Tag Archives: gardening

Planning a Garden and Mother Earth News

El Nina is still pitching a fit and her tears keep landing in Oregon leaving us with soggy soil and an unpredictable frost date. The problem isn’t just for the gardeners but this year some food banks are losing their steady supply of fresh veggies once donated by thriving community gardens.

But here just like the rains we must be relentless. Northwesters either develop ways to cope with cabin fever or move to California. My way is usually a dose of medicine and a few good words with my computer but lately my heads been freezing on me, a savage and unpredictable wave writers block.

Reading the anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories wasn’t  enough to inspire me to do much more than watch an episode of house. Alright, two episodes. But thanks to a brief spell of A.D.D. I found myself browsing the cyber pages of Mother Earth News and before I knew it I had subscribed.

With prices dropped to $10 a year I had a hard time refusing the offer of the magazine that more than once I considered paying full price for.

I started to look over my purchase via their online copy and ended up discovering a garden planner program and decided to give it a test run.  I had already made a few garden maps earlier this year and took the opportunity to recreate one of them on the garden generator.

The program has a very easy to use interface and makes planning  out a garden child’s play, think Farmville. Reading the back of seed packets becomes worthless because the Vegetable Garden Planner is made to automatically show the spaces needed between plants. Navigating the Flash based software is similar to using a paint program and if a user can work their way around a word processor this shouldn’t be anything too technical. It isn’t as full functioned and intricate as auto cad and after the 30 day trial it becomes a $25 a year convenience after the first year.  For now though this is the perfect way for the lazy gardener to map out their yard in the least painful way.

This weeks step will be to scour my new copy of Mother Earth News, sustainability doesn’t always gotta mean sacrifice 🙂

Links:

Community Gardens Battle Relentless Rain

Vegetable Garden Planner

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Dandelion coffee and the act of foraging.

A pest to some but to others, includeing medieval nobility, dandelion has proved its worth as both a medicine and a food.

I’m a junkie there is no doubt about.  When I wake up two things cross my mind usually, do I have to move and if so, where’s my coffee!?!  Lately the morning miracle nectar has been giving me some stomach problems and I’ve been forced to reduce my ravenous thirst to just a cup a day. This is not good.
Instead of getting multiple cup boosts throughout the day I’m stuck with one drink and a day full of yawns. I have heard that you can make a coffee substitute with the roots of dandelion and yesterday when I was weeding the thought had hit again, providence. I finished up hoola hoeing my garden and then moved up towards the dandelion weeder.
My neighbors probably didn’t understand the desperation that filled my act of weeding.  People are used to seeing me out in my garden and even in the light rain it wasn’t anything abnormal. But the time and patience I took to preserve the dandelion roots while pulling them out would peg me as a lunatic in some circles, but to me I was just prepping another cup of brew.

After being roasted and ground the dandelion root looks more like tobacco than any sort of coffee.

After collecting and roasting the dandelion roots, they were ground into a fine powder and brewed like coffee. I took a sip of the black “coffee” and was surprised. It was a little lighter in color and tasted slightly burnt to the everyday coffee drinker. Unfortunately this coffee alternative is caffeine free, something I was hoping wouldn’t be the case, but a little online looking it confirmed it. Although the chemical support isn’t there I was still a thousand times happier to drink this mix than to attempting decaf.
I’m realizing this post sounds more like a confession about caffeine abuse than any sort of statement about the earths long term preservation but I assure that is not the case.  My hunt for dandelion root is one of the first acts of foraging that I have carried out.
This is the initial way humans used to gather food. Before restaurants and grocery stores, before even farming, there was hunting and gathering.  At this point human populations lived based on what nature provided, not on what could be done provided despite  nature. Although this was a great way to make sure that the land remained strong and the earth healthy, it wasn’t the best way to ensure a future. Some would argue we evolved, others would argue we devolved.

When the flavor ihit my tongue I couldn't have been more upset. It wasn't bad, and actually, the acrid root tea actually tasted like tea. I wouldn't drink it normally but in 1858 I could see turning to this in a pinch.

The main benefit to gathering food is that it doesn’t require an agricultural system that rearranges the landscape to make certain food stuffs available.  The flip side is that a long time ago many tribes figured out that about 30 people are perfect for living off the land in most areas (StuffYouShouldKnow pod casts are my source for this).  If a tribe grew much bigger than this it became more difficult to support.  If we all tried living off the wild now I fear we would overwhelm it.
But when there are opportunities to harvest from the wild instead of buying from the store I still plan to take advantage of them. And instead of throwing my dandelions in a garbage can or even a refuse bin I’m going to eat the suckers. Not only are dandelions completely edible at some point of the year, but revenge against weeds has never been below me, ask the corn.

The recipe I used to make the “coffee” was from ehow.com

How to Make Dandelion Coffee

This weeks step was to take up foraging.

Seed Savers Exchange: They’ve Arrived!

It's finally time to get some seeds in the ground and they have just arrived! We're still at risk for frost here so at least for the time being it's going to have to be an indoor operation to get this years crop going.

With Seed Savers Exchange giving a quick delivery I have finally gotten to start planting my garden, indoors albeit.

I’m working as a goal this year to reduce my food budget by planting a sizeable garden that will keep producing until the end of the growing season.  The little parcel of land that comes with the townhouse we are renting doesn’t get enough light to really be of much use for food production of any scale but for $35 and 6 hours of volunteer work I have been able to secure a community garden spot within walking distance of my house.

To get seeds to turn into transplant vegetable starts doesn’t take very much I have discovered. A cold fluorescent light hanging from the ceiling on a chain gives an adjustable height light source that will cost less than $35 dollars for the whole setup.  I bought start-up trays with covers that provided extra moisture for plants and a spray bottle to occasionally blast them with mist.

A Compact fluorescent light, a tray or even yogurt containers and some potting soil is the recipe to and early garden.

This year when I planted my seeds I didn’t even cover them with soil in their trays. One of my eccentric professors, Elizabeth Howley, explained to our class that the soil is really just their to provide even moisture to the seeds. True to form the germination rates have been nearly one hundred percent for me so far.

These trays and optional greenhouse covers can be purchased almost anywhere this time of year.  Just stumble into any store with a garden center and look around.  Prices for the trays wont be more than a couple of dollars.

My step for this week is to create a detailed plan to reduce my food budget for this year.  To start working towards this I have mapped my garden and will need to make a crop schedule.  I have bought a few varieties of storage onions and garlic that should last in storage and I have started succession planting greens for early spring.

Overwintering: The Year Round Experience.

Black opal

I bought this African Blue Basil last year. After waiting for seeds to be produced for the entire summer, I learned that this plant is a hybrid and has the reproductive potential of two mules. With a little cloning this plant has lived on the last three months in my bedroom.

Looking out the window I can finally see the sun’s arch reach over the neighboring apartments, a signal of the approaching spring. Pretty soon gardeners all throughout the Northern Hemisphere will be elbows deep in dirt preparing for another year of foodstuffs.

This year, instead of heading to the nearest Home Depot for the cheapest seeds I can find, I’m utilizing one of the coolest concepts that I have heard of in a long time. I am buying my seeds from a company called Seed Savers Exchange(SSE).

So what I’m buying brand name seeds?

The Exchange realized that as agriculture become more standardized the plethora of seeds that were saved within families for generations were being lost.  The mechanical mass extinction event was taking place and the exchange felt it had to act. The company started an exchange based seed bank.  Members throughout the world share their seeds with the company and other members around the world. Through the organization members are encourage to either buy and sell with each other. SSE also sells to the general public although it only offers an sampled selection of the vast variety of seeds at their disposal.

The seeds they save are all heirlooms, meaning they have been reproduced continually for at least 50 years.  Although these seeds are going to prove to be more expensive than my old shopping habits, I’m going to be winning in the long run. Since all of these will be non-hybrid plants, the seeds will be viable for saving and hopefully regrowing next year.

This weeks step is to buy heirloom seeds.

Seed Savers Exchange

Digging In: Maintaining a small garden

This is my battle gear: Gloves, water, a hand hoe, a regular hoe and a wheel hoe. All effective tools depending on the space you have.

Love is a battlefield, so is growing food. Every inch of every corner in a garden there is something that helps your future food to fail. The ground isn’t full of Charles Manson bugs that are stuck in kill mode but nature is a vicious place and even on the smallest levels competition is fierce.
Your favorite tomato plant isn’t the only green life looking for precious sunlight, water and soil nutrients. Weeds in all shapes and sizes will try to hoard the nutrients that you may have worked so diligently to put in place.
Even if you manage to keep a weed free garden, bugs and small animals will be more than willing to pillage your fresh food source without giving thought to the fact that you have poured days into the planning, preparation and maintenance of this small patch of earth.
Bugs and weeds seem like small obstacles compared to the 6 foot tall 170 pound enemy they have found in me but they are not. Already this year I have had one garden nearly devoured by slugs. I had pledged to not use harmful chemicals and, as if they had overheard me make this comment, they attacked in hoards. Eventually I found a way of fighting back the bastards with beer baths but not before they had taken out over half of my transplants, leaving a stunted food supply and a lot of wasted energy.

I was lucky enough to stay on top of weeding in that garden but I have seen the results of what unwanted suneaters can do.  The first year I was working on the farm, the weeds that were growing around our asparagus became so tall that while I was chopping down a “weed” taller than myself, I accidently leveled a birds nest.  We hid the birds nest in a nearby blackberry patch, giving them protection and hoping that the mother would come back to her crying children.  We pretended the story ended happy when after three days we found the site was abandoned.

Luckily in my past few years I have gained some knowledge to stave off the advancing hoards out to attack the best laid plans or gardeners.

Keep plants Hydrated

I admittedly don’t know too much about watering plants, I just know that they need it.  My strategy is to make sure the soil never gets too dry.  To do this I dig underground about an inch and see if it’s moist. If it is I consider the plants to be well hydrated (transplants are an exception, they need immediate watering after being planted and routine watering for the next few days until its positive that they’ve taken to the new spot). If the spot is dry I’ll usually use a hose with a sprayer attachment to dampen the ground.  The best times for watering are in the morning and evenings when evaporation is less likely to occur.

This is a harlequin beetle. After teaming up with a group of squash bugs and caterpillars, these critters managed to keep our cabbage heads about the size of a fist. Crushing them gives a satisfying crunch though.

Controlling garden pests

Usually I don’t see the world in terms of black and white but when it comes to garden creatures I separate them into two categories, good and evil.

The good inhabitants like bees, butterflies and hummingbirds I will go through great lengths to maintain.  The evil critters such as squash bugs, harlequin beetles and slugs I will do everything in my power to destroy.

The method of attack depends on the enemy.  For a lot of insects I have found insecticidal soap to be extremely effective while having a minimum impact on the soil and planet in general.  The recipe I use for this is simple combination of dish soap, vegetable oil and water. The proportions are as fallows.

4 tablespoons of non-antibacterial dish soap

1 tablespoon of oil

1 gallon of water.

Mix these all and pour into a spray bottle.  When applying the “pesticide” keep in mind that it only kills what it comes in contact with.  Avoid spraying good insects and cover all parts of the plant.  I have found that many foes like to hide on the underside of leaves or around the root so these parts of the plant deserve special attention.

Slugs are plant predators that take advantage of the gardeners weaknesses.  Where most animals attack during the day when it’s dry, slugs prefer night raids and rainy days, times when most people aren’t really wanting to be out in the yard.  In order to take out these particular pests a change of strategy is in order.  I have heard of some people vigilantly searching under rocks and in other moist places carrying out seek and destroy missions.  They will hunt and kill every slug or snail they can find in the hopes that their attacks will reduce populations enough for the plants to outlive the assaults.  My favorite strategy is much less hands on.

I cut the bottoms off of 20 oz bottles, about two inches, and burry them in the dirt to where they are level with the ground.  After that, I fill them about half full with beer.  Slugs can’t resist the yeasty goodness that comes with a cold one.  After that I cover the beer traps with plastic strips cut from milk jugs, propping them up with small sticks to give the greedy creatures a way in.  Once they discover the beer they will find a way in, get drunk and drown.

Pest management is never a matter of total war.  You will never kill all of the enemies unless you move to less sustainable methods that impact both your food and your soil.  The conflict isn’t about total evisceration anyways. The war against insects only needs to be carried out to the point where the plants can survive their attackers.

This is a wheel hoe. With an 8 inch blade attached, this tool makes weeding in between rows easier than dropping the blade on a guillotine.

Weeds and the territory battle

Since plants are stationary, they are stuck in a bitter struggle for survival. When weeds get out of control they steal necessary resources from everything planted around them.  This theft of nutrients may help support one form of life but it won’t help anyone put food on the table.  If you actually want to preserve some of the investments of time and money that have been put into a garden I find that frequent weeding is essential.

My favorite tool for fighting weeds is a hand hoe.  Light and sharp, this tool cuts the heads of anything trying to pop up into the garden, but care should be taken. I can’t count the number of friendlies I have decapitated on the war against weeds.

Another essential is a good hoe.  Hoes save both your back and free-time.  There are literally dozens of hoe variations and which is best depends on what type of space your working on.  Mother Earth News came out with a great article about hoe varieties and use’s that did more justice to the subject than I ever could.  The link to that article is at the bottom of this post.

If you have your garden planned out with plenty of space between rows than I would suggest using a wheel hoe.  After one day testing this tool out in the field I was hooked on it like a bad drug.  It didn’t take much effort and even when the soil was moist it uprooted more weeds than I could have imagined, all without being gas powered.  A bonus to this tool is that you can get a cultivator attachment (I just learned about this from a comment on the cultivating section of the Digging In series).  When the next season rolls around you just take the weeding head off and attach a cultivator for a sturdy multipurpose tool.

Gardens do a lot of work on their own but when outside forces start landing on the breaches and working their way to the interior, good maintenance initially can save you a world of frustration and swearing later on.

Mother Earth News article on hoes

Another article on wheel hoes

Digging In: Planting a small garden

Waging war against the menaces that have surrounded one of my jalapeno plants. The handy tool I'm using it call a hand hoe and has quickly become my favorite tool for the ground war against weeds.

After I cultivated the land and waited for what remained of the grass to die, the process of seeding began. The garden has been growing for nearly a month now so it’s probably a good time to describe the ways I started planting my future food.

There are two ways of trying to get food from a tiny seed that I use, direct sewing and transplanting.  It’s true that you can get food without ever having to get dirty via hydroponics but it’s not very cost effective and takes a lot of skill and know-how that I just don’t have.

A radish's eye view of the garden. I have never had luck transplanting any root vegetables. These are direct sown.

Direct sewing is by no means a technical term, it means putting the seed in the ground.  How deep you should plant the future food  depends on what your putting under. Depths usually range between 1/8 of an inch to an inch-and-a-half.

Transplanting takes a little more work but reaps greater benefits in the end. Instead of throwing your seeds into the ground, watering and hoping for the best, when you transplant you grow a small plant in controlled conditions before releasing them into the wild and murderous world that young plants struggle to survive in.

A plant that hasn’t yet been put into the garden is called a start-up.  To create a start-up you can either use the blister packs that they sell at places like home depot or dixie cups with holes cut into the bottom, to allow for drainage.  I’ve gone with both store bought and the cup method in my garden at home. After you have the container you need to fill it with potting soil, regular soil compacts and won’t let water drain properly.  After putting a few seeds in each container all the seeds need is regular watering and some time. Soon you’ll start having your own transplants ready without spending the $3 dollars they would cost at Lowe’s.

In order to keep the cost down, try buying seeds late in the season.  A lot of seed packets get discounted once summer starts and if you wait a little longer you can buy cheap start-ups too.  We bought a flat of jalapenos and bell peppers for a dollar because the owner of the local feed store was tired of taking care of them.

Another way to avoid seed costs is to split the price of seeds with someone else.  I almost never use all of the seeds in a packet, my operation is too small to plant everything.  This year a friend, Aaron and me started trading seeds with each other.  I ended up with a lot of new plants without spending any extra money.  Sometimes when someone has an abundance and I have nothing, I’ve just asked for seeds they won’t use and I’ve gotten them.  Why waste them when someone else could use them?  My personal feeling is that if you take, though, you should also give, as a result I like to share the harvest with whoever helped contribute.

For a garden map I planted stakes into the ground and then made a small map showing what is planted at which stake. Simple but effective.

Either way you choose to plant, a few things are good to remember, I learned them both by forgetting.  When I planted my first garden I forgot to leave space to walk between the rows. As a result I ended up killing more than a couple of plants by stomping around like a drunk ballerina, ironically I was trying to avoid stepping on anything.  My kale and tomato plants would testify to this if they were still here.

Another thing I like to do is keep records of what I have planted and where.  Record keeping will help avoid plucking up your good plants when you’re trying to weed out the bad.  I’ve found that keeping track of when I planted and when I harvested is also extremely helpful.  The expected harvest dates on the back of seed packages are only estimates and depending on your soil and location only experience seems to be able to tell how soon something is going to be be popping up.

Coming up: Weeding and the best tools for waging the ground war.

Weekly step update #1

This is the first check-in about my progress on the trail to living a sustainable life.   These are the changes that I have pledged to make so far and this is how well I’ve been keeping with them.

My "green canteen" isn't the only stainless steel container in the house. My aunt and uncle purchased these because before all they were using was plastic bottles and eventually they decided to get away from leaching plastics.

No more plastic bottles:

I have been doing good on this front.  Soon after taking on the challenge I realized that I didn’t buy that many water bottles anyway, my family is a different story.  Ultimately I decided to swear off all plastic bottles in general.  Recently it’s come to my notice that instead of going with plastic when I stop into a 7-11 what my hands end up latching onto is usually a can or glass bottles.  I’m going to have to do a little research to find out if this is actually progress towards reducing my impact on the earth, or if I’d have to give up glass and aluminum to make a real difference.

Watch labels and avoid foods with the chemicals calcium chloride and calcium disodium EDTA.

When I came up with this step I was having severe stomach problems and starting to move towards an sustainably farmed food diet.  Both of these chemicals are known to be associated with stomach problems in high doses and they are both preservatives, like arsenic used to be.

I have started to read labels due to a gluten allergy I recently found out I have, but I have slipped more then a couple of times on eating calcium disodium EDTA and calcium chloride which sneaks into more foods then you’d suspect.  Tonight I ate Calcium disodium EDTA in Italian salad dressing.  I didn’t read the label until after eating.  The horseradish sauce from Arby’s also contains the chemical.

No Coffee from large chain stores:

Calypso Coffee

So far I have been able to accomplish this goal completely.  In the town I’m currently there are no coffee shops, just diners.  In downtown Knoxville I have discovered a few coffee shops that are locally owned and on the farm everything we drink is made from grounds bought at Ingles.  I’m stilling sipping down the coffee purchased from Calypso Coffee in Coeur d’Alene Idaho.  It still taste like sweet nectar in comparison to anything I’ve been able to drink since.  To ensure that coffee stays fresh you can put it in the freezer until grinding and when you brew it up, it will be almost as good as it was when you left the shop.

Planting a garden:

A radish eye's view of the garden.

I’m still in the process of starting my garden but proactive steps are being taken.  The garden I planted earlier this year is being managed by my mom back in Oregon until I get back.  Out here the lettuce and arugula aren’t making but radishes and spinach have survived the scorching sun and are living well.  Today we purchased a flat of peppers from the feed store in town for $1.  These are all healthy plants.  When we went in to buy feed, the owner said we could get em for half off.  Shortly after that he changed his mind, and said we could take the whole bunch for a buck, he wanted to get rid of them. This is another reason why I like to shop at locally owned businesses.  If someone made this type of deal for us at Lowe’s or Home Depot they would be fired, but locally owned shops give you a personal experience with the owners and often this deal works out in everyone’s favors.

New step towards sustainability for the week: Learn to can food.

I’m actually really excited about this step.  Canning my own food has been something I’ve wanted to do for some time now and I’m finally at a place where it’s possible.  After shopping around a bit I was able to find out where to get the cheapest canning supplies in town.  In my quest for finding the cheapest canning supplies I searched the nearby Farmers CO-OP, K-Mart, a local hardware store and Ingles.  Between all the shops prices ranged from $8.49 to 9.99 for pints and $8.99-10.99.  The ultimate winner in the battle of the prices was Ingles with Pints at $8.49 and quarts at $8.99.

My aunt started canning last year and this year I have already made a few attempts but none have been what I would call completely successful.  What I’ve learned is that canning is a safe business when precautions are taken.  If corners are cut too short though consequences can be deadly.

Our recent forray into the world of canning involved packing 14 quarts of pickles. Unfortunately all the lids didn't seal, so we're going to be eating a lot of pickles this week.

Canning becomes a sustainable concept because durring in many areas the options of local food drops off.  If buying food locally and seasonally, canning can extend the time your eating home grown green beans from a couple months to year-round.  Not only is canning a good choice to keep healthy, local food around but after you get past the start-up costs canning is as expensive as buy jar lids.

Storing food isn’t only for the individual looking to spend hours in the kitchen, however.

One simple way to keep cucumbers fresh for a long time is to wait until a jar of pickles runs out but keep this juice and container.  If you add a new batch of cucumbers to the brine and leave the mix in the fridge after about a week you’ll find another batch of crisp fresh pickles just waiting to be consumed.