The Learning Curve

The Learning Curve December 24, 2010
Our salad garden in October

Tally of new plastic waste since our last report: 11 oz.

So, a few weeks ago, I posted very optimistically about the possibility of subsisting through the winter on salads from greens I grew myself, on my windowsill.  And a glance at this picture will explain why.

With our excellent southern exposure and a couple of self-watering planters, I had big dreams for green leafies.

Now, I’m a little wary of any “earth-friendly” project that begins by buying new stuff–especially, as these planters were, new plastic stuff.  But I love salads, and I really did not want to go back to plastic-wrapped salads hauled over distances, so I went online and ordered these.  (I know myself; if it were my job to make it rain anywhere on the planet, that locale would quickly become a desert.)

In this picture, the planters look very promising, don’t they?  I planted the lettuce quite close together, as I have done on occasion in the past outdoors, when I’ve put in “ornamental” borders of leaf lettuce around flower gardens.  But the lettuce was spindly and never grew much larger than this.

Whether this is the fault of the potting soil, the indoor lighting, or the density of the seedlings I did not know.  So I replanted the next time more thinly, in clusters.

Which barely germinated.  I had foolishly altered two of the conditions of the experiment, and reseeded with some organic lettuce seeds that had been included for free in another order we’d made.  Perhaps because they were old and likely to annoy paying customers by not germinating.

I have since reseeded the second planter as well, with the original bargain-basement seeds I got at the end of the season from a big box store.  Those seeds are not doing especially well, either.  Not more vigorous than the original batch, for sure.  There is just not very much lettuce growing on our windowsill.

They are simply too small to keep up with our demand.  The lettuce I originally planted grew slowly at best, and provided us with only about four salads before I’d completely exhausted both beds.  I need at least another three planters to match the number of salads we would probably want to eat in the amount of time it takes for lettuce to germinate and grow to maturity, and that’s a lot of money–and plastic–to invest.

If I trusted myself to keep up with a watering schedule, I could plant them in almost anything, I suppose.  But, well, I know myself.  I don’t think that experiment would have a particularly happy outcome, either.

The alfalfa sprouts are doing very well.  And I normally have at least three quart jars at some stage of production; I’ll probably experiment soon with growing sprouts in old nylon stockings or in cotton bags–which may or may not work, but I’m willing to find out.

However, I don’t think the lettuce crop makes sense.  If I can, I should probably simply rely on winter keeping vegetables–my own and the local coop’s–and save the bins for some winter windowsill herbs.

I admit, I’m disappointed.

But it’s a valuable reminder.  I think we can learn to live quite comfortably and gracefully without many of the modern conveniences our grandmothers lived without.  But, as our grandmothers did, we will have some learning to do in order to get there.  Everything about living in a less consumerist way takes a knowledge base, from knowing how little soap is needed to wash the laundry, to how to bake bread or save winter food.

We’re experimenting.  A couple of weeks ago, we bought a winter farm share in a local CSA, and brought home about 100 pounds of food, some including winter vegetables I’ve never tried to cook before, like turnips and rutabagas.  And then there are the questions.  How do I preserve 30 pounds of fresh carrots or potatoes?  What’s the best way for me to keep ten pounds of beets edible over the next few months?  What should I do to keep all the fresh potatoes and butternut squash?

Peter built us a lovely bin for the potatoes, for the space between our heated front hall and our unheated garage.  We’ve stowed the carrots between layers of damp sawdust, but we’re still seeking the part of the house where we can find the right temperature–our basement is much too warm, what with the furnace and hot water heater down there.

So perhaps the lovely potato bin will be a failure–or a very limited success, as was the windowsill lettuce.  Perhaps we will come up with ideas that will make it work next year, if it doesn’t work this year.

The point is, while I am committed to living in a lower-impact way in terms of the food I eat (and avoiding food waste–one often overlooked way to reduce our emissions footprint!) I can’t ever guarantee any experiment’s success at the outset.  There is a learning curve for everything, and in order to make change for the better, I have to accept that sometimes I’m going to fail.  Hopefully on the way to some satisfying success.

And if it’s as satisfying as the boiled carrots with ginger and maple syrup I served for dinner this week, that will be a pretty nice reward.

Even if we do have to forgo the salad.
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