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lessons learned

the first metric -- arugula planted Jan. 11

Besides being a gardener and a foodie, I’m a writer and editor. That’s how I’ve made my living most of my life.  It’s been a satisfying–and often humbling–experience as I’ve learned how much I really don’t know. This is especially embarrassing as you try to market yourself as an “expert.” That’s how I came to learn the word, “metric.” I was editing a stuffy report for an insurance company, and tried to convince the author (obviously he knew about life insurance, but he didn’t know about words) that there was no such word as “metric.”  A little more investigation on my part showed that, yes, “metric” was indeed a word, and a pretty common one at that. Ubiquitous wouldn’t quite describe its use, but not far from it. I was humbled and educated. That’s a good thing. And thanks to the education, I have just the word to use for today’s post!

scientific rigor

Gardening and home food preservation, while relaxing and enjoyable, require a certain amount of rigor, as they would say in scientific circles. Yes, rigor is a good description because both gardening and food preservation are scientific (biology, chemistry, and a bit of physics) endeavors.  Beyond the science, there’s economics, and possibly some art and business rolled into the growth of a little seed. Giving that seed the best chance of performing well requires some discipline, and that’s where the metrics come in.

repeatability and reproducibility

My garden is a scientific experiment, some years successful and others not so much.  To learn from my successes and my failures, I need to have some sense of what factors contributed to said success/failure. If the green zebra and Brandywine tomatoes produced their little hearts out (like they did in 2010), how can I reproduce that event? Or can I reproduce that event? If the winterbor kale never got “off the ground,” why? Is this something unique to this growing year, related to this location, associated with the climate, or none of the above? And how do I really know how productive any of my garden charges are if I don’t really know how much they produced? The short answer to these question is “metrics”; actually documentation including metrics.

the garden log

now is a good time to begin your garden log

It’s still close enough to talk about New Years resolutions; one of mine is to document my gardening activities with greater rigor. While snow blankets the garden, and even my cold frames are covered with several feet of snow, now is the time to reflect on last year’s planting and harvest and glean lessons from the data.

I’ve started a few seeds already, and with my fresh resolve, I’ve dutifully recorded them in my garden log. There’s hope for this year’s log, but as you scroll down, you’ll see that there’s not as much to be learned from last year because I didn’t follow through for the whole season.  But it’s not totally useless. For example, I’m starting my tomatoes earlier than last year (early Jan. vs. late Feb.) remembering that they were still pitifully small when I planted them in late May.

seed starting in early January

 

home economics

The raspberries were incredible this year! Felt like I was making batch after batch after batch of red raspberry jam and chocolate red raspberry sauce. They were great gifts, and gift them I did! It was a joy to share the bounty of my garden with grateful friends and family. Folks have asked how many jars did I make. It wasn’t until a few days ago that I knew the answer to that question. I kept a notebook in the kitchen and made a quick, scribbly entry for each canning episode. This serves multiple purposes. It tells me how many jars I made, yes, but it also gives me documentation to hone each of the recipes. (Go back to the reproducibility concept.) As I tweak the formula for chocolate raspberry sauce, I need to know what ingredients  and process I used, and then change only one thing at a time.

 

red raspberry jam -- the tip of the iceberg

I deciphered these hasty scratchings and converted them to a legible canning log, which documents the production. The full log (not included here due to space restraints) includes a comments column that describes pertinent variables. The log documents what I had felt about the proliferous raspberries: 125 1/2 pint and 14 pint jars of jam and sauce. Not too shabby in terms of quantity; as for quality (most important) I’ve tweaked the sauce recipe to exactly the right formula.  We’re ready for 2011!

 

no longer just a post-holiday pick-me-up?

are we having fun yet? more tree than car to carry

I love the November/December holiday season! Ask Bob, he’ll confirm. After the fall harvest, I love the thought of an extended family gathered at my Thanksgiving table, followed by four straight weeks of holiday carols, holiday gatherings, thoughtful gift planning, maybe travel, maybe hosting kids and grandkids. My quest for the biggest tree that could unreasonably fit into my family room is legendary. Once my kids were grown and out of the house, and theoretically my motivation for holiday decoration gone, there was no decrease in my enjoyment of decorating, cooking, baking, eating, and making merry.

just getting it through the door was no small feat!

Yes, the December holidays are great. . . but then comes January and the potential for winter doldrums. Take heart! You could always count on opening your mailbox on January 2 and finding it filled with seed catalogs. Spring might be many months away, and the fizz of New Years’ champagne a fading memory, but now that you were armed with catalogs, you could do something! You could plan your summer garden and get ready to start some seedlings in a few weeks. Joy!

four-season harvest, or just jumping the gun?

On November 16, 2010, I strolled to my mailbox to find not one, but two 2011 seed catalogs. Yes, seed catalogs. I would expect the clothing, useless gift, and toy catalogs that clog my mail box and keep the USPS alive, but honestly, seed catalogs? Perhaps I’m not as enlightened agriculturally as I’d like to assume, and maybe this post will prove to be an embarrassment. You readers have heard me speak fondly of Eliot Coleman and other proponents of winter and four-season harvest, but even Coleman suggests that for winter harvest, you would have planted in the late summer or early fall. While I do recognize that there are folks in warmer climes than Connecticut; folks who could do something with seed catalogs,  I do believe that the seed growers have become impatient, like so many of us, and are opening the season prematurely.

now is the time

The tree is on the mulching pile at the town dump and the holiday decorations are tucked away in plastic bins in the basement. The sky is a bleak, steel-gray; temperatures cold enough to make you want to stay inside; and upwards to a foot and a half of snow in the forecast. This is the time that you need the promise of spring and summer crops delivered to your door. This is the moment when your spirits need buoying, and nothing can do that like a four-color spread of tomatoes, peppers, or beans in your favorite seed catalog. Not in November when there’s not enough time to sift them out of the mail. Not in November when they will be in a losing competition with the winter holidays. No, not in November; now is the moment!

basement beauty

 

getting ready to start some summer seedlings and kitchen herbs

 

Yes, poised to plant some hope! Working with potting soil on my basement work table helps to fill the void of not digging in the soil outside. Once filled, these self-watering planters will graduate to the window seats in the family room.  Not exactly a Martha Stewart touch, but works for me.

My mid-winter garden endeavors (besides what I’m harvesting from the cold frames — more on that tomorrow) take a two-pronged approach. I’m going to start some tomato, beet, and herb plants using seeds that were left over from last year. I’ve had pretty good success with “old” seeds, and with the price of good, organic seeds, it’s worth testing their shelf life.  Between stretching a couple of years out of purchased seeds and beginning to save my own, I’m able to reduce my costs for seeds.

But that won’t stop me from pulling up next to the wood stove with my favorite catalogs — or, more realistically, with my laptop and WiFi connection — and begin to imagine a the joy of planting, the pride of nurturing, and the immense satisfaction of harvesting!

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