“It feels like spring.” That’s what my 3 year-old said when we walked outside at 8 AM this morning without winter coats or hats. She was right. And after a winter that started the second week of November with a massive snow storm, an early spring is just what we need.
I walked around the garden yesterday just to get out into the sun and see what was growing. The ground is still wet and fragile, so I stuck to the paths. This is definitely the time of year to appreciate perennial vegetables. Rhubarb and sorrel have already re-emerged. Garlic greens were still a little crumpled, having been flattened so long under heavy wet snow, but the flavor was fresh and vibrant, and I harvested a handful to add to our refried beans.
Gardening in the Unpredictable Spring
Anyone paying attention has noticed that our climate is changing. Especially if you’ve been in the same place for a while. I’ve been gardening in Syracuse for 20 years. When I first started, I used to plan to harvest all the tender annuals–peppers, tomatoes, green beans–by Indigenous People’s Day in mid-October. Now, I can pretty much take it for granted that they can stay in the garden until early November. That’s a huge shift to witness on such a short timeframe. And it’s not just anecdotal, there’s plenty of data to show that on average the first fall frost is coming later around the US. Check out this cool (yet sobering) graph where you can select a city to see the change.
Spring is less predictable. Warm spells in February or March can lure plants (and gardeners) into starting early, but late spring frosts are still common. Plants that bud or flower early, or seedlings set out too early, can suffer significant damage or even be lost for the season.
Besides, snow melt and spring rains often leave soil too wet to work until April. So, what can you do to get in an earlier spring planting?
Try Frost Seeding
Frost seeding is a practice that’s generally more familiar to small farmers than to home gardeners, but we can take advantage of it too! Basically, it works like this: seeds need good soil contact to germinate. Usually gardeners make that happen by planting seeds in a hole or furrow in the soil and gently tamping the soil to cover, or by broadcasting seed and raking it in. But using those methods in wet soil just leads to compaction and degrades soil structure, possibly for the entire growing season.
With frost seeding, you take advantage of the natural freeze-thaw cycle in late winter/early spring. The water in the soil freezes as temperatures dip below freezing overnight and then thaws as temperatures warm during the day. This is what causes soil to heave. It’s often the source of problems for gardeners and homeowners–cracking foundations and heaving posts out of the ground–but we can also use this natural process to plant our seeds for us. As the soil shifts up and down, it slowly draws the seed down, creating the necessary seed to soil contact.
All you need to do is broadcast the right seed at the right time.
The ideal timing for frost seeding is when there are still several frosts left. Plant too early, and seed is more vulnerable to rotting before conditions are right for germination. Wait too long, and you won’t be able to take advantage of the freeze-thaw action to draw your seeds into the soil. If you choose the right seeds and plant at the right time, they’ll survive just fine through many freezes, and even a late March snow storm.
A perfect strategy for a typical Syracuse spring!
Choosing a Crop
There aren’t many crops that can be seeded in this way. Clover is commonly frost seeded by farmers in the Northeast, and I’ve successfully frost seeded garden paths to clover even during a January thaw. You need to choose seed that can germinate in colder soil temperatures, isn’t prone to rot in wet soils, and can be broadcast–you’re not going to successfully frost seed peppers.
The two vegetable crops I’ve tried frost seeding are arugula and spinach. Spinach will germinate at temperatures as low as 38F. Both benefit from an early spring planting, because they’re prone to bolt prematurely in hot weather. So, a late April planting can bolt before you’ve even had the chance to get a decent harvest when May temperatures soar into the 80’s.
Last year, we weren’t able to turn our garden beds until April 23, a full 2 weeks later than any previous year. But, we had a warm spell in January. And we had a couple large packs of old arugula and spinach seed. So, I frost seeded both in January.
The spinach germinated ok, but the arugula was not as good. I broadcast a second seeding of both in early April, which did much better. In the end we had our best spinach crop ever and one of our best arugula crops, producing well into June. I’m trying it again this year with fresh seed and a mid-March planting to see if germination improves.
I used to try to sow a late fall planting of greens to winter over, but sometimes fall is just to busy with food preservation and putting everything to bed for the season. In March, there aren’t a lot of other garden tasks competing for attention, and after a long winter, most of us are eager to get started.
Planting the Seed
To take advantage of frost seeding, you need to have a space in your garden that’s ready for planting — bare soil that’s reasonably smooth and level (not covered with weeds or crop residue or thick mulch, unless it’s easily removed, but an inch or two of snow is ok). You’ll use more seed in broadcasting than you would if you were carefully planting a row. For spinach, I use about 3/4 of an ounce (about 1500 seeds) for 50 square feet. Typical seed packets vary, but are likely to be 1/4-1/2 ounce. There are a lot of great companies with dozens of varieties to choose from, but just to give an example, we get a large 1 oz packet of Giant Winter spinach from Fedco for $3.80. For arugula, try 1/8 oz for 50 square feet.
Once you have your seeds, mark your planting area and broadcast the seed being careful not to step on your planting soil. If you’re new to broadcasting seed, an easy way to spread it evenly is to divide the seed in half, broadcast half of it over the entire area, and then starting from the opposite direction, broadcast the other half over the same area. That way if you start broadcasting and find that you’ve used all your seed before you finish the area, you still have half the seed left to even it out.
You might feel odd, leaving your precious seed exposed to the elements. If you feel compelled to add a little protection, you can sprinkle a light layer of finished compost or mulch over the seeding, but it’s not necessary. Those little seeds are hardier than they look!
Summer is ending. The nights are cooler and followed by heavy morning dews, summer vacations have come to an end, lakes are closed for swimming…but the garden is still in full force. Many favorite garden crops are just coming into their own in the late summer—corn, big heirloom tomatoes, spicy hot peppers and ripe sweet peppers, bouqets of aromatic basil and tender eggplants. By early September, fall roots, like carrots and beets have reached full size, leeks are ready for harvesting, and greens are looking lush, benefitting from the cool evenings.
Now it’s mid-September, and we’re in the thick of putting up the harvest for winter and early spring eating. We start preserving as early as May—with rhubarb—and there’s always some local crop in abundance throughout the summer—berries to jam, early greens to freeze, spring turnips and summer cucumbers to pickle, etc. But late summer and early fall are really when our pantry and freezer fill up. Currently, we’re freezing chard, canning all things tomato (barbecue sauce, crushed tomatoes and salsa this week), and fermenting the last pickling cukes and chinese cabbage (as kimchi along with some scallions and carrots from the garden). It’s the sixth straight week canning tomatoes.
I always start by getting in some basic staples to use as ingredients in cooking: tomato puree, unsweetened apple sauce, frozen berries, herbs chopped and frozen in silicone mini-cupcake trays. These are easy to prepare and fill the pantry fast, and you can’t help but appreciate their versatility. But there are so many delicious recipes that can be preserved! Home-made convenience foods–like pasta sauce, barbeque sauce or salsas, rich herb pestos and thai curry pastes (which we started freezing after adding lemongrass to our garden), spicy pickled corn and Italian-style marinated peppers–can be put up in big batches to have available through the off-season. These are the preserves that are particularly enticing to make and add that extra kick to meals on dark, cold winter days (and without any disposable packaging!).
To best capture the flavors and nutrients of the fresh harvest, it helps to choose your preservation method wisely. Fermentation, freezing, canning and dehydration can all work well depending on the crop and recipe. Here are some tips on which method to use for which situations.
This is the method I use the least. It’s not nearly as good as the others for preserving nutrients. So, why choose it at all for your precious home-grown produce? Because, it’s simply the best method for preserving things for extremely long periods of time. It’s generally recommended that you consume most canned or frozen foods within a year or so (although some of that advice may be overly cautious due to a lack of research on the actual storage life of various products). But there’s plenty of research showing that properly dehydrated and stored foods can last for a decade or longer. The organisms that cause spoilage (bacteria, yeasts, molds) require water to survive. No water, no spoilage. So, shelf life is one reason to dehydrate.
Another reason is that certain foods have a better texture and intensified flavor when dehydrated versus other methods of preservation—for example shiitake mushrooms. Many mushrooms turn to mush when frozen, and would need to be pickled or pressure canned to preserve through canning, but store and retain excellent flavor for years when dehydrated. We’ve found that the golden oyster mushrooms we’ve been cultivating store well dehydrated and are excellent in winter soups. Many herbs, both culinary and medicinal, also store well dried (for teas or cooking). We often dry herbs like oregano, basil, mint, and lavender.
A final reason to dehydrate is that some recipes work better with dried products–for example dried chili peppers can be used to make your own custom-blended chili powder, and dried fruits are perfect for home-made granolas. You can find an excellent introduction to dehydration from Virginia Cooperative Extension here.
This is my absolute favorite method for preserving fresh flavor, and in most cases does the best job of preserving nutrients as well, especially for greens, as well as berries and herbs (like cilantro) that lose their characteristic flavor when dried. Of course, texture suffers, but that’s often not a problem. Freezing and thawing breaks the cell walls and softens foods in a similar way to cooking, so the difference in texture will be less noticeable in foods that will be cooked anyway, or if you use them while still partially frozen (like for smoothies). It’s so handy to have pre-washed and chopped vegetables ready to pull out of the freezer and add to recipes. Vegetables like corn, carrots, green beans, etc. are blanched just a couple of minutes to stop natural enzymatic processes and retain excellent flavor when frozen. University of Georgia has a great primer on freezing vegetables, and this factsheet from University of Minnesota has some excellent tips and background on freezing produce.
From pickles like hot pickled corn and marinated peppers, to tomato sauces, or jams and juices, canning is an effective way to preserve a wide range of flavors that are ready to open and consume anytime and easy to store. Boiling water canning is only appropriate for high-acid foods (pH less than 4.6), which is why tomatoes, fruits and pickles are so popular. For low acid foods, pressure canning is the only acceptable canning method to achieve a shelf-stable product. That’s why for plain vegetables I prefer freezing, so they don’t have to be cooked into oblivion in a pressure canner. But most pickled products and fruits only need to be processed 10-20 minutes. And many tomato-based products, like pasta sauce or barbeque sauce, would be cooked for a long period of time anyway to thicken them, so processing in a canner isn’t really compromising on the texture, flavor or nutrient content.
The actual process of canning is quite simple…if you can boil water, you have the skills required to can your produce! It’s also necessary to pay attention to recipe proportions, timing and cleanliness, but there’s really nothing complicated about it. And these days, there’s a wide variety of recipes available beyond traditional canning resources, from recipe books on small batch canning or specialty pickles to blogs and webinars that make canning more accessible than ever. I love to check canning books out of the library during the winter to browse recipes. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has all the basics on both boiling water and pressure canning at their website as well as many basic recipes.
Fermentation Most of our modern food preservation techniques are about eliminating bacteria, killing microorganisms and creating a sterile environment. Can you really just leave food in a jar on your table and have it increase in nutrition and flavor? Yeah, that’s pretty amazing. The magic of lacto-fermentation is that you create an environment in which good bacteria can grow, but harmful bacteria cannot. This is achieved through salt. Salt and sugar are often used in food preservation, because they bind water and make it less available for micro-organisms. Salt is used in lacto-fermentation because harmful bacteria can’t tolerate high salt environments, but some of the healthy bacteria (like lactobacillus) can. Once the harmful bacteria have been eliminated, the friendly ones can take over. They make lactic acid by consuming the natural sugars present in the produce, which preserves the nutrients, flavor and texture of the vegetables being fermented.
Some of the traditional fermented products we like to make include kimchi, sauerkraut, cucumber pickles, and hot sauce (from fermented hot peppers and garlic). The thing I love about fermenting…aside from the flavors…is how easy it is. At the end of the summer, when there are too many hot peppers, and I’m tired of processing, I can just cut off their stems, toss them whole into a jar with a few cloves of garlic, cover with brine and let them hang out on the dining room table for a month (covered with a cloth to keep out dust and flies). They do need to be checked periodically to skim any scum that forms on the surface to prevent it from suffocating the good bacteria (daily in hot weather, every few days in cooler weather).
Once the process is done (timing can vary a lot depending on size of the produce and air temperature), fermented peppers can be stored in the fridge and used in cooking, spooned over tacos, added to sandwiches, or pureed to make a delicious hot sauce. If we ferment late in the season, we often leave finished products on our unheated back porch. As long as the temperatures stay low but above freezing (cooler than 50°F), fermentation will slow or stop altogether, and they store quite well without taking up fridge space.
It’s hard to do better than Sandor Katz’s infamous guide to fermention, Wild Fermentation, for an introduction.
Join us For a Small Batch Preservation Session If you’re new to food preservation and want some tips, are looking to expand your skills, or just want to exchange ideas with fellow local foodies, join us for a small batch food preservation session on Saturday, October 20 (Tomatoes) or Saturday, October 27, 5-7 PM (Fall Fruit – apples or pears). We’re keeping sessions small, to fit in our kitchen, and so that we can personalize the experience and answer all your preservation questions. We’ll can something together, review basic tips and process for canning, answer questions on other methods, and share samples of some of our products and our favorite food preservation resources. RSVP at least a week in advance if you’d like to help choose the recipe to be used. Each participant will be able to take a jar home. We’re asking for a $20 donation per person, but open to trades (contact us ASAP if you want a non-traditional arrangement!).
July is generally a transition time in the garden—most early crops are finished producing by early July and ready to be pulled out, opening up space for succession crops. We usually replace early peas, greens (bok choy, mustard, lettuce), and roots (radish, beets) with fall crops like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, carrots, bush beans, and daikon radish. In late August and early September, we’ll do one last round of succession planting for late fall/early spring greens. But for now, the steady rain the past few days has imposed a moratorium on planting. So, the garden is enjoying a growth spurt, and even in the middle of busy July, there’s time for a quick blog post.
Nothing stays the same
Gardening is so unpredictable these days. Even the routine milestones that used to be consistent markers of the garden season can’t be taken for granted. We have always begun harvesting our garlic scapes (the flower stalk, which is typically cut off to encourage the plant to focus on bulb development, and because they’re delicious!) towards the end of the first week of June…sometime around the 5th–8th. This year, we didn’t harvest our first garlic scapes until the summer solstice, June 21. So, I wasn’t sure when to expect the bulbs to be ready for harvest, but they were right on schedule, even a little on the early side, and we pulled all 450 bulbs on Friday evening July 13, before things started to get wet.
How do we plan and prepare for such unpredictable garden seasons? The best strategy I can think of (in addition to working to change broader environmental policy and practices) is to build resiliency. We’ve been more committed to mulching, to mitigate against temperature and moisture extremes. We’ve long been using rain barrels to capture water. And, for many years, we’ve used a strategy more common to farmers than backyard gardeners—cover cropping.
Cover crops are a way to let plants do the work for us—they can prevent soil erosion and nutrient loss, attract pollinators, build nitrogen, add organic matter, and help control pest and disease problems. When you have a small garden, it can be hard to figure out how to incorporate a covercrop, because it means giving up food-growing space—cover crops are planted to feed the garden, not the gardener. And since it’s not a common backyard practice, it can be intimidating to figure out what to plant when.
Follow Garlic Plantings with A Midsummer Cover If you grow garlic, you have an easy opportunity to start incorporating cover crops, because now is the perfect time for a mid-summer cover crop. And since you’ve just loosened the soil in harvesting the garlic, the prep work is already done. All you have to do is broadcast some seed, rake it in lightly and let the crop do the rest!
Our main vegetable garden consists of long raised beds, 5’x25′ with 2′ paths in between. We plant an entire bed to garlic, fitting 450 heads (9 rows of 50, about 6” apart in all directions). About 80 of the biggest, healthiest bulbs get hung to save for seed for the fall planting of next year’s crop. That leaves us about 370 heads, enough for our two house collective of 12 people to use a whole head of garlic each day! And we do love garlic…but that’s also enough to share, and we often give some away.
Having an entire bed empty is a perfect opportunity to introduce a cover crop into our rotation. We choose a crop that will put on lots of growth by fall but is tender enough to be killed by the winter cold. When spring comes, we have a bed full of mulch ready for seedlings to be transplanted or for direct seeding larger seeds. It’s perfect for tomatoes or squash, which will also benefit from the soil improvements.
What to plant and how? There are several options in the northeast, depending on your planting window what your goals are (weed smothering, erosion control, pest control, etc), but we always try to follow our garlic crop with a classic oat/pea cover. It’s a common practice to combine a nitrogen fixing legume, like peas, which benefit the soil but have dainty roots and don’t produce a lot of biomass, with a grass that does triple duty by providing support for the legume, holding soil with its mat-forming roots and providing lots of biomass for the compost pile, or to be left in place and used as mulch. Oat/pea is a great combination this time of year because there’s enough time for it to grow to full maturity—getting crops to flower—and be killed by the cold before setting seed.
We harvested our garlic on a Friday night and had a heavy rain that Monday. The following weekend was busy with community events and my daughter’s 3rd birthday party, but when I saw a forecast of rain everyday for the next week, I knew a covercrop had to be seeded that weekend if it was going to happen before August. My 3-year old loves to help seed, and broadcasting cover crops, which doesn’t require a lot of precision (“Just make sure it goes in the bed and not on the path!”), is a perfect opportunity for her to help. So, between helping out at the Worker’s Center of CNY annual soccer tournament in the morning and attending the potluck before an evening house concert fundraiser being hosted at our collective, we aerated the soil with our broad fork (which she also loves helping me use), smoothed it out with the rake, scattered our seed, lightly raked it in and waited for the rain to do the rest.
Later in the season you’d want to choose a winter hardy cover crop, but it’ll mean more work in the spring. Winter hardy cover crops survive the winter and finish growing in the early spring. Once about half the crop is flowering, cut it off at the base and chop it up with clippers, letting it dry down into mulch, or dig it and turn the roots under, waiting a couple of weeks to plant so that incorporated plant matter has a chance to decompose. I’ve planted winter wheat or winter rye and hairy vetch (which gets a beautiful purple flower in the spring) as late as mid-September and seen good fall growth, excellent winter survival, and full maturity by early May. A good option to keep the bed covered for heat loving crops that won’t be planted until the end of May, but definitely not a good option for an area that’s intended for early spring crops.
Resources and Seed Sources Fortunately, I had remembered to get seed this spring—sourcing cover crop seed (sometimes listed as “farm seed”) is not always easy. Locally, Lee’s Feed store often carries oats, field peas, clovers, rye, and wheat, but it’s not always in stock, so call ahead and ask. Online, Johnny’s, Fedco, and other regional seed sources are also great cover crop seed sources, carrying a wide variety, including premixed assortments, but shipping adds cost.
Seeding rates listed by seed companies and on cover crop seed packets are often designed for farm scale planting, generally done by mechanical seeders. Broadcasting can result in less precise seeding and less consistent soil contact/coverage, and home gardens sometimes have more loss to squirrels and other critters. It’s a good rule of thumb to double the amount of seed recommended to get a good cover crop stand. For home gardens, you’re usually using a very small amount of seed anyway, given that this type of seed is generally sold by the pound. And it’s much cheaper to buy larger quantities. We often buy 5 lbs or more and store it in a cool, dry, dark spot to last for a few seasons rather than purchasing smaller quantities each year. I used about 1 ¼ lbs of a mix of oats and field peas to seed our 125 square foot bed.
This article first appeared as “From Blight to Beautiful: Renovating an Urban House By and For Community” written by Bread and Roses member Lindsay Speer in Communities: Life in Cooperative Culture, Summer 2018; it is available for free download, with more of our before-and-after pictures! So great to have all our hard work featured in Communities!
The start of it all: a compost bin
The first Bread and Roses Collective house is a large brick Victorian on a small lot on a residential street in the City of Syracuse, New York. In the early 2000s, when we first built our compost bin, the large lot behind our garage was an overgrown mess of broken box elders, Japanese knotweed, and piles of dumped trash, owned by an unresponsive slumlord. Our compost bin fit right in. As we spent time out there, we began to dream of urban gardens beyond our tiny Food Not Lawns front garden. When the land came up for sale in 2007, we knew we wanted it. What we weren’t so sure about was the derelict, empty house that was attached to it.
The Westcott Street house had been neglected. A tarp covered the back third of the roof, which we had watched disintegrate over the course of five years. Water damage contributed to the whole place stinking of cheap chemical soap and mold, on top of decades of cigarette smoke. The old garage leaned precipitously. If we were to look for a second house to buy, this would not have been it, but to get the land we had to get the house.
The Bread and Roses Collective is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organized for providing affordable, sustainable, low-income housing. The first members of the collective moved into our first house as a rental property in 1997, and eventually organized themselves to form a nonprofit and purchase it from the landlord in 2004. We are a community of activists, often working for local nonprofits and engaged on our own time with various local campaigns, including fights for social and environmental justice. At the same time, we are building the world we want to live in at home, making decisions by consensus and working together to accomplish what none of us alone could do—
Such as buying and renovating a house.
When deciding whether or not to buy the Westcott Street house, the combined factors of already having a large mortgage on our first house and the state of disrepair of this new one gave many of us pause. As in many property transactions, time was of the essence. We came to an agreement that one of our members who could afford to would purchase the house, and at the very least we’d purchase the land from him. We’d take our time to consider the house’s future. In the midst of this, the 2008 housing crisis hit and we ended up getting the property for only $57,000.
Should it stay or go?
Now that it was ours, we went to work pulling out the weeds, clearing out the junk, and expanding our compost operation to collect from a local vegan restaurant and a coffee shop to build the soil for the raised beds of our urban garden. We began to dream about what to do with the house. Despite its being legally owned by only one of us, the decision-making about its future was done collectively from the beginning. We came to the conclusion that the back third of the house was beyond saving. Should we only tear off that part, or should we demolish the whole house? Ultimately, the decision was made to save most of the house and design an addition to fit our needs and dreams. Bread and Roses committed to the project, and financed it through personal loans at interest rates below what the banks could offer.
“In retrospect, it would have been cheaper and easier to tear the whole thing down and build a new house from scratch,” reflects Bread and Roses member Steve. Retrofitting the existing old house for energy efficiency and designing an addition to match its design was costly, in both time and money, but there were benefits too. “By keeping the existing house and carefully deconstructing the elements we wished to change, we saved a lot of material from ending up in the landfill. We also kept the character of the house, which is consistent with the neighborhood.”
Hammering the nails out of every single piece of lath was an inefficient use of our time, although we now have a great supply of nail-free kindling for the highly efficient Avalon wood stove. On the other hand, removing the nails from larger old unpainted boards, installed before the days of pressurized lumber, was well worth it. They are now the sides of the raised beds in the garden.
Dreaming a future
The process in dreaming up what the future house would finally look like was extensive. The collective started by conducting interviews with each member about our hopes and dreams. We were lucky enough to have Simon, a longstanding guest at our weekly potluck who worked for an architectural firm, to guide us through the process of designing the addition of our dreams. He patiently worked with the collective and the architects through a consensus-based design—and the redesign that took place as financial realities set in. A committee of four people led the extensive research and decision process, following the guidelines and broad decisions set by the collective (eight people at that time).
Key to the new addition was a large kitchen. The kitchen at the old house was small even by current single-family home standards. We wanted a kitchen in which we could host parties and workshops; a space that could serve as the hearth of the community. We also knew from experience that one bathroom was not quite enough for second-floor living quarters with five or more bedrooms. Finally, we wanted the first floor of the house to be accessible, both with an eye to accommodating anyone’s eventual disability, and to currently provide accessible meeting space for the local activist community.
Eco-friendly design choices
We strove to build as eco-friendly as possible, but early on we realized that many compromises would have to be made in order to meet the City of Syracuse’s building codes. We couldn’t do strawbale walls, but we could use FSC-certified lumber. We had to hire a contractor to do the actual building envelope, as well as plumbing and electrical. Picking a good contractor is key, and it can be a challenge to find one who will work with a collective. Take the time to read reviews and listen to your gut. You want someone you can trust to build you a good house—this is not a place to cut costs or skimp. We may have saved ourselves many headaches if we’d had that advice.
We did most of the finish work inside ourselves, many of us learning along the way; it is amazing what you can learn from online videos. We taught each other the necessary skills and consulted often with friends and family. We hung drywall, painted, installed the tile and wood floors, cabinetry, countertops, internal doors, and trim. What materials we could, we bought secondhand, scouring Craigslist, the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and Freecycle. It was a continuous treasure hunt for the right items, with surprising finds like the granite countertops, or the wooden pews.
Our neighbors were another important source of materials. We carefully watched when things went out on the curb as others remodeled their homes, acquiring a substantial number of doors coated with thick layers of old paint this way. We researched lead paint remediation and developed a process to strip the doors using a heat gun, citrus-based stripper, and careful disposal, always wearing N95 masks, gloves, and changing our clothes and shoes so as to prevent lead contamination elsewhere. When Jessica became pregnant she had her blood tested. Her blood lead levels came back as acceptable, a relief and validation for our process. To be extra safe she only worked on the later stages (staining, poly) of door refinishing through her pregnancy. Her daughter, now nearly three years old, is talkative and clever and has us all wrapped around her little finger.
After living for years in a large, drafty Victorian, we knew the importance of adequate insulation and double-pane, low emissivity (or low-E) windows to ward off the chill of Syracuse winters. We installed high-density foam panels for insulation, between the narrow four-inch studs framing the old portion of the house. If we had built new, this could have been a more eco-friendly material. We sprayed the attic with a thick layer of insulation, resulting in a roof with an R-value of 50.
The light-colored metal roof is an eco design choice. High reflectivity in the summertime means a cooler house, especially when combined with the used ceiling fans we installed in each room. By avoiding asphalt shingles we ensured we could use the rain water on our gardens. We installed homemade rain barrels at each of the downspouts, our contribution to the Save the Rain campaign to keep storm water out of our combined sewers and therefore out of Onondaga Creek and Onondaga Lake.
Most of our lighting fixtures were previously used, and we found some great deals on very pretty fixtures. When the electrician wanted light bulbs in every socket as he worked, Jessica diligently replaced every incandescent light he installed with LEDs. On-demand water heating not only saves energy, it also ensures that no one is upset someone else drained the hot water tank during the last shower!
We used a zero VOC stain with no petroleum distillates and Vermont Natural Coatings’ PolyWhey on all of our woodwork. The polywhey is a groundbreaking product developed in Vermont, made from dairy whey, a dairy industry waste product. It performs well and you can re-coat in a matter of a couple of hours as compared to traditional poly which requires at least 24 hours between coats, so it also makes the whole process much faster. All of the paint on the walls is also zero VOC. This was and is a great benefit, allowing us to work through the winters and while people are living in the house without headaches. By talking about the scale of our project and commitment to zero VOC with the owners of a local paint store, we were introduced to a zero VOC paint that was half the price of anything else we’d seen on shelves. Personal connection is everything.
Impact on membership
The building inspector awarded us a temporary Certificate of Occupancy (COO) in early 2014, allowing new people to move in and expand the number of hands working on the project, which has fluctuated between 10 and 13. We are working towards the permanent Certificate of Occupancy. [Update: We got it!] We were surprised to learn that we had to install all the wood trim before a permanent COO would be granted, despite the rest of the house being fully functional. We had all the trim custom-milled but sent to us unfinished in order to save money. This has cost us in time as countless hours go into sanding and staining each piece. However the finished look, which matches the original trim of the house, is absolutely worth it.
In the 2000s, we would have work-weekends twice a year to maintain and improve the first house. With this project, we moved to work-weekends every month with people working on projects in-between as well. While some dedicated housemates stayed through it all, the amount of work involved did contribute to turnover. For a collective dedicated to providing housing to activists, it is a struggle to balance between building the house, working our day jobs, all while doing our best to contribute to local activist movements. Over the years, 40 members have all contributed to construction of the house. Some people have stayed only a short time; others gave significant years of their life to the project. Only four of us remain from those who made the decision to purchase the house, and I left for a few years. The biggest impact of turnover is the loss of acquired building skills, and the need to train and empower new members. Few people these days come to us with any practical building experience, but they leave with skills and confidence to tackle their own projects. Ultimately our project is not only benefiting our collective, but the community: five of our former members have now purchased and renovated houses nearby.
Even those who leave still appreciate the work they put in, and seeing the progress of the house. “I like coming back and seeing how I left my mark,” observed Sienna when she visited recently, also noting how much she learned in the process. “The skills of building a house are transferable to fighting for a cause: both need organization and people working together.”
The secret to organizing people: good food
The once overgrown lot we originally coveted is now home to an urban permaculture oasis of 10 garden beds, three terraces, fruit trees, and rain gardens, providing the houses with abundant organic homegrown food. Our compost bin collection has grown from one to six with an impressive system of rotation. Many of the damaged trees we cleared were inoculated with oyster and shiitake mushroom spawn and have kept us happily eating mushrooms for years.
As the construction work winds down, Bread and Roses members find ourselves able to return more fully to the activism that brings us together in the first place. As the arena of national politics becomes increasingly chaotic, we find ourselves glad to be in a supportive community, with room to grow, personally and physically. For many members, it’s the coming together in radical spaces with radical support that makes it all worth it. Here, we have bread, and we have roses too.
To see the rest of the before and after pictures read the full article at:
2018 was a late spring. The latest I can remember in 20 years of gardening in Syracuse.We didn’t make our first planting in the vegetable garden until Earth Day weekend…a full two weeks later than any other year that I can recall. But the strawberries came right on time.
Our patch of Honeoyes began fruiting lightly the first week of June and by the 2nd and 3rd weeks we were harvesting 20-30 lbs/week from our 40’x5′ patch. They’re finally starting to slow—we’ve probably only got another week or so of berries. But by then, the black raspberries should be ripe…
We may not be able to grow local mangos or bananas, but our northern climate does allow us to easily grow an amazing abundance of incredibly delicious and highly nutritious berries and other small fruits. It’s an easy, low-cost way to start producing some of your own fruit, and they’ll start fruiting within 1-2 years of planting. Berries are expensive to buy, especially organic, but easy to grow and maintain even for beginners. Pruning, trellising, and care are all very simple to learn. They’re also easy to propagate, many spreading by runners or suckers and/or rooting quickly from cuttings, so you can often come by plants for free or for a work trade in a neighbor’s garden. Plus, homegrown berries can be picked fully ripe, no need to worry about them getting squished during handling, packing or transport, which means you can pick them at the peak of their flavor.
There are so many types of berries, but below are tips on how to get started with some of our favorites! Or join us for our Summer Berry Pruning workshop on Saturday, July 14.
We started our strawberry patch in 2016 with 50 plants purchased for $18 from Fedco. Our original 40′ row produced runners to completely fill a 40’x5′ area with plants every 3-4” by the second year. A conservative estimate of this year’s harvest is about 70 lbs. U-pick organic strawberries have been $2.50 per pound the past few years, so that makes our harvest worth at least $175 this year alone. Since we fertilize only with our compost and mulch with leaves, our only other expenses were a roll of 9 gauge wire for cutting wire hoops ($6) and a roll of bird netting ($14) that we drape over the hoops to keep the squirrels out.
BLACKBERRY & RASPBERRY
In Syracuse, there are so many wild black raspberry plants, you can likely find them for free—you may even already have some. We pruned the wild ones in our yard to make them more productive and easier to pick. For raspberries and blackberries, the challenge isn’t in getting them to grow so much as preventing them from taking over and maximizing berry production rather than growth of a tangled mass of impenetrable thorns.
We started our patches of red raspberries and blackberries courtesy of the OCSWCD annual spring tree sale—each available at 10 canes for just $15. Last year we canned several pints of blackberry sauce (1 cup sugar to 12 cups blackberries) and froze 3 gallons of blackberries in addition to lots of fresh eating and pies. We also dig up rogue plants every year for our spring plant sale, since the plants are vigorous and readily spread beyond their patch. We’re in the process of moving the red raspberries, which fruited nicely the first few years, but now are in decline. It’s likely a combination of decreasing sun as nearby trees have extended their canopies, and increasing size of nearby black walnut trees, whose roots and all other parts of the tree contain juglone, a chemical compound which can inhibit the growth of certain plants (black raspberries are not bothered).
We also sourced our elderberries from OCSWCD, which were priced similarly to the blackberries and raspberries…an incredible deal if you’ve looked into purchasing elsewhere. Elderberries sucker readily and can form rather large colonies, so unless you have a lot of space to fill, you probably don’t need more than a couple plants to start. Elderberry jelly is one of my favorites, and elderberry-peach pie is a real late summer treat, but we mainly use them for making elderberry syrup and cordial (a traditional medicinal drink) to take advantage of elderberry’s well-established anti-viral properties during flu season.
CURRANT & GOOSEBERRY
Currants don’t spread like the other berries in this post, but they are easy to propagate by layering. There were neglected, overgrown red currants already on our property when we purchased it, so we just pruned and relocated them to a sunnier spot. We mostly use them in baking—little bursts of flavor in scones, muffins or pancakes. But, last year we also pureed them with water and a touch of maple syrup to make a really delicious juice. We acquired our black currants through a work trade at Frosty Morning Farm in Truxton. They’re a large-fruited variety, Titania, that make excellent sauce or jam. Gooseberries are also in the currant family. We mostly eat ours fresh, but there are some nice gooseberry chutney or jam recipes. The birds share quite a bit in the red currant harvesting, which can be tedious, so we don’t really mind. But we plan to net the elderberry, because the birds didn’t leave us much last year.
PRESERVING THE HARVEST
Berries are incredibly easy to preserve, so you can have them for baking, smoothies, jams, etc. all year round. To freeze: wash and hull berries, and arrange in a single layer on a baking tray. Place in the freezer until frozen solid, then transfer to labeled freezer bags or containers. To can: process jams, preserves or sauces in a boiling water bath, exact processing times will vary by recipe and jar size. Basic instructions for most common berries can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.
Want to get your own berry patch started? Or have a patch that needs a little TLC? We welcome you to join us for a workshop on Summer Berry Pruning Saturday, July 14, 10 AM to Noon.