Unearthing your food: They say you are what you eat, so learn ways to grow your own. | Kitsap Week

Unearthing your food - Erin Jennings
Unearthing your food
— image credit: Erin Jennings

Growing your own food takes time and planning, but the fulfillment of seeing your hard work come to fruition is well worth the extra effort. Kitsap residents share their secrets to cultivating their own nourishment.

Lucky are those who live on land with good sun, for they can garden well. For those without a sizable lot, or who live in deep shade, fear not. You have gardening options too.

When Dennis Fisher and Cynthia Shick moved from acreage to a convenient in-town condo, they didn’t want to give up their gardening hobby. They found solace in a community garden on Bainbridge Island.

Johnson Farms, which is owned by the city, contains a plot for community gardens. With good sun, abundant water and friendly fellow participants, Fisher and Shick have transitioned nicely to communal gardening.

Shick said it’s rewarding to visit the garden in prime growing season and see the plants flourish. “There’s a primal satisfaction in harvesting food, preparing and sharing it too,” she said. “It’s an experience gardeners have that I would wish on everybody.”

Walking around the garden patch, it’s easy to see gardeners’ personalities shine through their plots. Some gardens are tidy and precise.  Others have a more whimsical feel with twig trellises and garden art. Even on a cold February day, signs of growth were evident by garlic shoots and a pile of recently unearthed carrots.

Fisher recommends planting a wide variety of crops, in hopes of seeing some of them produce. He suggests planting expensive grocery store items such as herbs. But an inexpensive package of seeds, or even a small herb plant, can give you a high return.

Fisher said last summer was a tough one for gardeners. It was too wet and cold. His prediction for this summer? “I don’t predict,” he said. “I hope. There is no way to know.”

Shick would like to see more community gardens in higher-density areas. They moved into town to be able to walk to shops and services and it would be nice to walk  to her community garden as well. Instead, they make a five-mile round trip to the garden. “Good models that plan for density should rightfully include space for community gardens,” Shick said.

In the fall of 2008, Anita Rockefeller and her husband, state Sen. Phil Rockefeller, were working in their yard. They were discussing the crumbling stock market and what the immediate future would hold. Their discussion led to how more people would need support and nourishment and how food banks would be in high demand.

They came to realize their land could benefit more than just the two of them.

“Almost instantaneously we thought, ‘We should grow food’,” said Anita Rockefeller. Anita spearheaded the idea and turned more than one-third of an acre into 16 garden plots, called Rock Farm Community Gardens. Two plots are planted and managed by Helpline House on Bainbridge Island. The Rockefellers have two plots of their own, growing food for themselves but donating the majority to Helpline House as well. Other garden participants do a combination of growing for themselves, and donating crops as well.

During the first season, 600 pounds of fresh produce was contributed to Helpline House. The second season saw the amount almost double.

The gardeners have grown a wide variety of produce such as kale, peas, strawberries and spinach. Anita enjoys seeing the interactions between the participants. People lending a hand and sharing gardening tips gives the garden a welcoming feel.

“Everyone gains an appreciation on what it means to be a farmer,” she said. “You can do everything “right” but if it’s cold or wet, you can’t make it hotter and you can’t take away water.”

Anita said her motivation to open her land to others came from wanting to grow fresh food for the food bank, give people the experience of growing their own food (that it doesn’t have to come wrapped in cellophane) and to provide a sense of community; something that is often missing in our hectic lives.

If others in Kitsap County are thinking of doing a similar project, Anita recommends the land be fenced (if deer are a problem), that there is a good supply and good access to water and that the coordinator has good organizational skills. It’s important to think things through said Anita. Where will people park? Where will the hoses be? What are the rules?

“It’s a labor of love, but people seem to really love being in the garden,” she said.

Certified professional horticulturist, Gayle Larson, of Dancing Raven Design, helps clients plan edible gardens. Her knowledge and techniques can apply to container gardening as well.

When planning a container garden, Larson said that it’s important to choose a location that receives enough sunlight. Most vegetables need at least six hours of direct sunlight daily to produce well. Your ideal location will also be out of the wind.

Make sure to chose containers with plenty of space for the plants’ roots. Unfortunately, when choosing the type of container, there is no perfect pot. According to Larson, plastic containers heat up quickly and retain moisture, but aren’t biodegradable. Terracotta and wood containers dry out more quickly than plastic, but stay cooler.  Glazed pottery stays cooler, but doesn’t dry out as quickly.

Depending on the material you choose, you should be aware of wet or dry conditions and water accordingly.
To test if you need to water, Larson suggests sticking your finger into the top inch of soil. If it’s dry, you need to water. Keep in mind the soil should be moist, but not soggy. Also, it’s important to water the soil directly and keep the water off the leaves.

A good quality potting soil is imperative to producing good results. Don’t use garden soil dug up from your yard, or pure compost. Also, using organic fertilizer will help you get high-yielding plants.
As far as what to plant, Larson said that herbs are perfect for containers. Basil, parsley and chives like similar conditions and do well together.

Larson said salad greens are a good crop to grow in containers. They are easy to grow and don’t need a lot of root space. Plus, they can tolerate a bit of shade.

“Mix them with radishes and green onions for a complete salad in a pot,” she said.

Although we are still in the midst of winter, you can begin drawing plans for your garden now. Think about what you’d wish to grow and the space required. Do all your planning now, so when the sun decides to stick around, you can get to planting.

Think about taking your garden-planning a step further. This year, what could you harvest and preserve?

Master Canner Carrie West has been canning for 30 years. She enjoys having flavorful foods throughout the year, not just in the summer.

West teaches canning classes through the Bainbridge Island Parks Department.

She stressed that when canning, it’s really important to follow tested recipes. Tested recipes mean that the ingredients have the proper pH and acid content in order for it to be safe. Botulism is common in our soils and it’s imperative to prepare your food correctly to keep out harmful bacteria.

Canning jars have a life expectancy of 13 years and West recommends inspecting the jars for cracks and other impurities before using them. It’s also important to use jars specific for canning and not just any jar that you have on hand. Canning jars are made to withhold high-heat and other jars may shatter.

Although you can find canning jars at second-hand stores or garage sales, West suggests using your thrift store finds for non-food related uses. You never know what the previous owner stored in the jar.

There are two different ways to can: hot-water bath method and pressure canning . The hot-water bath method is used when making jelly and jam, relish, salsa and pickled items such as beets. Pressure canning is used when putting up vegetables (not in pickled or relish form), meat and fish. (Pressure canning classes are taught through the WSU Kitsap Extension office.”

Canned food has a shelf life of one year. But with the yummy colors and flavors canned foods provide, your shelves may empty quickly.

In the song “Canned Goods,” folk musician Greg Brown sang : “Taste a little of the summer, grandma put it all in jars.”

Mingling with 50,000 stinging insects may not be everybody’s idea of fun. But beekeeper Paul Lundy of Kingston, calls it  “the most intriguing, in-depth hobby [he’s] ever embarked on.”

Lundy and his wife began beekeeping in 1997. They were living in Seattle at the time and noticed one summer there weren’t any honey bees flying around. (He assumes a bee keeper must have moved out of the neighborhood.) He attended a local bee-keepers meeting and it made him, well, buzz with excitement.

“The sheer enthusiasm of the people was amazing. They cared so much about this insect,” Lundy said. “I was hooked.”

The little honey bee that lands in your garden has a large impact on our country’s food production. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bee pollination is responsible for $15 billion in added crop value.  About one third of the food eaten in this country (by volume) benefits directly or indirectly from bee pollination. Bees play a particularly important role for specialty crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables.

To put it simply, without bees and the hard work they do for free, many foods we eat on a daily basis would not be available.

Beekeeping involves much more than collecting honey.  Lundy said the beekeeper’s most critical job is to manage the colony.

“A beekeeper makes sure the bees are doing well, just like you would with your pets,” Lundy said. 

Backyard bee colonies typically are kept in stacked wooden boxes with 10 frames inside each box.   Depending on the time of year, and how active the colony is, the beekeeper must adjust the hive accordingly.

For example, in the winter when the colony has died down to about 10 thousand members, the beekeeper will remove boxes so the hive is more compact and can stay warm.   

During the height of the summer, when a healthy colony may have between 50 to 60 thousand bees, the hive must be expanded. 

The colony consists of the queen bee, worker bees and drones (males who do not have stingers). Each bee has a clearly defined role in the colony. Some guard the hive. Others forage. Scout bees go out searching for food and flowering plants.

Bees communicate by “dancing.” A worker bee that has returned to the colony with pollen or nectar can convey both the distance and direction of the location to fellow workers.

Thousands of years ago, humans discovered that when given enough space, honey bees will continue to forage and collect food until the space is filled. Bees only need a small percentage of their honey in the winter. A typical colony needs 60 to 80 pounds of honey to survive in the cold months. However, during the summer, a colony can produce 50 to 100 pounds more of excess honey for us humans to enjoy.

If you are interested in becoming a backyard beekeeper, there is a wealth of information to help you get started, from the Internet to local beekeeper groups. (There is a local West Sound Beekeepers Association that meets monthly.)

Beekeeping is regulated by the Washington Department of Agriculture and beekeepers are required to register yearly.

In some rural areas of Kitsap County, beekeepers need to protect their hives from bears. Contrary to Winnie the Pooh with his paw in the honey jar, bears actually enjoy eating bee larva best of all. It’s a good source of protein. 

Raccoons also enjoy munching on bees. Raccoons wait until dusk and stand at the entrance of the colony. When the guard bees come out to investigate, the raccoons catch them and gobble them up. 

While some humans may think of bees as pests, bees have their own pests to worry about such as mites, moths, ants and mice. A good beekeeper will know what to look for and how to treat the hive.

And while Lundy hasn’t ever gotten used to a bee sting, he has come to expect it and tries to minimize his chances. A bee doesn’t want to sting.  It’s true that a bee dies after stinging. The stinger pulls from her abdomen. 

Lundy said bees are very sensitive to our behavior and are attracted to quick movements. When you encounter a bee, stay calm. If they land on you, most likely they are landing on you because you were convenient. Or maybe the bee was chilly and sought your warmth.

The hobby of beekeeping is one with many facets. From woodworking and building the boxes to learning about bee biology, to collecting honey and wax, Lundy said backyard beekeeping never gets boring.

“You are there to commune with them and be their friend,” Lundy said. “And to enjoy this wonderful insect that does so much for us.”

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