Fragile systems and garden notes

One night late last week, I woke up in the middle of the night which is hardly unusual. What was unusual was a very strong smell that I couldn’t place. The heat and humidity kept me awake that night as did the offensive smell. Eventually I realized that it was coming from the back of the fridge (the melted ice cream in the freezer was a pretty good clue something was amiss).  I knew from prior experience that the relay on the compressor had burned out and that the fridge was likely toast. When the repairman came later that morning, his diagnosis of the problem was the same as mine and so we were immediately without a fridge in the July heat. Fortunately, I had put off my grocery run that week so there was comparatively little in the fridge. We had also kept some big bags of ice in the freezer from when Tropical Storm Sandy hit and knocked out our power last year. Despite these positives, we were faced with the fragility of our household systems that we depend on so much.  In this case, all our capacity to store fresh perishable food was instantly taken away. Putting all our proverbial eggs in one basket proves to be problematic at times and yet we often find ourselves as a society doing it all the time with important things such as our food production, biological “wastes” processing, and garbage removal.

Permaculture design seeks to mitigate system fragility by designing redundancies into the household (or community, agricultural, or societal) system and the cultivated ecology that supports it (them). Living in a rented home certainly creates some opportunities to get really creative with things to design within the limits imposed by the property owners, neighbors, or even municipal regulations. I am working within those limits now in this home. For instance, in home owned by me the kitchen scrap compost pile would be located in place close to both the kitchen exit and the garden to minimize the energy (work) needed to deposit the scraps into the pile and then later retrieve the finished compost for use in the garden. Our present home limits my ability to do this so I put a compost pile in the only place available to me and covered it with a tarp. It’s better for me to walk a little extra  than to put the veggie scraps in the garbage.

The question of perishable food storage can also be addressed in many ways other than just getting a fridge and freezer. One of the best ways is to plant a garden so that food can be grabbed, fresh and full of nutrition when it is needed. That is REAL fast food. When there is an abundance of veggies and fruits to harvest (and there will be) then other strategies can be used to preserve them without refrigeration such as canning and fermenting. Today, I made some fermented cabbage with homemade whey, real salt, and organic curry powder.  One cabbage made almost 1.5 quarts of sauerkraut. Tomorrow I plan to make a second batch using whey, fresh jalapenos from my garden, green onions, and powdered ginger. I just experiment with flavor and spice combinations to create truly healthful, flavorful  fermented veggies. So far so good–except that one batch of beets!

Buying whole grains in bulk too is a good way to have food without needing to refrigerate it. I like to put ours in empty jars from previous items like spaghetti sauce or salsa that way I can reuse both the jar and the bulk bag that I got from the co-op grocery store I shop at. I’ll re-suse the plastic produce/bulk bags until they get holes in them and then take them to be recycled. I recently stopped buying quinoa when I read that demand for it in the U.S. and Europe was making it too expensive for people in Bolivia and Peru, whose staple grain it is,  to buy it. Instead of quinoa, now I buy a couple pounds of organic rice, millet, beans, lentils or buckwheat during most trips to the co-op which helps reduce the number of trips and keeps my larder well stocked while adding great diversity to our diets!


The heat is well and truly here now. I had no idea New England was this hot and muggy in the summer. Growing up in Texas without A/C, one could be forgiven for thinking that Texas has the market cornered on HOT.  Alas, no…The garden however seems to be doing pretty well in spite of the heat and humidity. New appearances are being made seemingly on a daily basis as the season progresses. There are now tiny little squashes, cukes, and tomatoes scattered throughout the beds as well as the first flushes of green beans. There were some really large sweet annie plants that volunteered in the garden. I cut them down to ground level to give the aforementioned veggies some more space. Leaving the roots in the soil keeps the soil in place and allows everything below the ground that dies off to break down where it is thus keeping those nutrients in the garden.

I did make a mistake with my beans  by failing to write down which beds I planted which types of beans in. Some of the beans are for eating fresh like green beans and some of them are for drying like pinto beans. The problem is that they look an awful lot alike as they grow making it difficult to know which bean is which. I’ve at least narrowed down which ones are string-less and will eat those fresh. Hopefully I’ll end up with a good amount of dry beans anyway. I do know that next year, I’ll be a lot more careful about knowing for sure where I have planted different beans. Learning and growing–c’est la vie!

A  garden experiment that worked well was the planting of buckwheat as a cover crop. I chose it because it grows very quickly thus protects the soil as new seeds germinate. It also makes a good mulch. I let mine go completely to seed in some beds and only to flower in others depending on how tall the plants around it were. Either way, I cut rather than pulled the buckwheat and then placed the stalks around other plants as mulch. The buckwheat exemplifies the concept of ‘stacking functions’ that permaculturist use. Simply put, it means getting as many uses out of a design element (in this case buckwheat) as one can rather than just designing a system with many elements with only a single function. Hopefully, I’ll continue to have more successes in the garden and in finding ways to stack functions.


One of my mystery beans.


The first tomato!


The garden from above on 7/17/13 after clearing out the poke and sweet annie.





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