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homegrown feast for two

homegrown feast for two

Growing up Catholic I was familiar with the term Feast Day. It was a day when certain saints were remembered. Unfortunately, I don’t remember any food feast on those days and the only celebration would have been attending Mass. I assume other cultures somewhere celebrated with a food feast at some point, and maybe still do. St. Patrick’s Day receives a lot of attention. We have feast days within our family when we celebrate birthdays. Weddings, especially, are feast days and the happy couple celebrates that day from then on. We need to declare other events in our lives as feast days, if only for one day, and pay particular attention to the feast involved. I’m sure you can find many things to celebrate, so I’ll concentrate on the food part in this post. This photo is one I took when I was writing my Homegrown Fridays post in 2011. Our dinner that evening was sorghum noodles, tomato sauce, and steamed collards—all food from our garden.

Every bite we take is a vote for how we want the earth used to grow our food. If we really take that thought to heart we become mindful of what we are eating and where it is grown. To be healthy beings, our food needs to be grown in healthy soil. My other posts, my DVDs, and my book will help you plan your garden to feed the soil, while growing to feed yourself. Most likely, you are not growing all your food. That brings the opportunity to find growers who pay particular attention to the soil to provide you with good food. Farmers markets have sprouted everywhere and many have times when they are open during the winter months, allowing you to source your food directly from the growers. That way you can inquire about their practices. Grocery stores, even big ones, are carrying more local food. Foodhubs have been established for small growers to pool their produce to sell to the large buyers. In the big scheme of things, it is not practical for a large store to deal with many, many small-scale growers. Also, there are small-scale growers who don’t want to sit at the farmers markets waiting for you to come by. For them, the foodhub is a welcome place to sell what they grow, as are restaurants. Eat at restaurants that buy from local, sustainable growers. You can find sources of local food at www.localharvest.org. Find out what you can about each grower you buy from. Just because they are local doesn’t necessarily mean they are organic or sustainable.

travel table service kit

travel table service kit

We are often involved in potluck dinners. That’s the way to go with a large group of people. Hopefully everyone brings a large dish of food to share so there is enough food for however many people show up. When I was the faculty advisor for the Sustainable Agriculture Club at the community college we came up with the idea of a sustainable potluck, since we didn’t want to have to buy or throw away paper and plastic products. In a sustainable potluck, everyone brings their own non-disposable table service—plate, cup, and silverware. We loved it! To make that experience even more enjoyable, one year our daughter Betsy gave me a birthday gift of a travel kit with plates, silverware, and napkins (red work handkerchiefs). Her old bluejeans provided some of the fabric. This kit is so handy. When my husband and I travel we even take it to the hotels that only offer Styrofoam plates for the free breakfast.

The sustainable potluck idea worked so well I suggested it to my beekeeping club. It took a few times for some folks to get used to the idea, but now it works like a charm. There is no trash! I didn’t have to mention it at the handspinning group I joined. They were already bringing their own table service to their potlucks. I belong to one other organization that has a potluck twice a year. When they start to make plans I bring up the idea of bringing our own table service, along with our potluck dishes. Each time the response is a flat-out no, with no discussion. I know that others in the room agree with my idea, but they never speak up. It is painful for me to see the trash accumulate at these events, so I choose not to attend. When new ideas are suggested, if you agree you have to speak up. That is the only way to bring about change.

Every action we take is important—whether it is the food we eat or how we eat it. Where will all that trash go if we choose to generate it? Our county landfill is full and the trash is now shipped elsewhere. Our celebrations should not be responsible for trashing someone else’s backyard. Planning a zero waste event can be a fun challenge. You can learn more about how to do that and feed a crowd at my Homegrown Wedding post.

Each day, each meal can become a feast when we contemplate what we are eating and how it is grown. The closer we are to the source, the more sacred our food and the act of eating it becomes. In naming feast days and preparing the food, we have to remember to be thankful that we have something to celebrate and thankful for the food that will be shared. An attitude of gratitude puts us in a position for well-being in so many ways. We all know people who pick out the bad in everything. We need to look for the good. Everything is important and everything has something positive. Find the good and celebrate with food from your garden or local sustainable sources.Homeplace Earth

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VA 100 mile map - BLOGWhen I taught the class Four Season Food Production at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, the first project of the semester was a 100 Mile Food Plan. Working in groups, the students were to imagine their food supply was going to be disrupted and their only food, beginning January 1, was going to be from local sources. The project was due in mid-September, so they were to feel fortunate that they had this heads-up months in advance. In real life disruptions occur with increasing frequency with no advance warning. They would have to source their food within a 100 mile radius of where they lived.

The students would need to find sources for winter food and be able to store it or preserve it now. Or, they would need to know a farm where they could buy it as needed, since the grocery stores would be closed. They could grow it themselves, of course, but that would take awhile and winter was coming on. This was a year-long plan, so growing it themselves would be planned in. If the animal products in their plan depended on feed shipped in and not grown locally, that would be a consideration.

My intent in assigning this project was to acquaint them with the local food system. I wanted to get them out to the farmers markets to talk with the farmers and find out what was available. I also wanted them to think about exactly what it was they ate and how much they needed for a year. They received extra credit if they brought in a highway map of Virginia with their location pinpointed and circles at 25, 50, 75, and 100 miles away. It had to be a highway map so that it showed all the localities. When they first thought of this 100 mile limit, many students thought it would severely limit their choices until they actually put the circles on a map. Even if you are not familiar with Virginia, you can see from my map that there are mountains on the left and the ocean on the right—all within 100 miles from my house as the crow flies. The area goes north into Maryland and dips into North Carolina to the south. Make a map of your own and see what you would have to choose from.

This project sure was an ice-breaker. One thing that always happened in my classes was that people talked to each other. Each group had to assess the strengths of each of its members. Someone may have land available for future growing and others may have money, tools, skills, storage facilities, or muscle to contribute to each “community”. They would need to show on a chart what foods they found and where, how much they would need of each food for the year for their group, and how it would be stored or preserved. I also wanted their comments on what strengths and weaknesses they found in our present local food system. This generated plenty of discussion about what would happen if everyone had to suddenly depend on these local sources and what, if any, changes in their lifestyle and diet this project encouraged. I always enjoyed the interaction among everyone. I remember one group that had both a long-time vegan and a young woman whose family ate mostly meat.  When you are planning for a community, everyone must be considered.

Ashland Market SignWhen I first started teaching at the college in 1999, farmers markets were few and far between. It amazes me how many there are in 2013, with the number growing each year. I was one of the founding farmers of the Ashland Farmers Market. I stopped selling vegetables after the 2001 season to concentrate on teaching in order to put more knowledgeable consumers and producers at the markets. The produce, meat, eggs, and honey sold at the Ashland market must have been grown within a 30 mile radius of the town. If shown as a circle on my map, it would be just outside the inner circle. Most markets don’t have such a limit. Besides farmers markets, there are many other options for people to connect with local growers. You can find sources for food grown in your area by checking www.localharvest.org.

The two items my students had the hardest time finding were grains and cooking oil. There was much discussion about the possibility of making oil from the black walnuts that are prevalent in the area. That was before the Piteba, a home-scale oil press, was available. Even with that press, I’m sure the novelty of making oil from walnuts would wear off quickly. There was also much discussion about a source for salt. To really learn, you need to begin with questions and my students generated lots of questions while doing this project. You are probably familiar with Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a story of one family eating locally for a year. Once that book came out in 2007, many people began to think seriously about where their food comes from. About the same time, the book Plenty by Canadians Alisa Smith and J.B. Mackinnon was published. This couple had fewer resources than Kingsolver’s family did. They ate a lot of potatoes and tried their hand at sauerkraut which smelled up their small apartment. I encourage you to read both books.

It can be quite a shock to your system to change your food supply suddenly. It is much better to ease into it and make changes gradually if you want them to last. The change needs to start in your mind, and that’s why I had my students do this project. I didn’t expect them to come up with all the answers to a plan that could be implemented right away. That would take much more planning. I did expect them to begin to question their diets and food sources. It certainly got them to focus the rest of the semester on actually growing their own food.

The next project was on cover crops and then there was one about designing a season extension structure to cover a 100 ft² bed. Although it was not required to build the structure they designed, many students did and managed to get it planted that fall. With the first project, all agreed that if we actually had to depend solely on local supplies, there would not be enough food for everyone. With that in mind, they went ahead and built their structure. For the last project, each student was assigned a vegetable and had to write a newsletter about it as if they were a farm and this was their featured product for sale. I left the college in 2010 to be able to address a larger community. The classes continue with my daughter Betsy Trice as the instructor. Betsy has put her own spin on the classes, but she still assigns the 100 Mile Food Plan. If all the grocery stores were to close on January 1, where would your food come from?Homeplace Earth

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home-hhf-2013There are two exciting events coming up in September that I want to tell you about. I’ll be at both of them as a speaker and in the Homeplace Earth booth. The 7th annual Heritage Harvest Festival will be held at Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia on September 6 and 7, 2013. The Mother Earth News Fair will be at Seven Springs Resort in Pennsylvania September 20-22.

The Heritage Harvest Festival is hosted by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in partnership with Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. On Friday September 6 all the activities take place at the LEED-certified Visitors Center. On Saturday September 7 the action is at the Visitors Center and up on the mountain on the grounds surrounding Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. Jefferson was a champion for small farmers and for innovative ways. What an appropriate place for such a celebration!

At the Heritage Harvest Festival you will have an opportunity to learn about many things, listen to some great music, and mingle with like-minded folks. There will be workshops and presentations on growing food, fermentation, seed saving, homestead animals, and other topics of interest for people seeking a more sustainable lifestyle.  Some of the authors who will be speaking include Pam Dawling, Patricia Foreman, Ira Wallace, Harvey Ussery, and Barbara Pleasant. The title of my presentation both days is Grow a Sustainable Diet. There is a seed swap that you can participate in even if you don’t bring seeds to swap. One of the varieties of cowpeas that I grow originally came from there one year. There will be booths from vendors and organizations. Look for the Homeplace Earth booth in the large Master Gardeners tent.

MENFairLogoThis is the fourth year for the Mother Earth News Fair in Pennsylvania. In 2013 Mother Earth News has also held a fair in Puyallup, Washington in June and will hold one in Lawrence, Kansas in October. You will find workshops and presentations on animal husbandry, green building, modern homesteading, natural health, nature and community, organic gardening, real food, and renewable energy. My presentations will be on Grow a Sustainable Diet and Solar Food Drying. Some of the presenters are authors of books from New Society Publishers, Storey Publishing, Timber Press, and Chelsea Green. There are many more presenters who, although not authors, have interesting ideas to share. You will find vendors here, of course, giving you an opportunity to see products you may only have read about and to talk with people who know about them. The Homeplace Earth booth is #2209. When I’m not speaking, that’s where I’ll be.

There will be thousands of people at both of these events. If you are planning to attend either one, and need lodging, it would be wise to make your reservations now. It is exciting for people like me, who are presenting, to meet so many people eager to hear what we have to say. Likewise, it is exciting for the people who attend to have the opportunity to meet so many people all in one place who they may have only read about. Yes, you can read the books and blogs and watch YouTube videos for hours, but actually seeing someone in person talking about what they do is inspiring. You can really connect with their passion when you attend their presentation or talk with them in their booth.

Most people I know are watching their pocketbook and trying not to spend more money than they have to these days, and there is a cost to these events. Considering how much you could learn in a weekend, however, these events are a bargain. If you feel the need to economize, pack a lunch. Check out the schedules ahead and plan your time carefully. You can pre-order tickets to the Mother Earth News Fair to save a few dollars.

Over the years I have learned so much from others by reading their books and magazine articles. I have valued the opportunities to meet them in person and hear them speak, adding another dimension to my learning. The diversity of ideas and people floating around at these events are something you don’t want to miss. See you there!Homeplace Earth

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trowels in old mailbox

trowels in old mailbox

I am a long-time subscriber to Growing For Market, a monthly publication for folks selling produce and other farm products. Although 2001 was my last year to sell produce, I kept my subscription up-to-date because I was teaching market growing at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. I left that position in May 2010, but still maintain my subscription because I continue to find the information helpful. When I read ‘Lean’ Principles Applied to a Farm by Ben Hartman in the May 2013 issue, the wheels in my head couldn’t stop spinning, reminding me of all the things that I had experienced along that line that are helpful to me.

You could search “lean business principles” on the internet and come up with lots of background information. In his article, Hartman explains how taking stock of what was happening on his farm, in the light of “lean” principles, helped him have a more efficient and profitable business. I remember hearing Joel Salatin, many years ago, speak about the importance of regularly reading books about business if you are involved in the business of farming. I know–people don’t like to think of mixing business and the pleasure of farming and gardening–but this is a way of examining what you are doing and making it better. The end result, hopefully, is a more relaxed and enjoyable you.

I urge anyone wanting to sell produce from their farm someday to learn to grow as much as they can of their total food needs first, fine-tuning the timing and quantity to their family’s needs. With a good garden plan, you will know what to expect and when to expect it. You’ll also learn how much you can produce in the area you are working with. When you do decide to grow for more than your family, you will have an idea of how much area you will need, when things will be ready and how much you would have to sell. You can also anticipate if you will need to change methods or add equipment. Your garden plan is your business plan for the business of managing the food production for your household. My DVD Develop a Sustainable Vegetable Garden Plan can help you with that. You might also take a look at my blog posts Keeping Garden Records and Making a Garden Map.

peanut plants in wood flats

peanut plants in wood flats

The first suggestion in Hartman’s article is to get rid of anything not necessary for your operation. I remember when I was a market grower and made the decision to standardize my operation and only use wooden flats that I’d made from recycled wood to start seeds. I had been using a variety of recycled plastic containers to start seeds in. What I cleaned out of my shed filled half of my 8’ long pickup bed. My shed was cleaner and I loved using the wooden flats.

garden map and sickle storage

garden map and sickle storage

“A place for everything and everything in its place” is a common mantra for anyone becoming better organized. It’s also important for a lean operation, whether for your business or household. I keep my garden maps on a clipboard and have found that if I hang it up, rather than leave it around the house or on my desk, I can find it much easier. I keep it on a nail on the side of a cabinet that I store seeds and garden supplies in. Just below it I hang my sickle, so that I know where it is and for safety reasons because it is so sharp. When I get a garden shed built, the sickle will live there. Some people go so far as to outline their tools on the wall where they are hanging up. That way if something is missing, they readily know what it is and can begin looking for it. I have an old mailbox in my garden to hold trowels and small garden tools. As long as I make sure to put them back there, I can find them in an instant.

The article mentioned keeping work stations clean. Having a defined work station in the garden is something that is often late in coming. Gardeners are too used to picking, then hauling everything to the house. You will get some ideas for making a work station for cleaning your produce in your garden from my post Garden Washing Station. Having a garden washing station allows me to wash and prepare the produce and load it onto the screens that go directly into my solar dryers. That food never enters the house until it is ready to be put away in jars as dried food. Water, dirt and trimmings stay in the garden.

Having a standardize measurement to compare each part of your operation, in this case different crops, is the best way to know what is profitable (in $ or in time) and what is not. The basic measurement I use is pounds harvested per hundred square feet. To take that further would be to factor in the months it took to reach that harvest. If you are growing to fill canning jars, you might measure the harvest in how many quarts filled — or as a market grower, how much money you can make per hour of harvesting. Eventually you realize you can’t do everything and will make decisions about what to keep on with and what not to do anymore. In a market operation, the amount of money to be made comes in high on the priorities for making those decisions. In a household operation, matters of the heart might be higher on the priorities list than potential income.

Another suggestion in the article was to “level the load” — spread out tasks over time, so as not to be overwhelmed. If you are already overwhelmed with a family and a garden, just imagine how it would be if you added selling produce to the mix. Begin now to look at what you are doing in all aspects of your life to see how you could adjust your tasks for a more even flow of your personal energy. Rules we seem to establish for ourselves, for whatever reasons, are not so rigid that they can’t be changed.  Sometimes it is only our minds that need changing — how we choose to perceive things.

I’m sure you’ve heard the story of putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly bringing it to a boil. The frog stays there until it is cooked because it doesn’t realize what is happening. If you drop the frog into water that is already boiling, it will jump out. If the waters of your life are heating up, jump back now and take a look at what is going on and make some adjustments in what you are doing. You will be happier and so will your family and friends. Of course, everything doesn’t always go as planned and complications are bound to pop up. Somewhere I came across this saying — Life is not about weathering the storm, but dancing in the rain. I hope to find you dancing.Homeplace Earth

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MEN June-July 2013

Includes Best Staple Crops for Building Food Self-Sufficiency.

To truly feed yourself from your garden, you need to grow staple crops. The current issue (June/July 2013) of Mother Earth News contains an article that I wrote about the subject. You can read Best Staple Crops for Building Food Self-Sufficiency in the print magazine (where these things always look better) or online. The crops that I talk about are potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat, peanuts, winter squash,  dry beans, cabbage, collards, and kale. There are two charts in this article that you might keep for reference. One chart shows suggested varieties of these crops for each region of the continental U.S.  The other chart is “Crop Yields and Calorie Density”. The information posted there is based on my article that appeared in the October/November 2012 issue, with the addition of calories produced. If you don’t have that issue, you can read that article, A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency, online. The four charts in that article show suggested yields and the number of half-cup servings you might expect per pound of food as it comes from the garden. There are many crops listed, with separate charts for vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes. A fifth chart (online only) that is connected to that article shows yields and oil content of nuts and seeds. 

Includes A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency

Includes A Plan for Food Self-Sufficiency.

Including staple crops in your garden plan is one thing; finding the variety for each crop that will do well in your climate, that also fits well with your management schedule, is quite another. Besides depending on my own experience, I pored over catalogs and read variety descriptions and gardeners’ internet postings carefully to decide which varieties to include on the regional chart. Ira Wallace of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange was kind enough to go over the chart with me and make suggestions. It helped that we were both at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in early February and that our booths were right next to each other to afford us the time and opportunity for that discussion. In working on this staple crops article I met Eli Rogosa through email and telephone. She is the director of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy and provided the wheat varieties for the chart. You may have other varieties of these staple crops that do well for you in your garden. If so, I welcome you to post a comment with the crop variety and the general area where you are located. Your comments will be helpful to everyone. To my readers from outside these U.S. regions, I hope you take this opportunity to write a comment to share the varieties you are growing in your part of the world.

Building our personal and regional food supplies will take all of us sharing information and seeds as we develop a new food system independent of corporate America. If we are to succeed, we need to be active participants in the process. Even with the best information and seeds, the learning is in the doing. Get out in the garden and get growing. Your skills and knowledge will develop more each year. For the sake of us all, I wish you well.Homeplace Earth

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  • sweet potatoes with peanuts, cowpeas, and collards

    sweet potatoes with peanuts, cowpeas, and collards

This is the fourth year, of the past five, that I’ve eaten only what I’ve grown on the Fridays in Lent. I call these days Homegrown Fridays. I find that it deepens my understanding of what it takes to feed ourselves when I limit myself to only what I’ve grown. By this time of year stored food supplies are diminished and the garden is not quite awake. Our garden and food preservation program has evolved to depend on staple crops that can be stored, rather than canned or frozen. Although I did do a little canning this year, most of the things that couldn’t be stored properly to keep were dried in our solar food dryers.

In the photo you will see one of our Homegrown Friday dinners. It consisted of cowpeas, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and collards fresh from the garden. I often try new things on these days and that day I boiled peanuts. We (my husband and I) decided that eating them raw or roasted was our preference. I depended a lot on peanuts at lunchtime this year. Maybe it was because I seemed to be extra busy on these days. I’d grab some peanuts while sweet potatoes were cooking for lunch. My peanut harvest had picked up in 2012 when I planted some after Austrian winter peas in the rotation. The previous year I had peanuts in a bed following onions and garlic. At harvest time there was a definite difference in the yield in the onion half of the bed compared to the garlic half. Winter peas were the winter cover crop preceding the onion sets that had been planted in the spring. I was pretty sure that the increased peanut yield was due to the winter pea cover crop and not the onions. In 2012 I planted one bed of peanuts after winter peas and one in a bed that had had garlic, onions, and kale. The onions were multipliers and had been there with the garlic and kale since the previous fall. The yield following the Austrian winter peas was three times the one following the alliums and kale.

roasted carrots and beets with black walnut oil

roasted carrots and beets with black walnut oil

I had a great carrot harvest this winter. You can read about it in my post on Winter Carrots. I also had beets in the garden through the winter. The black walnuts yielded in 2012 so I shelled some and made some oil to put on the carrots and beets when I roasted them. Shelling the walnuts and pressing oil took a long time. I wouldn’t want to depend on that for my cooking oil. Frying locally grown bacon and saving the fat for cooking is a lot easier, but that wasn’t an option for these Fridays, since I hadn’t raised the pig. The roasted carrots and beets were delicious.

Soup made from dried ingredients is always on the menu during this time. One soup I made had no dried ingredients. It was made from carrots, butternut squash, and garlic. I cut them up and roasted them—no oil that day. Then I added water and simmered the cut up, roasted vegetables for about 20 minutes. It all went in the blender and resulted in what you see in this third picture. It was good, but a little bit of dairy added—sour cream, yogurt, or milk—would have been nice. Onions would have been a good addition, but I was down to my dried onions and they were in short supply.

butternut squash, carrot, and garlic soup

butternut squash, carrot, and garlic soup

Dried onions went into bean burgers using the same recipe as I did in 2012. Our staples for these meals from stored crops were sweet potatoes, peanuts, cowpeas, garlic, sorghum (for flour) and corn (for cornmeal). Fresh from the garden came collards, kale, carrots, and beets. I ground Bloody Butcher corn to make cornmeal mush for breakfast. We have chickens, so we have eggs. I use an egg or two occasionally on Homegrown Fridays, but not much because I don’t grow all the feed for the chickens. Since some of their nutrition comes from our property, an occasional egg is included. Dried tomatoes were important for sauce and other dried vegetables and herbs provided variety in our meals. I’ve already written about our new tea ingredient—Red Thai Roselle Hibiscus. With such a great honey harvest last year we could sweeten our cornmeal mush. Unfortunately, our two beehives didn’t make it through the winter, so I’ll be looking for new bees this year. We had mead made from our honey and grapes, and popcorn cooked without oil.

Observing Homegrown Fridays at this time of year makes me more determined to work out my vole problem with the potatoes to make sure I have enough to last through the winter. I’m also acutely aware that I need to up my wheat harvest. I had an interesting conversation with Eli Rogosa of the Heritage Wheat Conservancy in January while I was preparing an article for Mother Earth News that will appear in the June/July 2013 issue. Eli filled me in on heritage wheat and how to grow it. A chart with her recommended varieties for each region of the U.S. will appear in the article. A chart with crops I’ve mentioned here and varieties recommended for each region will also be included in the article. You will be interested in that article if you want to grow staple crops for your meals.

If you have done any of this, even in a small way, I welcome your comments. It is in sharing, both information and food, that we will move forward on this journey.  Homeplace Earth

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green and brown cotton bolls with spindleI usually write about food crops and soil building, but today I’m talking about fiber. I have begun to grow cotton and have learned to spin it using a spindle. Growing and using cotton is more than just a new craft for me. It adds diversity to my garden, which is important in a permaculture garden, and it helps me connect with factors beyond the garden. Plants are grown around the world for more things than food. If our gardens are to provide for us and if we are ever going to be free from corporate domination, we need to consider everything. From our plants we can get food, fuel, medicine, fiber, dyes, and so on. The movement to make available food grown in a sustainable manner to everyone is gaining momentum. What about obtaining our other needs from sustainable sources?       

When India was a colony of Britain, Indian cotton was shipped to Britain and the Indians had to buy it back as fabric. Gandhi promoted spinning as an act of independence. If the Indians spun and used their own cotton, they would be free of British control of that resource. In fact, Gandhi had a contest to develop a small spinning wheel that was portable enough that people could easily spin in public and the box charka was born. What better act of nonviolent protest but to spin cotton into thread and yarn in public! Unfortunately, today Indian cotton farmers face another peril with the introduction of GMO cotton seeds. In 2000 I heard Vandana Shiva speak about the number of suicides among cotton farmers in India. They had been convinced to grow GMO cotton by Monsanto and things were not going well. The problems continue to this day. Please take the time to listen to her tell you about it here. Shiva’s organization Navdanya goes into these areas with open pollinated seeds to help the farm families recover.

In doing some research for this post I was heartened to find that there are projects underway to promote the sustainable growing of cotton around the world and in the U.S. You can find more about that at http://www.sustainablecottons.com/. Where is the fabric coming from for your cotton clothes? Begin looking for a Fairtrade label for cotton. Also, consider how the cotton you buy gets its color. Cotton grows naturally in more colors than white. Pakucho is the brand name of cotton from a project developed in Peru to revive the growing of colored cotton on small farms.

green cotton fiber and seeds--BLOG

1 ounce green cotton fiber/seeds

In 2004 I came across an article in Spin-Off magazine about a woman who had grown the cotton that she then spun (with a spindle) and wove into fabric for a shirt. You can read “My Cotton Shirt” here. At least I knew that my idea of growing cotton and making a shirt out of it wasn’t totally crazy. I did grow some cotton around that time, but I didn’t know anyone who was spinning cotton and I was busy with other things, so the harvest was stored away. The only spinners I knew worked with wool and said that, since cotton had such a short fiber, it was really hard to spin. I figured that if spinning cotton was all I knew, spinning cotton would be my normal and that wouldn’t be a problem. After all, people have spun cotton down through the ages so I should be able to learn this. For the past two summers I grew both Erlene’s Green and Nankeen Brown cotton. The seeds came from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange the first year and I saved them after that. There are a lot of seeds in cotton. In one ounce of green cotton that I weighed, 75% of that ounce was 185 seeds and 25% of that ounce was fiber.   

I turned to Joan Ruane to learn to spin the fiber into yarn, once I found her video Cotton Spinning With the Takli. A takli spindle is what is recommended for cotton and that’s what I’ve been using. My husband gave me her kit with fiber, spindle, and DVD as a gift and it was a great way to get started. It was very slow going at first, though. I had to remind myself of how it was when I taught myself to knit—only this seemed harder. Clothos Handspinners, a group of wonderful folks into handspinning, came to my rescue. At the first meeting I attended in November, 2011, Judith spent time teaching me some basics and I will be forever grateful. Most of the members show up with their spinning wheels, but there are some, like me, who are using a spindle. Most work in wool, but not exclusively. I am not interested in getting a wheel right now because I want to master the spindle. Besides, I want to see how much skill and knowledge I can gain with the least money spent. Another DVD that has helped me is Spinning Cotton by Stephanie Gaustad. If my garden DVDs have helped people as much as these cotton DVDs have helped me, I will be happy. My goal is to make a vest out of my homegrown, homespun cotton, so I’ll be learning to weave next. After that comes the shirt.

seeds and green spun cotton from 1 ounce fiber/seeds--plus spindle

seeds and green spun cotton from 1 ounce fiber/seeds–plus spindle

Cotton needs hot weather and a lot of sun. The varieties I grow take 130 days to mature, but it differs by variety. Sea Island White  requires 160 days. Start the seeds and set out transplants as you would tomatoes. I’ve heard of growing cotton in containers and bringing it inside when the weather turns cold if you live in a marginal climate. In my 2012 garden I harvested 2.5 pounds of green fiber and seed in an 80 ft.² bed. That works out to about .75 lb. fiber per 100 ft.² (and lots of seeds). The brown cotton harvest was equivalent to one pound fiber per 100 ft². I had 7-12 bolls on each plant. Now that I’m paying attention, I believe that I can better that harvest. The U.S. average is 1.7 pounds fiber per 100 ft². You could begin with just a few plants among your flowers.

knitted homegrown cotton sampleGrowing colored cotton has been really interesting. After cotton has been spun, it needs to be boiled to set the twist. When you do that, the color deepens. The green spun cotton shown with the spindle and seeds is the same cotton that is shown as fiber in the other photo with the seeds. In the sample that I’ve knitted, the deep green and brown colors are the natural colors after boiling the spun fiber. The white is what I grew years ago with only an inkling of an idea that I might want to do this sometime.

In 2007 a new charka was introduced in India. This e-charka allows the spinner to produce electricity while he/she spins. A battery stores the electricity to operate an LED light and a transistor radio. Spinning cotton by hand is still important in rural areas of India and elsewhere and this new charka will increase the quality of life for these spinners. Gandhi would be proud. For now, at least, I’ll stick with my spindle. Growing cotton and learning to spin it is a wonderful project. Doing it with children gives them a great glimpse into history. There are so many things you could talk about with them when you are working with the plants and fiber. As you spin your own homegrown fiber, keep in mind all those farmers who are keeping the old skills and seeds alive. Every good thought we have goes out as a ripple that eventually connects us all.Homeplace Earth

For more thoughts on growing and spinning cotton see http://www.motherearthnews.com/permaculture/grow-spin-cotton.aspx#axzz2LRWabZ00

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