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Shifting Seasons: The Autumn Garden

November 15, 2011

It’s early November, and while the East Coast has already had its hammering of frost and snow the West Coast has remained relatively warm, with a few final gasps of summer extending all the way into October.  The last of the heat has finally broken now, and with it has come the time to clear the gardens of worn-out hot weather plants to and prepare the garden beds for winter.

I live in what is probably a fairly typical suburban plot for my area: a four-bedroom house built in the early sixties, only around 1250 square feet total, and on perhaps an eighth of an acre of land (if that much).  As much as I love books like The Backyard Homestead, the advice they give tends to lean towards the assumption that people are on a quarter acre or more and can therefore convert it to produce enough food to sustain their household.  At our size we don’t come anywhere close to achieving total food self-sufficiency, but we make up for it through the use of intensive gardening methods and space-saving approaches to growing food, such as growing them vertically on trellises and in tubs.  Several of these methods are given here, and will hopefully provide inspiration to anyone else on a tiny urban or surburban plot without a whole lot of growing space.  Even a small backyard can support a garden and follow the changing of the seasons.

The tomato plants had already come out due to hungry squirrels attacking the green fruits still on the vine, but the potatoes were still in place and needed to come out first.

Potato PlantsPotato plants at the end of summer

Because we have a limited amount of garden beds, we had been growing the potatoes in collapsible plastic canvas bags designed specifically for potatoes – they have little flaps in the sides so you can pull out new potatoes without digging up the whole mess.  They worked well enough because of the way potatoes grow.  You plant a few seed potato pieces (or in our case, tiny whole potatoes from last year’s crop, stored overwinter in the refrigerator) at the bottom of each in six inches of potting soil, and add more and more soil all the way to the top as the potato plants strain towards the sun to encourage the production of more potatoes.  That said, at about ten gallons each they are probably too small to get more than a very limited harvest out of each.  More worrying, we encountered the same issue with them that we have had with hanging planters made of the same material: namely that the tarplike plastic canvas breaks down very quickly upon exposure to both sunlight and water, and the sides weaken very rapidly.  In others, the colors have also leached quickly out of them, making me worry about where exactly they leached to since we generally use them to grow food plants.

Potatoes fresh from the soilOnce the vines were out, the soil was loosened gently with a hand fork.  Potatoes were removed and placed in a nearby bowl, and the loose soil could then be turned out into a large wheelbarrow.  This had the added advantage of letting us find any escaped potatoes still in the soil.

This year we had a long growing season for potatoes, so they produced better than in previous years, probably about four or five pounds of yukon gold potatoes ranging in size from a very few large individuals to marble-sized tubers.  Our best guess is that they were limited by the small size of the potato bins, and next year we will be trying larger bins made of hardier material, with thirty gallons a recommended size for potato growing.

As we turned over the soil, more than just potatoes came up: freeloaders like a curled-up cutworm, This year's potato harvestthe flattened shell of a native snail, a horde of ants irate about having their home upended by a busily-digging garden ape, and something I initially took to be a potato until I managed to clean the dirt off it.  Too large to be a mouse skull, too long and low to be a squirrel.  Roof rats have been a constant problem for us in the fruit trees all summer, where they clamber up to get at the ripening apples and pears, and one such tree overhangs the potato bins – but hell if I knew where the rest of the rat had gone.

The soil used to grow potatoes really shouldn’t be used for growing them again, as they are susceptible to fungal diseases that overwinter in the spent soil.  They don’t bother other plants, however, and so the soil from the bags was emptied onto the nearby bed to prepare it for planting.

The rat skull

A very unusual potato.

Climbing PeasPoles prepared for climbing peas

The bed underneath the apple tree has long since been stripped of its dried-out cornstalks and dying melon vines.  Because the crops that grew there in the summer were largely heavy feeders, they are being replaced by at the moment by peas, which will return nitrogen to the soil.

Three tall wooden stakes had been driven into the soil after the green beans that had leaned on them for support all summer had been pulled and composted, but before peas can be grown on them they will need a new webbing of twine to give the plants something to clamber.  Climbing plants can be grown on metal or wooden trellises, but pole-and-string ones work just as well and are easy to take down.  When the plants are exhausted, the strings are cut and theNails are used as anchors for twine. whole mess – beans, strings, and all – tossed into the composting bin for recycling.  Since we use natural fibers for the twine, they compost just as well as the plants if the tempratures are high enough.  Our bins do not typically get hot enough for these tough natural fibers, so we usually add them to the city compost bin, which can handle materials that require high temperatures.

The poles have a few nails driven into them.  These are anchor points around which the strings are firmly tied and to hold them in place at the top and bottom of the poles, with additional anchorage being added by the use of a staple gun (although more nails could easily be added).  The strings are woven around the poles as shown here, with perhaps half a hand’s spacing between the strings as they climb up the poles, zigzagging up the poles at a low angle to ensure that they aren’t spread too far for the vines to be able to reach.

Once the poles were strung, we could dump the potato soil inA staple gun provides additional anchorage and turn it into the soil to prepare for winter planting.  This needed to wait until after the poles were strung since that requires us to walk both in and out of the beds, and part of the A (mostly) finished trellispurpose of turning the beds is to loosen the compacted soil so that the plants will be able to reach deep with their roots.  This is a particular issue here in the Santa Clara Valley, where most of the soils are alluvial in origin and contain a very sticky, clumping clay, montmorillionite.  The method we used for spreading the potting soil is similar to the way we spread fresh compost across the beds in early spring, after our compost bins (the black bins in the background with the wooden lids) have had six months to work on the garden plants, kitchen scraps, grass clippings, and other things they were stuffed full with the previous summer.

Spreading a wheelbarrow of potato soilSpreading soil with a bow rakeSingle-digging to turn over the bed

Spread the fresh soil or compost relatively evenly across the bed – a metal bow rake works well here – and then take a shovel to start turning the soil underneath it, flipping it over.  It doesn’t matter if the soil is not immediately even, as it will be evened out once the entire bed is turned.  Normal turnover goes one shovel’s length deep (single-digging), but if the bed has not been fully turned over in a long time you may need to go down two shovels’ worth (double-digging) to ensure that the deeper soil is not too heavily compacted.  Once the entire bed has been turned, the bow rake is used to even out the soil and eliminate any remaining clumps.

Pea seedlings growing in a homemade flatPlants go in once the soil is prepared.  We grow most of ours from seed in homemade wooden flats filled with soil; while we’ve tried various seed-starter pots, everything from the little expanding peat pots to biodegradeable cardboard and coconut husk, enerally we find that the seedlings can’t break out of the initial pot and either end up with a tiny pot wrapped around the base of a much larger plant (like this year’s zucchini) or the seedlings strangle once they reach a certain size.  Here you can see one of the starter flats with shelling peas growing in it.

The flats can be transported (with difficulty, if they’re this big!) or the individual seedlings carefully worked out by hand and moved to their new planting spot.  Wwe ended up doing it the hard way and going with the former approach.  According to the seed packets they should be planted two inches apart if planted straight into the ground, so they were planted zig-zag on either side of the trellis to ensure that they would be far enough apart to grow well.

Arrangement of planted pea seedlings

Boysenberry Plant

The boysenberry after trimmingWe had started a boysenberry in a pot from a small, innocent-looking twig bought from a garden store in bare-root season two years ago, and although it hasn’t produced many berries yet it’s gotten huge!  Boysenberries are a cane berry, like blackberries and raspberries, and were produced as a particular hybrid of raspberries and native West Coast blackberries, although its exact lineage is somewhat obscure (as described here).  The flavor is sweet like a raspberry, but has a bite like a blackberry.  Too delicate to find for sale anywhere, it’s one of Mark’s favorite berry flavors and seemed an ideal breed to try growing at home.

It’s done well enough for having grown in a pot, although it could use a larger one.  It will get one after the winter, when we’re back in the bare-root season most favorable for transplanting rose bushes and berry vines.  For now, we determined it was time to trim it back and to try and get it under control on a single wooden trellis that we had been using earlier in the summer for a Malabar spinach – a climbing, vining type of green vegetable.  It had previously been growing espalier-style on long strings run sideways across the fence.

Normally when cutting back a cane berry, only the older growth from previous years is trimmed.  Since we were trying to retrain this one, most of it was clipped to encourage more vertical growth – and to get it out of the nooks and crannies between the fenceboards where it had been attempting to stage a coup of the neighbor’s backyard.

This, incidentally, is why we’re not planting it in the ground.

The Staff of Life: Basic Bread

November 11, 2011

Baking bread can seem like an arcane and difficult process, to the point at which bread machines have become popular in upscale households and most people pay someone else to make it for them.  Although flour is still a household staple, available in most grocery stores, most of the flour used at home has been used to bake cookies since 1972 1 .  Even so, we eat far less bread than our forefathers and even than we did in my parents’ lifetime – bread consumption hit its peak in 1963 (9 billion pounds) and has been declining ever since (5.6 billion pounds in 1990).  This isn’t a shift to more whole-grain eating habits; even with the drop in overall bread consumption, white bread outsells variety breads such as ryes, wheats, and pumpernickels by more than five to one 1 .  Frankly, we just don’t eat a lot of bread, and the recent Atkins craze tarnished the image of this once-staple food still further.

That said, there was an interesting side effect to the Atkins fad, at least for me.  First off was the realization that the food pyramid I’d grown up on – and probably a lot of you have as well – is a load of crap, governed more by politics than sound nutritional science thanks to the ever-frenetic activity of lobbyists for various food industries (this is why they generally don’t tell you to eat less of anything, and have to settle for the more hazy phrase “moderate your intake”)2.  Hell, they just overhauled it recently for the more evenly-balanced MyPlate image, which still emphasizes grains and vegetables but not nearly as much as the previous pyramid.  The second was the realization that the bread I’d been eating for years is also crap.  Mark Furstenburg, an artisan baker quoted in Food Matters, explained how most bread is produced:

Bread is made from the simplest imaginable ingredients: flour, yeast, water, and salt.  The difference between good bread and bad bread is the most expensive ingredient – time.  What the big bakeries do is to replace time with stabilizers, dough softeners, preservatives, and other chemicals so the bread develops quickly and evenly and stays on a supermarket shelf looking and feeling fresh – even if it isn’t.  Bakers like me put additions into bread – whole wheat flour and rye, raisins or currents, herbs or olive oil – only for flavor.  Only for flavor – not to replace time 2 .

Even the flour is often treated with chemical additives -bleaching agents such as chlorine compounds, peroxides and bromates -to turn the originally yellow-brown wheat flour the white it would normally oxidize to naturally as it ages.  As noted by Marion Nestle, these agents are unlikely to remain behind in the flour since they evaporate or become inactive during storage or baking, but they can make the bread taste distinctly chemical2 .

These changes did not come without their price.  Breadmaking is traditionally a slow process, with a fermentation step (which is present in the recipe that follows) either allowed to proceed directly or indirectly through the introduction of some older, longer-fermenting dough known as the “sponge.”  If dough is left to ferment in this way for six hours instead of the thirty minutes seen in industrial methods, about 80% of a possibly carcinogenic substance called acrylamide (found in bread crusts) is removed from the dough, and the highest levels of B vitamins remain behind.  Longer-fermenting dough also keeps longer, so breads produced quickly require additional preservatives to keep them from going stale in under a week.  Cutting the fermentation process also required the introduction of much higher levels of yeast in modern breads than were found traditionally, and for the development a different strain of yeast than was traditionally used.  It is possible that these changes are related to an increasing intolerance for yeast and the observed difficulty in certain segments of the population to digest modern – but not traditionally-produced – breads3 .

So modern breads, at least in the United States and U.K., are generally not very good.  They also tend to be very front-loaded in simple sugars, which is not necessarily as noticeable to the rest of the population as it is to me; I’m not diabetic, don’t appear to have any actual glycemic issues after multiple blood tests, but still have to be very careful about the glycemic index or GI of foods that I eat.  At home I used to never eat bread much because of its “high and crash” nature, but spending time in Ecuador where breads seem to be made with a lot less sugar (and probably more time) reintroduced me to the idea of being able to eat a continental breakfast and not wanting to fall over midway through the morning.

The key to the process, as you might have guessed, is time.  There’s not a lot of active hands-on time spent making bread, but it does need to spend a lot of time sitting in the kitchen, doing its thing.

No-Knead Dutch Oven Bread

(Recipe taken from Mother Earth News, seen here)

Ingredients for making no-knead bread

The original recipe for this bread makes a 1-pound loaf, but considering how fast it always disappears around here I make a 2-pound loaf, which is what you see below.   I also use a combination of 4 1/2 cups white flour and 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour.  Increasing the whole wheat flour content to a 1:3 ratio makes a much heavier, but still good and hearty, wheat loaf.

1/2 tsp active dry yeast
3 cups warm water
6 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting. You may use white, whole wheat or a combination of the two.
3 tsp salt
Cornmeal or wheat bran for dusting

  • In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in water. Add the flour and salt, stirring until blended. The dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let the dough rest at least 8 hours, preferably 12 to 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.
  • The dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it. Sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let it rest for about 15 minutes.
  • Using just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the work surface or to your fingers, gently shape it into a ball. Generously coat a clean dish towel with flour, wheat bran or cornmeal. Put the seam side of the dough down on the towel and dust with more flour, bran or cornmeal. Cover with another towel and let rise for about 1 to 2 hours. When it’s ready, the dough will have doubled in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.
  • At least 20 minutes before the dough is ready, heat oven to 475 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex or ceramic) in the oven as it heats. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from the oven and lift off the lid. Slide your hand under the towel and turn the dough over into the pot, seam side up. The dough will lose its shape a bit in the process, but that’s OK. Give the pan a firm shake or two to help distribute the dough evenly, but don’t worry if it’s not perfect; it will straighten out as it bakes.
  • Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake another 15 to 20 minutes, until the loaf is beautifully browned. Remove the bread from the Dutch oven and let it cool on a rack for at least 1 hour before slicing.


  1. Staten, V.  1993.  Can You Trust a Tomato in January?  The Hidden Life of Groceries and Other Secrets of the Supermarket Revealed at Last.  New York: Simon & Schuster.
  2. Nestle, M.  2006.  What to Eat.  New York: North Point Press.
  3. Whitley, A. 2009.  Bread Matters: The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own. Kansas City, Missouri: Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Planting the Seed

November 10, 2011

We Americans have a very strange relationship with our food.

In some aspects this is not news.  Fad diets come and go over the years, everything from the grapefruit diet to the South Beach diet to the Paleo diet to the Atkins diet, and those who roll their eyes at the latest and greatest fad might be surprised to realize that these types of diets have been appearing and disappearing in our culture for almost two hundred years.

The goal of these diets has not always been health, however.  For example, Sylvester Graham’s special vegan diet (and namesake crackers) was designed to kill the libido since it was a source of sin5.    But this in and of itself is not entirely surprising, for we share a cultural viewpoint of food in a very unusual way.  Food is viewed either as a virtue to be touted or a vice to be kept under tight control, to the point where our opinions of other people is subconsciously colored by the types of food that they eat.

Fat has been a secular sin since the nineteenth century, as religious discipline began to decline and restraint in eating (and its physical manifestation of slenderness) took on the same cultural function in its place.  Fat could not be hidden as other sins could, and as such the foods associated with fatness, the “bad” foods, became imbued with the same moral judgements and have remained so today.  This can be seen in the language used to describe calorie-rich foods such as chocolate cake, which we frequently describe with language such as “sinful” and “decadent;” God knows I’ve done this myself, and you’ve probably done the same.  More tellingly, when students are shown images of their peers in psychological experiments, they will rank them as more attractive and likeable if they are described as eating “good” foods such as fruit or chicken than donuts or french fries – even if the images are exactly the same in both experiments2.

The attribution of virtue goes the other way as well in our relationship with food.  Asian-style cooking is viewed as a healthy, modern way to cook these days, but it was not so popular when such immigrants were new and still viewed with suspicion.  The same was true for Italians and their “obviously” unhealthy, heavily-flavored cooking were early in the twentieth century (Pillsbury 1998).  Class has a great deal to do with our attribution of food virtue; upper- to middle-class people will happily rail against how unhealthy McDonald’s is while sipping a flavored coffee drink from Starbucks with a fat and calorie count that would put a Big Mac to shame2.  This is particularly salient with the rise of the organic and local food movements, the followers of which are more likely to correspond to these same socioeconomic strata.  Not only are they more able to afford to spend more money per calorie than those with less available income, but even the availability of such foods is likely to track income levels; fresh produce is far more likely to be available in middle-class than working-class neighborhoods (where those of appropriate status can buy it), and, if it is available in lower income areas, it will actually be more expensive1.

There’s a saying that fish don’t notice the water because it is all around them.  Our interactions with food nowadays follow this same pattern.  We search for one-step quick fixes to complex, multifaceted issues in our food supply such as eating local or eating organic, while similarly overlooking the very deep cultural impulses that create the problem in the first place – the relentless push for cheaper food, more food, more meat, and the stratification of food across class lines that we similarly like to pretend don’t exist.  In many ways this blog is meant to be a reaction to this reductionist viewpoint on food, from the point of view of someone who grew up just as the food system was really undergoing its transformation into its modern form: heavy consolidation of food production and processing; ever-increasing quantities of meat available; the elimination of seasonal food; the sharp drops in price for high-calorie ingredients such as fats and starches; and changes in the surrounding culture – largely driven by the food industry – that make all-day eating a culturally acceptable affair where once it wasn’t 4.  Dear God, no wonder everyone’s crowing about an obesity epidemic these days.  But while it is easy enough to point fingers and proclaim that we eat terribly due to a lack of willpower, or claim that shifting our food production methods over to more local or organic means will fix the problem, the reality is that solutions will need to be as varied and multifaceted as the problems that exist, and they can’t get away with ignoring the surrounding culture that created them.

Suburbivore is meant to talk about these larger issues while simultaneously looking at the much smaller, day-to-day things that individuals can do to change some of their relationship with food: actually cooking it at home, gardening, home preservation, and the like.  Although urban homesteading is a new movement, these aren’t exactly new skills.  I’ve always grown up in a house that had a garden, trees that produced more fruit than we could possibly eat as a family, and a mother that canned food for the winter (and is now teaching me to do the same).  At the same time we’ll also look at the biological and scientific side of food: why do plants fruit for us to eat it?  Why does milk exist, or for that matter, eggs?  How does growing corn in Kansas harm the fisheries of Louisiana?  And so on.

Food has long been a passion of mine, and it kills me that we spend so much time fretting about it in general rather than actually enjoying it.  With luck, perhaps this blog will ease a bit of that discomfort, and provide a path for others to a more even-handed relationship with food.


  1. Beaulac , J., E. Kristjansson and S. Cummins.  2009.  A Systematic Review of Food Deserts, 1966-2007. Preventing Chronic Disease 6 (3): Accessed  11/14/2010.
  2. Glassner, B.  2007.  The Gospel of Food: Why We Should Stop Worrying and Enjoy What We Eat.  New York: Harper Collins.
  3. Pillsbury, R.  1998.  No Foreign Food: The American Diet in Time and Place.  Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  4. Roberts, P.   2008.   The End of Food.  New York: Houghton Miffin Harcourt.
  5. Stearns, P.N.  2002.  Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West.  New York: New York University Press.