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Tough skin on summer squash

Summer squash 2016

All of the squash we’ve picked this year have had exceptionally tough skin.  We normally roast the squash, skin and all.  Most vegetables, when soaked in olive oil and left in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes, will turn pretty tender, but these are quite inedible this year.  Anyone else having this problem?

It’s been an exceptionally hot and dry summer here in New England.  Did they develop a tougher skin in response?  As mentioned in a previous post, it’s also a variety of summer squash I haven’t previously grown.  Perhaps it’s just naturally tougher.

Anyway, I’m curious about whether anyone else having this experience.

5 Grateful Things – 5/25/16

We’re grateful for some of the small things that help us get through the week.

1. Grateful that I’m up with a baby only because she’s teething. This too shall pass.

2. Grateful for rain finally here in MA. Hadn’t any in almost two weeks. It washed the pollen out of the air and watered a very dry garden.

3. Grateful that we have a stocked freezer and pantry so the fact that we missed a grocery shopping trip this weekend was no big deal and we still could feed a guest.

4. Grateful for the little bit of me time that comes with a cup of coffee in a haried day.

5. Grateful for friends and family who are happy to share part of their day with my girls and share the challenges of overtired kids.


Homesteader’s Lingo: Annual

Tall telephone peas at Paper Crane Farm
Tall telephone peas at Paper Crane Farm

While I tend to talk much more about our perennials, there is an obvious role here at the farm for annuals, plants that you plant annually (hence the name ;).  From kale to cabbage to carrots, these fast growing vegetables flush out the homestead diet and give you something fresh to eat almost year round.  Plant kale and arugula in the fall, you can eat it over the winter and into the spring.  Plant peas and lettuce in the spring, and they will come in before your perennials ever bear fruit.  Onions, winter squash, potatoes…these are your winter staples.

At Paper Crane Farm, we have nine raised beds dedicated to annuals.  Each bed is 4’x8′.  There are staples we grow every year, like peas and tomatoes.  These beds are also for experiments though.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever grown rutabagas, solanum fruit, of celtuce.  There is so much more variety with annuals, you can’t help but get excited as you flip through the seed catalogs.  And since you’re going to replant next year anyway, just have fun with it.

Homesteader’s Lingo: Perennial


Perennial – A plant that lives for more than two years.  The key to a productive homestead, perennials are your reward for patience and forward thinking.  While they can take a few years to get going, perennials are usually far more productive and require far less work each season than annuals.  I labor to find time each week to start my annual seeds, transplant them, etc.  A mature apple tree, on the other hand, is already up and running.  It may drop 200 pounds of fruit in a year.  All it asks is for occasional pruning.  A good raspberry patch will produce a couple of gallons of berries.  Last year’s vines die off after they fruit.  You just clean out the old withered vines once/year and let the new vines do their thing.

That forward planning I mentioned is the key though.  Every year we find more perennials that we would like to wedge into our small plot and every year I begrudge how inefficiently I planted in previous years.  I’m not going to dig up those three year old apple trees now, but I wish I could move them closer together, making more room to flush out the orchard.

We’ve planted several hundred perennials here at Paper Crane Farm over the three years we’ve been here, from pears to pawpaws to persimmons.  Few of these have produced much yet.  The strawberries and raspberries have given us buckets of fruit to enjoy.  The thirty or so fruit trees have given us maybe 3 apples and 25 pears.  Once everything reaches maturity though, we hope to have an endless supply of fruits and nuts during the summer and into the fall.  We choose things that fruit early, that fruit late, and that fruit in between.  With proper storage, these will ideally carry us through the lean months when little is growing.

We’ll see.  But gardening is an optimists game.  When we’re picking out gooseberries in the nursery catalog over the winter, we’re thinking about the burst of flavor, not how the deer may eat them.  In any year, some of these things will boom and some will bust.  That’s okay.  Next year will be better.

Compost – Food for Worms

Geobin Compost Bin
Geobin Compost Bin

In our household, we have two containers on the kitchen counter, Food for Chickens and Food for Worms. How else should we teach our three year old about composting? She throws the edible food waste to the chickens. We dump the inedible food waste into the compost, where it feeds the worms. Edible food waste includes stuff like fruit and vegetable peelings and scraps from the dinner table. Inedible waste includes moldy bread, coffee grounds, banana peels, etc.

Perfect compost is an art, including the precise mixing of green and brown matter, appropriate application of sun and water, and regular turning. But for every artists out there, there are us folks with jobs and families who don’t have time for perfection. Compost doesn’t have to be perfect and it’s a lot easier to get started with composting when you stop worrying about it. Honestly, compost is pretty hard to screw up. To make an adequate compost pile, all you need is a spot on the ground, some organic matter, and time. Anything else is bonus. If you leave a pile of leaves/banana peels/coffee grounds/manure/grass clippings or anything else organic on the ground long enough, it turns into dirt. Barriers of entry – minimal.

How to make your compost just a little bit better: I use relatively inexpensive Compost Bins I picked up off Amazon. This is basically a plastic sheet rolled into a cylinder and put on its side, thus making a container. This keeps my pile of yard waste tidy.  It has no top, so sun, rain, and animals get in. These are all ok. Sometimes I turn my compost pile. Sometimes I don’t have the time or energy. Turning just makes it compost faster. You’ll notice that the stuff at the bottom of your compost pile turns to dirt faster than the stuff on top. If you flip it, then the un-composted stuff starts to catch up. Just unhook the plastic ring, set it aside, and shovel your compost onto a new spot right next to it. You start at the top of the pile, so it naturally ends up on the bottom. Once you’ve moved it over a couple of feet, just put the ring back up around it.

How to make your compost much better: Just like we all need a well-balanced diet, so do our gardens. If your compost consists entirely of banana peels, then the only nutrients you’re putting back into the garden are whatever makes up a banana peel. Make your compost richer by putting as diverse a supply of organic matter as possible into the mix. I have a friend with horses. I take home a bucket of manure now and then, just to dump into the compost bin. At the end of the growing season, we are left with tomato plants, raspberry vines, etc. They all get thrown into the compost. Inedible kitchen waste? Into the compost! The more, the merrier.

What not to put in compost: Anything inorganic. No metal, plastic, or rubber will break down. I tend to avoid any wood thicker than a pencil. I also avoid anything that’s going to get really smelly, like meat.

Why is compost so important: The vitamins and minerals we take in from plants don’t materialize out of thin air. They exist in the soil until whatever we planted sucks them out. If we don’t replenish those minerals by adding compost back into the soil, then next year’s plants will be less nutritious to eat and will not grow as well. Farmers used to leave their fields fallow for a year so that these minerals could replenish, as they slowly do over time (although not from thin air!). Giving your garden a multi-vitamin in the form of compost isn’t perfect, but gardens are forgiving. As a bonus, making compost means that your yard waste isn’t going into the trash.


Homesteader’s Lingo: Organic


At the grocery store, tomatoes might be $1.99/pound. Or, for $3.99/pound you can buy organic tomatoes. What does organic really mean and is it worth paying double for? The term ‘Organic’ has taken on a certain cache among people who want to use their buying power to make the world a slightly better place. And yes, creating a demand for organic food is generally a good thing. Food with the organic label is grown without synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, growth hormones, genetically modified DNA, etc. If you are what you eat, then we should all be inherently skeptical of what we put in our bodies. So yes, all else being equal, one should eat organic food. But healthfulness if not the only criteria by which we make decisions. For instance, an organic label does not really attempt to capture either environmental or economic factors. Organic salmon shipped from China and raised organically with slave labor and factory farming is not a good thing. It’s not good for the environment to farm that way, nor to ship food around the world. It’s not good for our local economy to import our food, nor is it good to support unfair labor practices abroad. Slapping an organic label on it so that well-meaning shoppers will overpay almost makes it worse.

Organic food is uncontaminated, but it is not inherently more nutritious. If we are what we eat, so too is our food. For instance, though both may be organic, the chicken raised on soy is not as nutritious as the chicken raised on a balanced diet of raw grains. Vegetables grown for mass production are chosen for properties like appearance and shelf life, rather than nutritional value. Growing them organically doesn’t change this.

Don’t get me wrong. I like organic. It’s just that you have to look deeper than the label. Where is the product from? Organic matters more with some products than others. Is this particular product worth paying more for? Is this a company you trust? According to the USDA website, organic regulations do not require that fertilizers, soil amendments, and pest control materials be organic. Someone mass producing organic foods could easily be farming in unsustainable ways and still be within the rules of the organic label. The opposite is true as well. The process of qualifying for the organic label doesn’t work for most small farmers. The vegetables you grow in your backyard don’t have a fancy label, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t grow them organically, just that the US Department of Agriculture hasn’t sent a representative down to your backyard with a whole bunch of paperwork and fees.

But you still want to use your buying power for a good cause? Great! Buy local. Your dollars stay local, improving your community. Your food will be more nutritious if it hasn’t had all of its vitamins leeched out by traveling around the world. Likewise, when food will be sold and eaten within days, rather than weeks, farmers can choose crops to grow based on quality, rather than shelf life. Also, you avoid the environmental costs both of shipping and of big agriculture. Your local farmers may not have the resources to get an organic label, but they are most likely farming in a much more sustainable way than most factory farms. Plus, you have better odds of both good labor practices and hygiene, when your food comes from a local farm.

In short, grow your own food organically and shop locally.