Thursday, June 16, 2011

Community Supported Agriculture

For the last three years, we have been part of a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) through Garden Gate Farm. A CSA is an arrangement made with a farmer (usually well before their crops are planted) to purchase a share of their harvest. Most often, a variety of produce is included in a CSA, but sometimes other farm products such as honey, eggs, bread, meat, etc. are included as well.

CSAs are becoming more and more popular and have numerous benefits for both the farmer, you the consumer, and the environment. Farmers benefit by having the money they need upfront to cover some of their costs. They have security in knowing the price and quantity at which their crops will be purchased. They also are able to focus marketing efforts of their food before their busy seasons begin. Consumers benefit by getting the freshest produce possible at a low price. A variety of items are available throughout the growing season and consumers can try different foods (most CSAs provide their members with recipes). And, anytime you buy local you decrease your food's carbon footprint in the reduced miles traveled from farm to your table. Additionally, we've witnessed the ways our CSA farm is committed to sustainable, organic and biodynamic practices.

The relationship between the farmer and the consumer is a key component of a successful CSA. We know exactly where our food comes from and how it is grown. Our family has visited "our" farm and has had the opportunity to help at the farm each year. Our farmers know our family and they frequently ask for our feedback. There is some shared risk associated with a CSA. The consumer is basically purchasing a portion of the farmer's crop. If the growing season is poor, the consumer will get less food. Again, this is where relationship comes in. You must be able to trust that your farmer did the best he or she could and that the next season will be better.

Our experience the last 3 years with Garden Gate Farm has been nothing less than excellent. We have always received plenty of beautiful, fresh produce. In September we paid $500 for this season's CSA. That included discounts for paying early and participating in Field Clean-Up Day at the farm. Our $500 went toward a Regular Season Share which is meant to feed a family of four. Each week, we receive about a 1 1/9 bushel bushel box of vegetables, fruits, and herbs. Depending on the time of year, it may be a little more and it may be a little less. The season starts mid June and lasts 14-16 weeks. That comes out to $31-36 a week for a bushel of organic, sustainably grown produce.

Garden Gate Farm is the third CSA of which we have taken part. Our first CSA was not a good experience, which is why I highly recommend that you get references and ask a lot of questions before joining a CSA. Our second CSA was with Swier Family Farm. We also had a wonderful experience with them but decided to try Garden Gate Farm since their delivery site was much closer to our home.

Today was our first delivery of the season from Garden Gate Farm. As the season progresses, the amount of food we receive will increase, but today we received rhubarb, lettuce, chard, garlic scapes, tea leaves, basil, parsley, kale, scallions, popcorn, and tomatoes (our farmers extend their growing season with greenhouses and raised beds).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Flower Gardening the Easy Way... Perennials

At both our current house in Midland, MI and our old house in Bay City, MI, we have had almost no greater delight as parts of the warm seasons progress than when our various perennials emerge and bloom.

While purchased annuals like pansies and marigolds are nice, they require an investment each year. Sure we could plant seeds in early March and water them prior to the transplanting season. But, really, I'd rather get a truckload of wood chip mulch every couple years, pull some weeds in the spring and spend my time on the only annuals that I want- the veggie garden. A well planned perennial garden provides flowers throughout the season and requires very little work or watering.

The easiest varieties are those that have the following characteristics according to

  • Longevity (90 percent alive and thriving five years after planting)
  • Resistance to disease and insects, so you don't have spray them
  • Don't need to be divided more often than every four or five years
  • Tolerance of a wide range of growing conditions
  • Cold hardy – no winter protection needed
  • Good tolerance of summer heat
  • Long blooming period, or foliage that's attractive all season
  • Won't take over your garden
  • Don't need to be staked.
With our sub-zero Michigan winters, lazy gardeners like me do not want to worry about doing much to dig up or protect any of our perennials. So, plants like gladiolus and namby-pamby varieties of tulips are OUT! They're nice, but ... ya know... weak. No room for that here.

Here's a list of easy perennials, many of which are thriving in our gardens: Daffodills, Tulips, Crocus, Violets, Daylily- like Tiger Lilies, Hosta (favorite deer food, though), Columbine, Iris, Stargazer lily- our wedding flower ♥, Chives, Raspberries, and lots of herbs. We also have Johnny Jump Ups and I love these hardy little guys! I know they aren't technically perennial but they self seed to come up all spring/summer and next year- close enough for me.

But the real fun comes in arranging bulb exchanges with your friends. What better, more sustainable practice could you think of? At our old house, the tulips were packed in these humongous clumps of bulbs that no one had separated in years. I could get twenty bulbs from one cluster of tulips. Frequently, I gave away more than 100 bulbs a year of those stately, gorgeous peach tulips that grew knee high. How about scouting out some of your neighbor's or family members' perennials and offering to exchange something they don't have for something you'd like. Think of it as a heritage. I'm proud to have spread some of my mom's grape hyacinths.

Splitting perennials is easy, but sort of violent. For bulb based plants like tulips, make sure to leave the plant until the foliage is dead. People frequently mow them down as soon as they are done flowering. But this does not allow the plant to propagate. But, really, daylilies and others can just take a good spade to the middle for splitting. Yeah, some of the plant will be damaged, but they bounce right back. I found lots of good advice out there about how to divide perennials for sharing and why you should anyway for the health of the plant.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Red goodness

Loaded with vitamin C and antioxidants, berries are among the healthiest foods in the world to eat. Strawberries can help reduce inflammation, regulate blood sugar, strengthen the cardiovascular system, and even help prevent cancer. Berries are a regular part of our family's diet all year long. Each summer, our goal is to pick and freeze enough blueberries and strawberries to last us until the next season. Once or twice a week, we make yogurt smoothies for breakfast. We also use berries to make yummy things like cobbler or muffins. My children often eat our berries frozen right out of the bag. This year we will also try dehydrating our strawberries with our new Excalibur.

Today was our first day of the season picking strawberries. We went to Berry Creek Farms in Bay City, Michigan. They do not use any pesticides and they hand pull all their weeds. We paid $1.19 a pound and the five of us (including a 10 year old and 3 year old who only like to eat and a 7 year old who was a great help) picked 44# of strawberries in less than three hours. Let the freezing begin!