seedlings. I got seeds from three sources. First, I found organic heirloom seeds from Kenyon Organics on Etsy. I bought eggplant, cucumber, kale, chard, peppers, broccoli, basil, and three different types of tomatoes. Around the last week of March, I planted tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and broccoli from seed indoors. I used toilet paper rolls as seedling packs, and filled them with organic seeding soil. I had also purchased a seedling pot maker from Burpee, and used that when I ran out of toilet paper rolls. The toilet paper rolls seemed like an awesome idea; it was re-purposing, biodegradable, and about the right size. However, all the toilet paper rolls developed mold on the outside. They also started to unwind, which made watering difficult because the water would just pour out the top. I recommend the pot maker or just saving the containers from store bought seedlings, which is what I will mostly use next year. Kristl has an Ott lamp for crafting which I used as a makeshift grow light. I wasn’t growing that much, so it was the perfect size.

Back to the story... The peppers and eggplants never came up. The tomatoes all sprouted and grew pretty well, as did the broccoli. We went to the orientation before April 22, when the gardens opened. We got a garden plot assigned to us. We were ready. Peterson Garden Project had a giant plant sale the weekend of Mother’s Day. We bought two more tomatoes, four cucumbers, two eggplants, and three pepper plants. I also got two kinds of lettuce and arugula for our porch plant boxes.

Look at that fresh garden

Look at that fresh garden

It was starting to get warm, so I began to get antsy about planting, even though most of my sources were saying to wait until after Memorial day for transplants. I got Kristl and all the seedlings outside to the garden one evening mid May, and we put everything we had in the ground. Later that evening, there was a huge storm, and it really knocked our plants around. Only two tomatoes and two peppers survived from that initial planting. Our plot belonged to someone else last year, so there were strawberries, oregano, and parsley which were wholly unfazed, but it was back to the start for almost everything we planted. Lesson learned.

Luckily, the farm we have our CSA through--Angelic Organics--sent us an email offering free seedlings out at the farm. I also learned that the Bonnie plants sold at Home Depot are raised organically and they have heirloom varieties. I purchased some organic bush bean, beet, and lettuce seeds from Burpee, and calendula (a flower used to speed healing for burns and cuts) from Seed Savers Exchange. We came home from the CSA farm with beets, corn, green onions, and a couple small tomatoes. We grabbed some kale seedlings from Whole Foods, broccoli from Matty K's on Lincoln, and eggplant, tomatoes, and a jalapeno from Home Depot.

By the first of June, we had planted almost everything except the hot weather plants (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes). I took a beginner class from PGP, and they said to try not to plant those types of plants until it’s good and hot or they won’t thrive. So, I didn't put them in until June 10th.  At the moment, I feel like things are going pretty well. All the plants look relatively healthy and all the seeds I have planted have come up. The strawberries have already given us six impossibly delicious, plump berries. We have had enough kale to serve as a vegetable at dinner, and we've been sprinkling fresh oregano into lots of things.

Our little deck garden really grows

Our little deck garden really grows

The lettuces on the porch are going wild! Kristl had a poached egg and arugula sandwich on her sourdough bread and it looked delicious. The real question now is how these hot weather plants will deal with the persistently cool temperatures. We have had some really discouraging moments so far in this growing season, but the best advice I probably got at my beginner’s class was not to get emotionally attached to the vegetables. If they die because of weather or some hungry critter, that is out of my hands. My job is to make sure they are fed, watered and protected from weeds. If they don't make it, I can always plow them under and start over with something new.

Going forward, I will try to give you a garden update every 2-3 weeks. I want you to keep up with the mistakes and victories I am having on the agricultural front. I’m trying to be conscious of mistakes I may be making. I’m not trying to come off as a master gardener (although I would very much like to become one someday). I’m just an amateur trying to grow some food to fill my kitchen. Hopefully, I will learn some tricks to make the produce produced outweigh the cost of seeds, seedlings, and supplies. And hopefully, it will get into the 80's for a couple months so our big yield, hot weather crops will have a fighting chance!

Until next time, happy growing! And eating!

Everything's lookin' good!

Everything's lookin' good!