Friday, August 15, 2008

The Big School Decision

Yesterday the kids and I met with two "family advocates" from the Head Start program. Both women were very kind and LOVED the children, but I can't say I'm convinced yet that we're doing the right thing. The decision to send my kids to public school or to homeschool has been weighing on my mind for years, and there just hasn't seemed to be one of those moments yet where I feel that yes-THIS-is-the-way-things-are-supposed-to-be feeling. There were a lot of factors that went into me finally signing the kids up for the Head Start program:

1. This isn't really school yet. It's preschool. It'll give me a chance to feel out how the kids develop with other kids around, other authority figures, and more structure than they'd get at home (well, maybe not. I'm a diehard fan of the schedule.). Are they really learning more than they do at home?

2. My kids (and I) are very socially isolated. Our closest family members are at least an hour away, and the only friends we have in the neighborhood are our next door neighbors whom we love, but... In fact, the only little boy Airius knows that is his own age is his cousin whom we see only at family functions. I've looked at the homeschool groups in our area, and all of them are, well, Christian. I have a deep respect for Christianity, but our religion doesn't fall into that category. I'd feel like a bit of a fraud.

3. Annie has shown a keen interest in going to school. I've told her that she could stay at home and learn as a family, but the idea kind of bums her out. That bums me out, but this isn't about me. I won't even hope for her to change her mind, promise. Yesterday after our meeting, Annie grabbed the hands of one of the women and said, "can I go to school with you now?" lol Airius was asking the same thing but wasn't quite bold enough to grab their hands. He serenaded them for awhile though. ;)

4. I'm not convinced that a child's success in school or life is dependent upon how or where they were schooled. Maybe I've read Freakonomics one too many times, but I think that if we encourage and support our children through their education, the returns will be great regardless of their schooling.

5. I'm really not at all confident that I could do homeschooling successfully. There I said it. Happy?

Anyway, the book isn't closed on this topic yet, and I plan to do a lot more research throughout this school year, but I wholeheartedly welcome respectful opinions on this subject. Do you homeschool your kids? Why or why not? Any book/website recommendations on the subject?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Book Review: Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman

Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman is one of those books that I just couldn't wait to open. As a zone 5b gardener, it's a constant frustration of mine to have those few months where nothing at all is growing. Even if you are an avid food preserver (I'm still learning), there's a definite allure to having FRESH food in the darkest of winter months, no? So as soon as I got this book home from the library, I devoured it page by page. The gist of the book can be summed up with this quote from page 6: "Whereas the growing season may be chiefly limited to the warmer months, the harvest season has no such limits." Succession planting and crop protection are key.

The beginning of the book was sort of a rehashing of facts that I already had stored away in my brain. If you've grown any organic vegetables before, you probably already have what you need from the first few chapters. The locavores out there will grin at Coleman's Chapter 1 discussion of the merits of variety and seaonality. Chapter 2 gives the author's best tips on creating rich compost and the use of organic soil amendments, though he saves green manures, or cover crops, for Chapter 3. I did think his Chapter 4 tip for using the edge of a board to make furrows was helpful, but the rest was your basic organic gardening.

Chapter 5 is where things got interesting to me. It opens with this:

It is the middle of January on the coast of Maine, and I'm harvesting crops for dinner. Despite the typically frigid New England weather, I can choose from 18 garden-fresh vegetables. I begin by harvesting a salad of mache, curly endive, and claytonia... I will serve the salad with a mustard vinaigrette and raw carrot and kohlrabi slices on the side. Then I gather spinach for a duck-egg souffle, dig some leeks to prepare sauteed with butter, and pick some parsley to garnish the potatoes from the cellar. Planning ahead, I decide to have some sorrel soup; an arugula, radicchio, and sugarloaf salad with fresh scallions; and steamed brussels sprouts in a mornay sauce for tomorrow night. The menu could also include au gratin Swiss chard, braised escarole, a cream of kale and potato soup, or dandelion-hearts tempura. Not bad for fresh garden harvesting in Zone 5. (pg. 63)

Not bad at all, Mr. Coleman! My mouth was absolutely watering after that description, and you can believe that I was googling recipes for awhile after that.

The author makes a clear, concise explanation of how a cold frame works, by limiting plant stress through lessening the effects of fluctuating winter temperatures, the added moisture of cold weather months, and windchill. I can't really comment on the clarity of instructions for building a cold frame since I haven't yet actually attempted it. I'm probably bound to start with something a little less elaborate than Coleman's suggestion and work my way up, but that's just lazy old me. The tables included in Chapter 5 were extremely enlightening and helpful for me. They included not only fall, winter, and spring crop suggestions, but also planting dates (I still have time!) and harvest dates. I'm fully aware that some of these will require some trial and error to perfect in my specific garden, but I'm okay with that.

Next up comes a chapter devoted to tunnels. At first I was a little disappointed in this chapter because the tunnel suggested takes up a heckuva lot of space (14' x 20' is wider than most parts of my irregularly shaped garden and nearly as long), and Coleman suggest moving the tunnel, keeping it in one spot for the benefit of summer heat-loving crops then moving it to another spot for the crops to be harvested in winter but which are sown in summer while the thermophiles are still thriving. But the author does devote some time to the discussion of modifications for smaller gardens and warmer climates. Here he suggests a permanent, "instant" greenhouse. The illustration in the book is promising, with latticed entryways at either end and plants growing up the arbor-like supports. And, of course, Coleman makes sure to give ideas for dealing with snow accumulation. "I don't mean normal snowfalls of 8 to 10 inches..." (pg. 108). :) Yes, he gets it.

Chapter 7 continues the harvest possibilities with root cellars and other "indoor harvesting" techniques. I found the suggestion of walling off a corner of my basement with concrete blocks, complete with a cement-board ceiling and insulation, a little daunting. I suppose it will come to that eventually, though. Thankfully, several simpler options are also discussed. My heart rate can return to normal. There is also a discussion of forcing root crops to sprout. Yes, yes, the obligatory Belgian endive is included. Oh, and drying foods makes an appearance as well.

Chapter 8 is an exploration of garden pests. Again, if you've already done some organic vegetable gardening, this probably won't be anything new to you.

The book ends with the "Cast of Characters," as Coleman refers to his list of crop descriptions. He includes planting distances, crop rotation, growing tips, storage tips, and a list of his favorite varieties for each different plant. I was especially appreciative of the fact that he often gives a reason for his variety selection: "for dependability," "early," "all-around use," "winter storage."

Overall, I thought the book was pretty darn good. My biggest complaint would have to be the lack of actual photographs from the author's garden, partly because I'm nosy, partly because I'm excited by eye-catching images, and partly because I want to see how this all works together in real life. The pencil drawings were well down, though. I had immediate respect for the author because of his shared love for keeping things simple, though I did find the book a bit preachy at times, and I reveled in the use of old-fashioned technologies that are often overlooked nowadays. I'm not sure how helpful the book would be for those of you in Zones 8 and higher, but I would highly recommend this book for any northern zone gardener. It's going to take me quite some time (like, years) to implement all the ideas in this book, so I suppose I'll just have to buy a copy. Oh darn. ;)