Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Knee High By the Fourth of July?


Our popcorn shows promise. If the harvest is as good as this augurs, we should be able to go without buying our favorite treat for quite a few months. Maybe even an entire year.

In general, the squash is not doing all that well this year. I don't think they liked the heavy rain this month. But one volunteer vine that I spared seems to have bred true enough to be producing pumpkins. I'm optimistic that I'll get at least one triamble from the seeds Novella offered this past winter.

The comfrey plants have exploded in their second year and don't seem to have minded the rain at all. The beauty of this plant is that I can hack it back, and hack it back again to spread the nutrients it accumulates all over the garden. I just use the chop and drop method. The pretty but shy blossoms are much loved by the bumblebees and other bees. These plants will provide fertilizer and mulch to the rest of my plants for many years to come.

The chili pepper plants did not like the heavy rain at all. I think they were almost ready to call the whole thing off when the rain let up. My husband planted some early Anaheims that already have recognizable chilis on them. My poblano chilis are farther behind, with just a few tiny buds promising fruit. With luck, the plants will get weather they like better in the next two months. I'm hoping for a large harvest so that I can smoke some of the poblanos, thus turning them into ancho chilis. When fully dried, I'll try making my own ancho chili powder, like Hank did. This mild but flavorful spice makes it into a large portion of the meals I prepare.

One of the two varieties of soup bean that I planned to grow this year failed entirely. But the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean (which I also grew last year) did better. I've since learned that light colored beans in general are more susceptible to ground rot than dark colored beans. As it happens, the Cherokee Trail of Tears is a jet black bean, while the Hutterite Soup is a creamy pale bean. So I guess it's no surprise that one did much better than the other with all the rain we had. Nonetheless, I'm trying again with a different pale bean - the Flagrano, a flageolet type. Show above are some Cherokee Trail of Tears growing on one of the bean tripods I made with that bamboo we harvested early this year. This is an evening shot so the vines are shaded. But they're growing well. And look what they're sheltering behind there:

-My next crop of spinach. The beans will keep the worst of the heat off these little sprouts, which like cool temperatures.

Here is my experiment with potatoes this year. There are rumors of prodigious yields from individual potato plants if they are kept well hilled as they grow. Most of my potatoes are planted in trenches about 8" deep. Each time the plant gets 5"-6" of growth above the soil line, I bury them a bit more. But I can only hill so far before I run out of loose soil to mound around them. Thus the bucket experiment. Not only is it trivially easy to continue mounding a potato plant in a bucket, but harvest will be as easy as dumping the entire bucket into the wheelbarrow. No-dig potatoes!

Some people claim that only late season potatoes will yield significantly more if well hilled. Some say potato plants set all the tubers they will develop before they flower, and that hilling beyond that point is wasted effort. A few of my trenched potatoes are already flowering, so the hilling there is done. In the buckets I have German Butterballs, the only late season variety I'm growing this year, though I have German Butterballs in the ground as well. They haven't yet flowered, but the buckets are already completely full of dirt. I recorded the weight of the seed stock for these individual plants, so we'll see how they yield. Incidentally, the potatoes in the buckets didn't seem bothered in the least by the heavy rains, while those in the ground started to look a bit sulky. I drilled several drainage holes in each bucket before planting.

My Tuscan kale plants, which for two years have been very reliable and vigorous producers, just aren't growing for me this year. They were badly damaged by the slugs and then hammered by the rain. They don't seem to be bouncing back at all. On the other hand, the Brussels sprouts I put in a week ago where the garlic had just been harvested, just a few feet away from the kale, seem to be doing quite well. I'm going to try again with new seedlings of kale and some Savoy cabbage, hoping for a good fall crop. Tuscan kale has been a mainstay of our diet for the last two years, especially over the winter months. The prospect of no kale harvest this year is worrisome.

I'm quite the curmudgeon when it comes to flowers in the garden. It had better have some utility beyond looking pretty if it wants a spot in the best growing area on our property. Oddly, my husband likes pretty things just for the sake of beauty more than I do. Fortunately, flower mixes attract polinators and predator insects, so I will cede some territory to him for his pretty stuff. He drastically overseeded his allotment with all sorts of flowers. They are just about ready to explode into bloom. These are a few of the earliest blossoms. It should be quite a show in another week or so. I don't even know what's in there, but I hope some are perennials or accomplished self-seeders.

This is a small patch of the fall cover crop we planted last year that escaped destruction. It's a mix of hairy vetch (purple blooms) and rye (drooping grain heads) that we decided to let go, just to see what it would do. Turns out that hairy vetch is one of the few plants that harbor the minute pirate bug, a voracious predator. The rye looks like it's nearing maturity. Maybe we'll harvest a few stalks and see how the grain threshes out.

Finally, a mystery bug. Anyone know what this tiny iridescent orange - fly? wasp? - is that I found on a corn leaf this morning? There are a lot of them around, but I've never seen them munching on any plant. So my guess is that it's a predator of some sort.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Independence Days Challenge - Daikon Edition

Time for another Independence Days report. You can play along at home too.

Since reading the wonderful book on homescale permaculture, Gaia's Garden, I've been intrigued by the idea of growing some daikon. The author, Toby Hemenway, mentioned the ingenious idea to grow these long, deeply rooted Asian radishes entirely for the purpose of soil improvement. If you have very poor or compacted soil, the mature roots of the daikon can simply be left in the soil to rot. They will add a column of organic matter to the soil while working to break up heavy clay and improve drainage. I absolutely love the permaculture concepts of using the inherent qualities or behaviors of plants to further human goals. It's similar to the way I put the chickens to work clearing new beds for gardening, or just weeding a recently harvested bed before replanting. Letting the diakon do the work of soil improvement is far less disruptive to the subterranean environment than tilling. All the soil based microorganisms aren't disturbed, and buried weed seeds don't get a free ride to the surface where they're likely to germinate.

Beyond that, I've been all itchy and scratchy to try making the Chinese "turnip cake" dish, which is actually made with radishes, and I'm guessing it's not those dainty French breakfast radishes, but the more substantial daikon type. So I got some late season daikon seed, and have been champing at the bit to plant them, even though I should really wait a month. In my typical jump the gun fashion, I decided to plant a few seeds each week from now till the end of August. We'll see which row looks best when it's time to harvest.

I plan to put some daikons for soil improvement under our apple tree, where we plan to put a permaculture bed in place next year. The soil there gets too much rain runoff from the back of our garage, which for some reason never had a rain gutter installed. Very damaged soil under there, but a permaculture bed should heal it, and a rain catchment system is in on our list.

Anyhow, on to the Independence Days report:

Planted - More kale since my kale plants seem to be going absolutely nowhere this year, some parsley and rosemary seedlings that I picked up at the farmer's market for a song, the aforementioned daikons, a few more okra seeds since the seedlings look like they haven't enjoyed all the rain we've had this month. Some flageolet beans to replace the Hutterite soup beans which don't seem to have made it. It's a bit late to be planting beans, but if we're lucky with the timing of the first fall frost, I may see a good yield. Other work in the garden includes more lasagna mulching, hilling the potatoes and leeks, chopping back the exuberant comfrey for green manure, and of course weeding.

Harvested - Clipped a bunch of oregano to hang and dry, Greek-fashion. I harvested about two cups of lemon balm leaves to make an experimental batch of homemade soda. Still eating salad from the garden, and eggs from our ever-reliable girls. Between a late frost in May and torrential June, our springtime yields just haven't been at all what I had hoped for. The garlic already harvested has another week of drying before I trim it up, clean it, weigh it, and select the best bulbs for re-planting before storing the remainder. I'm now harvesting some of my bolting lettuce plants for the chickens. Mostly these are regrowth from heads that were cut earlier, so I don't feel there's much waste there. The girls relish these daily treats.

Preserved - Said bundle of oregano for drying. Not much else.

Waste not - Nothing new here. Same old recycling, etc. But if it counts, I've been managing with fans instead of any AC so far this summer. I'm surprised how much my body has acclimated to warmer sleeping temperatures. I really like to sleep in a cold room with heavy blankets.

Preparation/Storage - Nothing much to report here. Got a book on bean dishes out of the library. I'm looking for ideas to incorporate more of them into our diet. Since we can grow our own soup beans, this could and should be an extremely cheap cornerstone food for us. I just need to figure out how to make that happen. Baked beans aren't going to do it, damn our culinary standards.

Community - I finally made it to the third week of the closest farmer's market. Three of the vendors I was most likely to buy from have moved on to other markets. But there are still nice looking fruits and veggies available.

I missed the scheduled Plant a Row drop-off at the food bank this past week. I may try to make up for it this week. I can certainly spare some lettuce, and the hot weather out there isn't doing them any good.

At a dinner with some friends last night I brought up the Transition movement. I tried to explain what it was and felt I didn't do a very good job of it. I'm intrigued by the possibilities of working at a very local level to prepare for an energy-scarce future. But even when talking to people who were already quite receptive to the concepts, I don't feel well equipped to teach and share ideas. It's not that I'm uncomfortable speaking - I've gotten over my fear of speaking publicly and formally. I just don't feel like I have enough of a handle on the issues to explain clearly or convince anyone.

Eat the food - That homemade lemon balm soda? I got the idea from a couple articles over at Herb Mentor, where they discuss blueberry soda and popsicles made from lemon balm and honey. Since I had neither popsicle molds nor patience, I improvised wildly. It turned out alright, but a little grassy tasting. I was curious how it might differ if I used dried lemon balm. My plants are new and thus small this year. So I'll have to wait for more growth before trying a second batch. I think I preferred my batch of ginger ale, which wasn't homegrown in the least.

I brought the worst looking garlic right inside to the kitchen and have been salvaging what I could of it. Still eating homemade bread (baked in cooler months) from the chest freezer. Also made a cherry clafouti with our own eggs and sour cherries from the farmer's market.

So what's up in your neck of the woods? How does your garden grow?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Austerity Parties

I've got another post up at the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op. It's about a cheap way of entertaining while celebrating and even embracing frugality. Click below to have a wander over there.

Have a great weekend, everyone.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Tiny Tip: More Sunlight in Your Garden

Okay, this is an old familiar gardening trick. But as with all old familiar things, it's bound to be new to someone. Sunlight, water, and good soil are the fundamentals of growing productive and healthy plants. A few people are blessed with just the right amount of all of these. Others have to struggle a bit to get enough or to moderate an abundance of one or the other. If you're trying to grow in an area that gets less sun than is ideal, here's an easy partial fix.

Take those automobile sunshades that were all the rage a few years back, and put them at the end of your garden that faces the sun. This will reflect whatever light you do get back to your garden, so the plants have two chances to make use of any sunlight that comes their way. If you're in the northern hemisphere, position the screen at the north end of your garden, with the reflector facing south. In the southern hemisphere, put it at the south end of your garden, facing north.

These things were turning up at yardsales for next to nothing for a while there. Not sure if they are anymore. If you can't turn one up for a few cents, you could always make your own reflector with aluminum foil and a few pieces of cardboard. Be sure to leave the shinier side of the foil facing out if you do so. And if you happen to have any large unwanted mirrors hanging out in the garage, those would work best of all. Tomato plants, incidentally, love these things. I suspect tomatoes would actually be happiest growing in a tanning bed that was turned on 24/7.

Got any oldie but goodie garden tips? Share them in the comments, please!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Salvaging the Garlic

I had not planned to spend this morning salvaging what I could of my garlic crop. The month of June has simply hammered us with rain. We've had nearly an inch of rain in the last 24 hours, and as of yesterday we were at 230% of our average monthly rainfall-to-date. It's supposed to rain again today, and more rain is predicted for Wednesday. There's no sun in the forecast. I've put up with this crazy weather without complaint for more than two weeks now. But I am getting to the point where I simply cannot believe that the rain continues. It's surreal. We have mushrooms growing all over our lawn. I mean, it has to end sometime, doesn't it?

Might be hard to see the yellowed tips in this image, but they're there. Click to biggify.

Saturday evening was my tip off that something was not right with the garlic plants. The leaves of garlic are supposed to dry out and wither sequentially from the oldest, outermost leaves to the youngest, innermost leaves; in other words, from the ground up. When I went to shut the hens in for the night, I could see that the tips of the highest leaves were yellowed and wilted. This was not good news. Each leaf on a garlic plant corresponds to one papery layer around the bulb. If the leaves and papery layers rot, the bulb is left naked in the ground and subject to all sorts of fungal infections and other unpleasantness. It also means that even if the bulb makes it out of the ground, it will have no protection during storage. In garlic, you want plenty of papery layers around the bulb.

I chose one of the worst looking plants to dig up, to see how bad it looked. It was small, but it mostly looked alright. The outermost layer on the bulb was definitely a loss, but the other ones might make it if I harvested now and managed to dry the bulbs properly. Not all that easy given our 100% humidity levels. It was a tough call, and I wished I had more years of growing experience to draw on. (Experience is something you get after you need it.) Clearly the plants were distressed, but not yet badly damaged. If I left them in the ground they might survive and get to full size. Or they might rot and the crop might fail entirely. The forecast is definitely not in our favor. I decided to cut my losses, and get four of the six varieties out of the ground immediately. My husband helped with the harvest, and we left the two varieties in place that seem the least affected. It drizzled while we worked.

Right now, I have some garlic bulbs, even if they are much smaller than I'd like them to be at harvest. Our clay soil is completely saturated with water, though the uppermost layers have been well enriched with compost. Given the ongoing water torture that has been June in these parts, I was afraid these four varieties would yield nothing if I put off the harvest. I'm not happy about this. But that's how gardening works. I'll watch and wait with the other two varieties. I'm just glad this isn't my livelihood. While I would resent it hugely, I could afford to buy my garlic. Losing this crop would suck, but it would only mean losing my homegrown supply and my seed stock for this fall. Farmers raising garlic in my area could be in real trouble. Not that this is a major garlic producing area. And of course, they might also have taken more elaborate measures to ensure drainage in particularly wet years.

It's going to be even tougher this year to set aside the best bulbs for planting stock. Most of the bulbs are small now and will only get smaller as they dry down. The few decent sized bulbs are all going to have to be replanted in October. Looks like we'll be using tiny bulbs of garlic this year.

The garlic, set out to dry in our garage. You can see some of the yellow leaf tips a little better here.

For the most part, other plants in the garden seem to be holding their own. But the tips of a few potato leaves are ever so slightly turning yellow. Another root crop in trouble. I hope they make it. I planted ten pounds altogether of four different varieties. The basil, eggplant, and peppers seem to be having the next worst time of things. The basil and eggplant especially are simply not growing. The peppers look pale and small although a few have tiny little peppers on them already. They all need some hot, dry, scorching days to make them happy. I don't know when we'll have any of those. So far, the tomatoes don't seem to mind the rain, and the little okra seedlings seem to be okay, even though they are now in the shade (or would be if there were any sun) of some mushrooms growing in the wood chip mulch all around them. The melons and squash are very small, but they seem to be surviving. The raised mounds they're planted in probably help. The beans, popcorn, lettuce and spinach haven't minded the cool damp at all, so far as I can tell. The parsnips seem to be loving the rain from what the leaves are telling me.

More garlic posts
The Promise of Garlic
Garlic Harvest
The Limits of Garlic

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Other People’s Fruit

Today I have another guest post from my husband, who, as you will see, is slowly (but surely) being infected with the gardening/homesteading virus. Here's what he's been up to lately.

I was tracking down where heavy rain run-off goes when it leaves our property. What I found was a mini-river in my next door neighbor’s back yard. As I walked downstream I also discovered ripe mulberries in my neighbor’s tree. Here was mature fruit that if left un-harvested would merely become dinner for the local birds. Mulberries are often planted near other more desirable fruits as the birds go after the mulberries first.

So I began harvesting the unwanted berries thinking they would be tasty treats for our three chickens. After spending time harvesting around two pints of berries I began thinking far more selfishly. Why relinquish them to birds that go bonkers for flavorless wild strawberries when mulberries would make a nice treat for humans? So I gathered some wild strawberries, gave a strawberry thrill to our hens, and took the mulberries inside for cleaning.

I was interested in making some jam or even thick syrup. Confession time: On a recent business trip I met a friend at an IHOP just before flying out. It was a convenient location for the both of us; certainly not a culinary pinnacle. But in their defense they do serve tea in teapots. So they get props for that. But the point is that they offer a high-fructose, artificially flavored (courtesy of our flavor chemist industry), berry-ish syrup. I wanted home-made pancakes with real berry syrup. And now, presented with the opportunity, I pulled out the pectin and began something I have never done before…make jam from berries.

I love this type of cooking where there is ambiguity and winging-it is the order of the day. So I read the directions on the pectin packet then embarked on some exploratory cooking. Berries have no natural pectin unlike other fruits. So adding is necessary to get it to gel. I more or less used the recommended amount of sugar and, on the advice of my wife, added lemon juice. The lemon juice really brought out the fruit flavor and added the brightness of citrus.

The instructions for my quick method indicated that after adding the pectin a period of 24 hours was needed for proper setting. I was only prepared to wait about 8 hours until breakfast rolled around. The result was less jam than thick syrup on its way to jam. This was perfect for pancakes. Mulberries tend to have less flavor than other berries. But the jam syrup on pancakes was well received by all.

At the 24 hour mark the jam syrup had not set any more than at the 8 hour mark. But I had achieved something I’d never done. Delayed gratification of stuffing ripe berries straight into my mouth, turning it into jam syrup and scratching the pancake itch with someone else’s unwanted fruit. It was a satisfying feeling.

So now I keep an eye out for unappreciated fruit that could become my treasure. All this for nothing more than some enjoyable harvesting and cooking. I’ve already found another stand of mulberries on their way to ripeness. Perhaps this time I’ll get full-on jam with a bit more pectin. Other people’s fruit…hurrah!

Kate again: I really like the flavor profile of this gleaned treat. It's sort of spicy and dark, with hints of cinnamon and fig. A nice thing to have on hand when a sweet craving strikes. My husband's other guest post can be found here: Homemade Sled Report.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Independence Days Challenge - Inadequacy Edition

These days I'm feeling a little inadequate in the gardening department. I've put a lot of work into my garden already this year. But so far we've gotten relatively little out of it, or at least it feels that way to me. Lettuces, and other greens, and herbs. Until I harvested the garlic scapes this past week, that's all we've gotten so far. And it's already the middle of June.

As usual, this is partly a result of nature having her say, and partly my own doings. Nature has weighed in to let me know that the slugs simply love - love - the lasagna mulch that I laid down last year and early this year. I'm really not happy about this. See, I've lived in two different areas where slugs are absolutely the bane of gardeners' existences. And I was so pleased to find that the slug populations here in Pennsylvania were really quite manageable. This year however, thanks to all that mulch, they are throwing an ongoing party in my garden. They pretty much wiped out my first set of Tuscan kale, which is my absolute favorite vegetable, and one we count on to produce both early and late. They did a number on the chard too, though some of the beets seem to be holding on. I've picked up a large supply of diatomaceous earth (essentially fossilized microfauna, so sharp that they tear open the soft bodies of slugs) which I'm hoping will keep my next round of brassicas alive.

Despite the slug infestation, I have to admit that deep lasagna mulching has its benefits. I haven't given up on the practice at all.

Our lack of other things to harvest is partly due to the things I chose to plant, and how I chose to plant them. There's plenty of room for improvement in my use of row covers for getting things started early. I could have planted peas, radishes and other early crops, but I didn't. We're not all that crazy about radishes, and peas have always seemed like a lot of work for a little food. However, we love snow peas, which require no shelling. Indeed, the Brits call them mangetout, taken from the French for "eat it all." Yes, you eat the whole thing. And had I planted them, we'd be eating them by now. So snow peas are in order for next spring's planting. I may even see if I can squeeze in a crop during the late season this year.

Meanwhile I continue planting things, weeding, and watching our bush zucchini, popcorn, four varieties of potato, three varieties of winter squash, charantais melon, six varieties of garlic, carrots, beets, parsnips, onions, leeks, shallots, chard, okra, soup beans, four varieties of tomato, poblano peppers, eggplant, lots of different lettuces, and celeriac grow and grow and grow out there. Not to mention the herbs and flowers, and the apples on our ancient tree. We've got volunteer wineberries with buds all over the canes. But so little is ready for harvest yet. And the new asparagus is putting out another set of stalks, but they're all off-limits this year. Sigh.

On to the Independence Days report...

Planted: lovage, shallots, leeks, onions, still more kale, charantais melon seedlings, celeriac seedlings, next round of parsnips, next round of spinach.

Harvested: garlic scapes, lettuce, herbs, spinach, and eggs from the girls. I've also started gathering the wild strawberries for the girls, in addition to their daily complement of weeds. Wild strawberries don't do much for me, but the girls are positively thrilled by them, which is so gratifying. My husband went gleaning for mulberries over the weekend.

Preserved: Just two little bags of garlic scape pesto put into the freezer. That's it.

Waste not: I actually located a facility in my area that will recycle styrofoam! Also, now that we have a rocket stove, there's a good reason (other than aesthetics) to gather all the dead wood that the storms are knocking out of our trees. Now it's fuel.

Preparation/Storage: I started sealing some pantry goods in glass canning jars with a borrowed vacuum sealer contraption. This was timely because all the rain we've been having brought a significant amount of water into our basement, where I store a lot of our dry goods. It was nice not to have to worry about the food. Vacuum sealing in glass means the food is safe from both critters and moisture. We're still working on finding some affordable shelving to set up a proper organized storage area down there. We certainly have the room.

Also, we had a solar site evaluation done on our property on Saturday. This is our second one, since we thought the first guys were basically bozos. The crew that came on Saturday were not bozos. We'll see what they come back with.

I'm going to count the book I'm reading in this category too. Gaia's Garden is an excellent introduction to permaculture/forest gardening on a residential lot scale. It's readable enough that I'm actually working my way through it from cover to cover, which is not the way I usually read gardening titles. And it's already taught me a great deal about the biochemistry of soil and what goes on below ground and out of sight in my garden. It's also making me look at the space around and under my apple tree in a new light. The wheels begin to turn...

Community: Took three large heads of lettuce and some herbs from the garden to the food bank, and got one relative to do the same. All part of my Plant a Row project.

I think I may be making a little bit of headway in encouraging some of my relatives to think about growing more of their own food.

Eat the food: The garlic scapes that weren't made into pesto went into some pasta with a jar of my roasted tomato sauce from last year. I've been putting a lot of spinach into my quesadillas. Still nice to have fresh lettuce around for entree salads and sandwich fixings.

We're eating down my frozen stores of homemade bread. We'll continue this throughout the summer months.

Also, I've been making impromptu bowls of meuslix for breakfast with the mixture of six different rolled grains that I normally put in my multigrain sandwich loaves. Since baking season is over for now, it's nice to have an alternate use for this stuff so that it doesn't just sit around for a few months. I also add some of the powdered milk that I got such a great deal on way back when, so that's helping make more room in the chest freezer. I find it's pretty satisfying with just a little bit of whatever dried fruit is hanging around: cranberries, raisins, sour cherries. It's all good. Perhaps I should actually take the time to mix up a batch of meuslix. But then, that would take away the day-to-day variety.

You can join in with the Independence Days Challenge too. Say your piece in the comments, or link to your own post.

Other Independence Days reports
5/18/09 - First of 2009
6/8/09 - Okra Edition

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Chores Pleasant and Otherwise

We're sure having a lot of rain this spring. That means that I'm spending more time inside, doing housework and other indoorsy sort of things than I would normally in June. I hope the rain tapers off here so that summer can get underway. The tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants could do with some properly blistering days.

Today I harvested all the remaining garlic scapes, those fleeting late spring delicacies. I left a few scapes intact from each of the varieties of garlic I'm growing, except for the chesnok red. See, removing the scapes is supposed to make the bulbs bigger (logical), but leaving them in place is supposed to give you smaller bulbs that store longer (possible). Since my garlic all started sprouting in December last year, I'm hoping that I can store a portion of this year's harvest a bit longer. We'll see how it goes. I devote what is probably an excessive amount of thought to extending the portion of the year when we eat our own garlic. I'll let you know how this experiment works out. Oh, and I cut all the chesnok red because it is supposed to store for less time overall than the other five varieties of garlic. While I was out there harvesting, I had to beat back some nemorosa sage (an ornamental for the bees) that was sprawling all over the garden and into one row of garlic in particular. You'd think it owned the place or something. It makes for nice bouquets.

Anyhoo, I was planning to make garlic scape pesto, which all the gardeners seem to be raving about these days. But shock and horror! My supply of nuts to make pesto was unconscionably low. So I whipped up one batch with the few walnuts I had, and then another slightly larger batch with a slightly larger supply of pecans. Oh man! This stuff is maddeningly good! Why didn't I make some of this last year? (Because I'm hopelessly unhip, obviously.) It couldn't be a simpler recipe: equal parts by volume of nuts and coarsely chopped garlic scapes, plus a big pinch of salt, all pulverized in the food processor, then add generous amounts of olive oil to reach a decent consistency. I know it's vague, but you'll do well, grasshopper.

Seriously, I could have eaten this stuff with spoon until it was gone. Instead I contented myself with a few scoops on carrot sticks. I definitely preferred the walnut version. Then I dutifully froze both batches and whipped up a pasta dish for lunch from the remaining garlic scapes and a jar of last summer's roasted tomato sauce. I'm going to save the garlic scape pestos for dinner with company. The only trouble will be trying to decide whether to used it on pasta, or on pizza, or in a dish of scalloped potatoes, or whether it's better as a crudite dip. I think it could be bulked up and tamed at the same time with some bread crumbs and water for those garlic-shy folks. Me, I like the full bore stuff. But then, I've never lived in fear of vampires.

Other than that, I caught up on folding several loads of laundry, vacuumed, cleaned the kitchen and a pile of ziploc bags, and fed my worms. They seem to be doing well, but it's really hard to tell with worms. Then I caulked a few more windows around the house until my wrist complained.

I'm ready for some drier weather now. The second crop of parsnips needs to be planted, and there are still more onion family seedlings to set out. The fennel needs to be transplanted as well. If it doesn't stop raining soon, the funk may get some of those garden plants. If you've got more sunshine than you need, please send it my way...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Independence Days Challenge - Okra Edition

Time for another Independence Days update.

Plant something I got my first ever okra seedlings into the ground. This is one of my two experimental plantings this year. Okra should do reasonably well in my area, but it's not something that has ever regularly been a part of our diet. I germinated a bunch of seeds and put the eight most promising ones in the ground over the weekend. We'll see how it does and how much we enjoy eating it. We're hoping that the freshness factor overwhelms our heretofore ho-hum impression of okra. In any case, the plants apparently have beautiful flowers, so I'm looking forward to seeing how it grows. I also put in some anise hyssop and more onion family transplants over the past week.

Harvest something I'm still looking at not much beyond greens and herbs from my garden. I feel way behind the curve. Still eating salads, and I harvested quite a large quantity of herbs for bread baking (see below). A few garlic scapes were big enough to cut, but most of them will probably be cut later this week. Eggs from the girls as usual. Lots of weeds "harvested" for the girls too.

Preserve something Last Thursday was supposed to be unusually cool, so I earmarked it for a marathon baking day. I baked 24 loaves of bread, and most of those went into the chest freezer. I'm hoping this will get us through the summer without the need to buy or bake any more bread. Lots of my own herbs went into one of the two types of bread I made: oregano, chives, and sage.

Reduce waste The only new thing I can think of in this category is that I identified yet another weed that my hens will happily eat: yellow wood sorrel. It comes up like crazy in my garden, so now I've got another way to reduce their feed costs and give them still greater diversity in their diet.

Build Community I bartered a few of the loaves of bread I baked for some local honey.

I didn't make it to the opening day of the local farmers market. My excuse is that my husband's away on business travel again, and I'm stuck with a lot of leftovers. So I haven't shopped in more than a week. More garden surplus goes to the food bank this week though, and I'll try to make it to this week's market. I want some beets!

I offered some unwanted ornamental plants from our yard to some neighbors down the road. They may come dig them up today.

Eat the food I'm just trying to bat cleanup on all the leftovers!

Preparation/Storage I priced some new shelving (ouch!) and have been scouring the free listings for a way to help organize our dry food storage area. We need a better system. Right now it's too difficult to see what all we have, and what we might need to pick up.

Also, I picked up some silicone caulk and have begun the project of sealing the air gaps around our windows and doors. This will help make our "envelope" more air tight and so help us to conserve energy when either heating or cooling the house.

I've cooked on the rocket stove a few times, so as to begin learning its ins and outs and be in practice with it. There are several items now on my project list to make this a more feasible regular activity. More on this, no doubt, in future Independence Days updates.

I bought some extra-large wide mouth canning jars and will soon use a borrowed vacuum sealer contraption to seal beans, grains and other things critters might like to help themselves to. Then I can put them in the basement and not worry about moisture or anything else.

Finally, I picked up extra sunscreen to have on hand. See? I am capable of thinking about things other than food!

You can play along on the Independence Days Challenges too. Post your own achievements, or link to them, in the comments.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

We Built a Rocket Stove!

I got my birthday present over the weekend: two full days of my husband's help with a project on my (endless) list. It could have been cold frames, rabbit tractors, or the rocket stove; I didn't care which one we picked to get done. But I'm absolutely thrilled with the results of our labor.

Rocket stoves are an example of appropriate technology. They are exceptionally efficient wood-burning stoves that can be made from simple materials by people without any specialized skills or knowledge. Believe me when I say that our rocket stove perfectly demonstrates those last two principles. We have zero prior experience at bricklaying, and almost all of the materials that went into the construction of our rocket stove were either literally lying around our property, or were scavenged elsewhere. Based on the inspiration from Homegrown Evolution, I had in mind a permanent rocket stove made of brick. It's also possible to build portable ones in largish metal cans, as shown in this video. (Warning: gratuitous techno-pop background music.)

Despite giving the project our more or less undivided attention, it took two full days of work. First my husband, an engineer, needed time to digest the concept of the rocket stove. I'm much more likely to just run with a half baked idea and assume I can intuit how things should be done, so there's always friction when we collaborate on projects like this one. The rest of day 1 was taken up by prep work. First I cleared a space for the stove in what is eventually going to be our all-perennial area. Right now it's mostly a weed patch. Then my husband dug a hole deep and large enough to take this concrete block base, which (I swear I'm not making this up) we found while clearing away a debris pile in the back corner of our property. We carefully filled the hole partway with gravel (again, I swear, there was a pile leftover from paving the driveway behind our fence) and sand (we had a couple partial bags from other projects). Next we leveled the block and filled the central hole with more sand.

Shown are most of the materials which went into the construction of our rocket stove. Everything seen here was scavenged, but the stove pipe shown is 6" in diameter, so we needed to buy a 4" length.

Then we gathered bricks from around our property. Some were really old, dug out of the ground when we tilled for the garden, and some newer ones were left over from the previous owner putting in a nice walkway. My husband made a run to the hardware store for the few things we needed to purchase: more sand for the mortar mix and a length of 4" stovepipe. Believe it or not, we had actually scavenged a 4" stovepipe elbow joint during one of our dumpster diving runs last year, so we didn't need to buy that. Meanwhile, I cut up the steel can needed to fit inside the burn chamber, and cleaned off a scuzzy old round grill that we'd salvaged somewhere once upon a time.

Sorry for the blurry picture; it was getting dark. This is the unmortared prototype being fired up. You can see that some of the bricks have moss on them.

Then we built a prototype on the driveway, with no mortar between the bricks, and fired it up just to see how it would work. That went fairly easily and it taught us one valuable thing: we didn't want the fuel opening too close to the ground. Rocket stoves burn very, very hot, but our prototype at least needed a bit of blowing to get the flames going well. Bending down that low to the ground to blow into the burn chamber was no fun. We decided to move the burn chamber higher. We were deeply impressed by the amount of heat generated by a very meager quantity of green twigs, even without the insulation of the wood ash around the stovepipe. We were able to simmer a pan full of water over the flames, without a lid on the pan. That was the end of day 1.

Day 2 began with my unwelcome realization that we really ought to clean off the bricks we'd gathered for the project. Many of them were filthy and pitted. Some had moss growing on them. Obviously, not great material for sticking together with mortar. (Sigh. The costs of recycling materials rather than buying new.) Cleaning the bricks took up a good portion of the morning, and made us absolutely filthy.

After lunch, it was time to mix up the mortar and start laying. Like I said, neither of us had ever laid brick before, so we went to the internet for some fundamentals. But really, we had no clue. We did however have tools. Despite the small number of bricks in this project (just 48), it was hard work laying the courses, which we took turns at. I have a new-found respect for the skill and the sheer physical work of brickmasons. Our backs were killing us when it was done. I was fairly proud that we at least managed to finish with a reasonably level course of bricks, but the appearance of our rocket stove would charitably be called rustic. We covered the rocket stove with a sheet of plastic and retired for the evening.

This past winter I had thought to ask one of my relatives with a woodstove for a bucket full of ashes, in order to have them on hand whenever we got to this project. Thus I had one 5-gallon bucket of wood ash in the garage. Being non-combustible, light, and airy, ash serves as excellent, cheap, and widely available insulation around the stovepipe inside a rocket stove, concentrating the heat even more. We still need to add a few more inches of ash around the stovepipe chimney, and then cut a piece of sheet metal to fit around the chimney and cover the ash. Other than that, the construction is done.

After the mortar set up for two days, I decided to test out the cooking possibilities with an egg for dinner. It wasn't very elaborate, and I had to bring the toast from the kitchen. But our own homegrown egg cooked up beautifully with some greenery snipped right from the garden. Hardly any ash on my inaugural rocket stove meal!

I'm absolutely thrilled with my birthday present, especially because we built it ourselves at almost no expense. As soon as it was constructed, I started looking at the ground around it, and wondering which perennial culinary herbs it would be best to plant nearby. I'll divide my chives next spring and plant them within easy reach, and I think I'll put some lemon thyme in not too far away. I had asked that the rocket stove be situated just near the covered area next to our shed. So we have a convenient place to accumulate a pile of twigs and keep them dry. With some work we could pretty up this area and make it a nice place to hang out and contemplate the garden. More tasks for the list!

All the fuel needed to cook my egg dinner.

The rocket stove is so hot that I don't envision using it for grilling, even though it's topped by a grill, but perhaps we'll eventually get the hang of producing a low flame. It will easily boil a pot of water, and I'm sure we will learn the ins and outs of cooking over heat so intense. I see the rocket stove as a way of efficiently using the huge quantity of deadwood that drops from our six remaining full sized deciduous trees each year. It will be an emergency backup for cooking in any weather. If we lost power for a long while during really cold weather, we could at least heat water to keep ourselves warm with tea, soup, and hot water bottles.

So...I'm in the market for one-skillet recipes!

Monday, June 1, 2009

June Frugal Action Item: Increase the Deductible on Your Auto Insurance

Image originally uploaded by przemion

This month's Frugal Action Item is predicated on a few assumptions, and I want to make it clear that this one won't be recommended for absolutely everyone. Here it is: if you have an automobile with insurance, raise your deductible by $500. At the same time, put an extra $500 into your savings account. That means in the event of damage to your car, you pay more out of pocket, but that extra money will be sitting right there for you. No sweat. In the meantime, you'll save by paying lower premiums. And you'll earn a tad more in interest each month because of the higher balance in your liquid savings.

Remember: insurance of any type should serve to protect us from financial catastrophe, not from ever having to pay anything for day-to-day expenses. Don't buy more insurance than you really need.

Now I don't recommend this Action Item to those who have just added teenage drivers to the family insurance policy. Nor to those who are already struggling to get by in this economy as it is. If you've lost a job, have a fixed income with very little savings, or are currently living off your savings, skip down to the Alternative Action Item below. The rest of us, if we're reasonably safe drivers, can tighten our belts and make the smart financial move.

I hear you asking, where am I supposed to find an extra $500 to put into savings? Why, from all the money you've been saving by faithfully following the Frugal Action Items since the beginning of the year! Let's take a look at how the savings have been adding up:

January's action item: CF bulb installation. This is probably saving you, on average, $2-3 per month. Let's call it $2.50 per month x 6 months. That's $15.

February's action item: Kitchen Competence. Let's say you turned over a new leaf and gave up just two dinners per month at a restaurant in favor of cooking at home. By the time you figure in the tip and extra transportation, that's probably $45-90 right there, depending on how many are in your family and where you typically eat out. Or maybe you made four loaves of bread and have been sticking with it each month. Homemade bread should be saving you at least $12 per month. So at the low end we've got a range of potential savings here from $12-90 per month, for 5 months. That's $60 to $450. If you've switched from eating out a lot to eating at home, you probably passed more than $500 in a savings after just a couple months.

March's action item: Cheaper Entertainment. If you gave up a Netflix or Blockbuster subscription, or a weekly movie night and started getting your DVD's from the library, you've probably saved at least $10 per month, even if you factor in an occasional late fee plus transportation costs to and from the library. So conservatively we'll call that $10 per month x 4 months. $40.

April's action item: Go Paper-less. The savings resulting from this month's challenge are a little harder to estimate. Let's say you gave up paper napkins, paper towels, and cancelled your newspaper subscription. That's an easy savings of $10 per month. If you were willing to go a little farther and give up tampons, sanitary napkins or diapers, your savings will be significantly higher. Let's say the average family could be saving $15 per month by giving up disposable paper goods. $15 x 3 months = $45.

May's action item: Line drying your laundry. The average dryer uses at least 75 cents to dry a load of laundry. If your family does ten loads of laundry per month, that's $7.50, easy. Two months of $7.50 monthly savings by the end of June: $15.

So there you see how easy it is to find some extra money to make progressive improvements in your financial situation. Using the lowest end numbers for each month above, we get $175 in savings. If your household saw higher savings through any of these Action Items, you've saved more than that. In any case, maybe you haven't quite saved up that $500 yet. That's okay, work at it slowly. When you have that cushion in the bank and you raise your deductible, you'll see an addition savings of perhaps $125 for a six-month policy. See how quickly the savings can pile up when you practice daily frugality?

Alternative Action Item For anyone who doesn't own a car, or who is not in a position to put an extra $500 in savings right now, a challenge of a completely different sort.

It's getting to be summertime (in the northern hemisphere - sorry, southern hemisphere visitors). So our diets should be turning to lighter fare and less cooking. The challenge this month then is to incorporate homemade but cooking-free meals into your weekly routine. Salads (green or fruit), sandwiches, wraps, gazpacho (if you're lucky enough to have ripe tomatoes already), cole slaw, mueslix, smoothies, fridge cookies, a crudité plate with an herbed dip or vinaigrette, etc - all of these will fit the bill. This challenge is designed to do two things: save you small amounts of money because you're not firing up the oven or the stovetop, and to encourage you to focus on what is fresh right now. Foods at the peak of freshness usually need almost no preparation to make delicious meals. You'll most likely eat more vegetables and/or fruits during these meals, which is healthier too. If you live in a hot climate, you'll also avoid heating up your house unnecessarily.

So see if you can eat at least one homemade breakfast, lunch, and dinner each week using no cooked foods. I'll give you a few exceptions though. Any basic food that is always sold in cooked form, such as bread, lunchmeat, or jam, is okay to include on your sandwich, especially if you previously prepared it yourself. But no cheating by bringing home a rotisserie chicken! If you happen to have a solar oven, that's fine to use as you're not drawing any power to do your cooking. And sun tea is allowed for the same reason. So shake up your routine just a bit and see what happens!

New to these Frugal Action Items? More here:

January: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs & Hot Water Pipe Insulation
February: Kitchen Competence
March: Rein In Entertainment Spending
April: Go Paper-less
May: Solar Dryer
July: Stay Cool Without Touching that Thermostat
August: Repair It!
September: Insulate
October: Preventative Health Care
November: Frugal Holiday Wish List
December: Plan Next Year's Garden

As ever, I'd love to hear if these Action Items are making a difference in your household budget. Sound off in the comments!