Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Warfare in the Garden - Moving Comfrey

In which our heroine attempts to eradicate well established comfrey plants which are tragically misplaced in the garden.

Everyone makes mistakes when they start gardening.  Putting comfrey plants at what I thought were going to be the corners of the garden was one of mine.  The garden has expanded twice since those plantings, and two comfrey plants are now positioned where I've decided there should be pathways.  Comfrey is legendarily difficult of removal, and these plants seem to find their current locations quite agreeable. 

I have a method to my madness, or so it pleases me to think.  I've had a few years to observe the way comfrey grows, and how other plants behave around it.  I've noticed that:
  • comfrey leafs out early in the spring
  • comfrey dies back late in the fall
  • one comfrey plant generally gets to about 3.5' (~1.1m) in diameter
  • nothing - I mean no plant - grows under the full shade of an established comfrey plant
As a homesteader, and a frugal person, I've gotten into the habit of asking myself, about most anything, "What's it good for?  What can I do with it?  How could it be repurposed to serve my needs?"  Naturally I ask, what's comfrey good for - in a structural, functional sense within the garden?  (Because I'm already up to speed on all the other fabulous stuff it's good for.)  It seems to me that comfrey could well form a low hedge plant, to hold back the crab grass from the borders of the garden.  Since comfrey is around both early and late, the grass shouldn't be able to get a leg up.  Another tool in comfrey's campaign for supremacy is its habit of plastering the ground with all the foliage of the year when it dies back in the fall.  Nothing comes up through those layers of leaves before the new comfrey shoots of spring are well on their way.

So the first step in eradicating the comfrey was to take divisions of the roots and transplant them to the northern end of the garden.  This area was heavily lasagna mulched in fall of 2009.  The mulch did a decent job of holding the weeds in check all through last year.  But as you can see, it would need renewal this year to keep the weeds back.  I'd much rather create a self-maintaining border composed of a plant so profoundly useful, and not ever have to give that area another lick of work. With the help of our first WWOOF volunteers of the year, I took some dormant root pieces and stuck them in small holes in the unimproved soil at the garden's edge back in late February, spaced roughly 3.5' apart.  I did absolutely nothing to help these roots along, and after watching for about a month I only needed to put in second root divisions at two of the transplant locations.  I now have obviously viable comfrey plants at each of the ten orange flags in the picture above.  I may expand the comfrey hedge along the western edge of the garden at some point.

Aside from getting rid of comfrey plants where I no longer want them, relocating comfrey seems to make good sense from a fertility perspective.  I think of comfrey as a miner plant.  It grows a formidable taproot and pulls up nutrients from deep underground, making them available to more shallowly rooted plants.  But every mine plays out eventually.  These comfrey plants have been in place for four years.  Putting new plants in a new area should grant access to untapped resources.  Comfrey is also a plant with an extraordinarily large surface area for its size.  The leaves are very broad and long, while the stems are minimal.  I don't know this for a certainty, but that would seem to suggest that comfrey transpires a lot of water vapor, well supplied by its tap root even when the soil surface is relatively dry.  In times of drought that moisture would be helpful to other plants nearby.  At the same time, by covering so much soil, comfrey regulates temperature and slows water loss from the soil through evaporation.  Even if I'm wrong about comfrey's utility to nearby plants, establishing an entire row of these plants where nothing but grass was growing before seems like a good idea.  It will store carbon in the soil, provide more food for bumblebees, and serve as convenient a trap crop for Japanese beetles, making them easy to handpick for the hens.

So much for all the benefits of moving the plants.  But how do I imagine I'll eradicate the comfrey from its current location?  Well, I plan to take a multi-pronged and long term approach.  And to be philosophical about it, rather than allowing my personal feelings to come into it.  Now that I know the root divisions have taken, I'll basically just keep cutting back the growth of the parent plants.  I expect to take at least six cuttings this year, and I don't expect to win the war in one year.  The first spring cuttings from the comfrey will, as usual, be used to provide some extra fertility to the potatoes when I plant them.  This year I may also use comfrey cuttings to give the corn a boost as well.  After that, I'll take several cuttings to dry for the chickens' winter feed, and also feed it to them fresh.  I will even let them have direct access to the comfrey occasionally so that they can do some damage on their own; although I know they'll be far more interested in eating all the critters living below the mulch that the comfrey creates from its own leaves.  The damage to the comfrey itself will be purely collateral.  Other than that, I'll just keep cutting back the top growth of the plants, so that the roots gradually deplete themselves.  Without leaves to photosynthesize, the roots will eventually starve and die.

Depending on how it goes, I may experiment with solarizing the root mass at some point.  This would entail covering it with clear plastic and weighting down the edges so that the roots are both deprived of water and baked by the sun.  It sounds torturous, I know.  The only thing that salves my conscience is knowing that I've already provided for the continuation of the plant's genetic line.

Tune in later this year to see how fares the war.  And wish me luck.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Now welcome, somer

Now welcome somer, with thy sonne softe,
That hast this wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Parlement of Fowls

Maybe it's not quite summer here yet, but the long black nights have been driven away.  The daylight hours exceed the dark.  I'm trying to see April in a positive light, but it's a tough sell.

April is a month of anxiety, injury, and anticipation.  First I fretted about the asparagus, which didn't show any signs of life until a few days ago.  Had I killed it with the fall pruning, which some gardeners claim leads to water getting down into the hollow tubes of the stalks and rotting the crowns?  I dug around in the heavily mulched raised beds, looking for little nubs of asparagus stalks.  They eluded me, and I had to curb the overwhelming urge to check the bed every. single. day. Then I worried about the ramps that I planted in the shade on the north side of our shed.  Were they goners?  I've been patiently waiting three years now for them to reproduce themselves by division, so that I can eat some of them.  They were very slow to emerge too.  And I still judge that there are too few yet to harvest.  Another year of postponed ramp harvest.  We may yet this year receive some more ramps for transplant donated by a relative.  In any case, I'm determined that we'll harvest some next year, whatever their reproductive rate.  Maybe some of the seeds set last year will result in more ramps too.

And the injuries, yes.  Plenty of those.  I posted about my bashed thumb, which has stopped hurting, and mercifully hasn't cost me my thumb nail.  But I now sport major bruises in all sorts of inconvenient spots, and my right hand and wrist are still strained from not working carefully.  Spring garden work is awfully tough on a body softened by winter's indolence.  This is not a season conducive to rest and recuperation.  I'm getting my calluses back fairly quickly.

Oh, and rain.  April's rain is proverbial.  I try to see it as beneficial to the garden, and all the seeds that I've sown.  It does make for easier weeding, but somehow that's not my favorite chore. And between the all too frequent downpours, we've been seeing near record temperatures in the last week or so.

So enough whinging.  Spring is here, even if we're not out of the woods yet with the risk of frost.  That could come back and bite us where the sun don't shine well into May.  But the spring blossoms have started, and it's a joy to watch the trees of the neighborhood put forth their various hues.  The maples start with a gossamer veil of red, whatever color their leaves will eventually take on.  The plums are blooming pure white, while our two different magnolias have lush blooms of extravagant pink and white.  The neighborhood redbuds are lovely with their thick purplish-pink blooms. Our young pear curtsies to the older pear across the way, with synchronous buds of palest pink.  It's nice to see that our pears will not lack for pollination services.  Other trees put their leaves on first, starting with a yellow-green haze that seems to float around the still bare branches.  Our figs and hazelnuts are slowly leafing out.  The irises (pure ornamentals for which I have a secret weakness) planted near the front door look like they'll blossom this year.

To prevent a repeat of this month's anxiety over various crops, I've finally started keeping a garden journal.  I had thought it would be tedious, which is why I didn't start years ago, as I should have.   But I find I enjoy jotting notes on what I'm doing and observing in the garden.  It makes me more aware of the daily changes that happen so quickly in spring - all in a seeming blur if I don't pay attention.  These notes will give me reference dates for events such as the first robin of the year, or when the violets bloomed, our last snowfall - a handy tool for next year and in all subsequent years.  I can see how comparing this sort of data could become a bit addictive once you have a few years of documentation to play with.  But even one year of data will remind me not to expect asparagus in early April.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Mint, Tamed

Last year I decided to put in a spearmint plant.  Of course I'd heard all the tales about how invasive mints are and what drastic measures are needed to contain them.  Serious gardening friend said he planted his mint in the middle of his lawn so that he could use the lawn mower to tame any offshoots or new growths.  But still, I was determined.  Perennial herbs are so tempting, and there was no way I was going to resist adding a nice mint to the collection.

So I did a little strategizing.  The first thought was physical containment.  I decided to sink a 5-gallon bucket into the ground, and plant inside that.  So I cut off the bottom of the bucket, while my husband dug a fairly deep hole where I indicated.  I had him put the dirt into a wheelbarrow, and to this I added a good amount of compost.  The bucket was placed in the hole with a couple inches remaining above grade.  Then I put in the soil and compost mixture until it completely filled the bucket, and backfilled the rest of the hole around the bucket.  I knew the soil inside the bucket would settle down gradually over the season.  I put my spearmint seedling in the bucket and watered.

My second thought was also physical containment.  I'd been looking at this fragment of large plastic pipe that we'd fished out of a dumpster on a construction site for quite some time.  Its diameter was several inches larger than that of the bucket, and laid on the ground it's about 10 inches high.  Now mint is known to spread just by expanding its root system, which the sunk bucket should take care of.  But it has a second, stealthy means of propagating itself.  The plant can just grow a long stem which then casually, oh-so-innocently and when you're not looking because you're distracted by everything else going on in the garden, falls over under its own weight until it touches the ground.  That's when this double agent piece of plant tissue grows roots and establishes a beach head.  The plastic pipe was installed as a collar around the bucket to prevent exactly that habit.  If the mint wanted to try spreading by such methods, the stem would have to grow very tall indeed, lean itself against the collar, and then droop a considerable way before reaching the earth.  It never happened in all of last summer.

Interesting thing too about the bucket and collar system.  I think it creates a microclimate that is beneficial in both summer and winter.  Last summer was a scorcher - very hot and unusually dry for our area.  I watered the mint seedling from planting through late spring, but it was mostly ignored after that.  It held up fine through that sort of neglect, and I think the shade provided by the collar reduced the soil temperature at the surface inside the bucket, and therefore checked evaporation.  The bushy habit of the mint also helped to cool its feet, I'm sure.  In winter, the tall collar kept some wind off the plant, and the black color helped snow melt a bit faster and provided a little extra warmth in early spring.

This spring the level of soil in the bucket is at least a couple inches below the mulch I put between the outside of the bucket and the collar to keep weeds down.  I see no signs of any offshoots from the spearmint.  This is good, since I plan to add peppermint and catnip (another member of the mint family) this year too, though I fear we can count on the cats to help control the latter.  I expect that the bucket and collar method will keep the spearmint from taking over the world in this second year which should bring even more exuberant growth.  I'll be keeping my eye out for anything that can serve as collars for my additional mints when we go dumpster diving this year.  If nothing turns up, we could cut out the sidewalls of some old tires and use just the tire rims.

How about you?  Do you have any tricks for keeping the mint family within reasonable bounds?  Or have they gotten the better of your garden?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spring Harvest Meal: Cream of Lovage Soup

The temperature is gradually warming up, but the weather has been grey and damp and dreary lately.  The herbs are all coming on strong, and the asparagus are just breaking ground in their raised beds.  I got my spring haircut, so the nape of my neck is bare, which only means I don't have a great desire to be outside more than necessary when the sun is hidden. This is all a roundabout way of saying it's soup weather.

So today I whipped up a bare bones, easy-peasy cream of lovage soup.  Cream soups were a staple of the curriculum at culinary school.  There we were taught a formula and a methodology rather than individual cream-of recipes.  Pretty much, you can make a cream-of soup out of any ingredient.  Now, having told you there's a formula, you might reasonably expect me to tell you what the formula is.  Sadly, the exact proportions are lost in the mists of time, at least to my mind.  What has stuck are the ingredient list and the methodology, which is admittedly a bit fussy in the sense that too many pans get dirtied.  It is after all, a French recipe.

When I was in culinary school "lilies" were shorthand for anything in the onion family.  I believe at one time all onion relatives were classified in the lily family by botanists.  In any case, the chefs just referred to "lilies" in a formula, while an individual recipe would specify which lily was called for, such as onion, shallots, leeks, ramps, scallions or even garlic.  Lilies are one cornerstone of a cream-of soup, and the other is the main ingredient.  Then of course there's the cream.  Since this is a French recipe, it goes without saying that multiple additions of butter are also involved, one of which is likely to be roux.  Roux is just a cooked mixture of flour and butter.  (Enough divagations yet?  Can we move on?)

So my cream of lovage soup recipe took advantage of my three-year-old lovage plant, which is up and at 'em very early in the year.  Convenience came into it in other ways as well.  There were those salvaged and precooked leeks hanging out in the chest freezer, and scrumptious canned stock made from our home raised turkey.  Also there was some parsley butter (a convenient means of preserving last year's herbs) in the freezer.  Those four convenience foods made this soup a snap to pull together in no time.

The prepped leeks were roughly equivalent to one medium leek, already chopped up and partially cooked in butter.  These went into a soup pot to thaw over medium heat.  When thawed, I added two bay leaves, a good pinch of kosher salt, and half a pound of lovage - the chopped up stalks first, the leafy tops initially reserved.  There was enough butter in the leeks to handle the lovage stalks too.  When these were nicely sweated and softened, I added the leafy tops, a quart of our smoked turkey stock, and about 2 tablespoons of the parsley butter.  While that warmed through, I cooked a very thick roux with a couple tablespoons of butter and three heaping tablespoons of flour in a separate pan. I went to the hassle of straining the solid ingredients from the liquid (removing the bay leaves) in order to puree them.  The strained liquid was gradually (to avoid lumps) mixed into the roux, and then the pureed solids returned to the pot.   (A wand blender, if you have one, would get you close enough to the same effect with less bother and cleanup.) From there I added a good glug (1/2 a cup or so) of cream, tasted to adjust seasonings, and then warmed the soup through for serving.  It was very nice, but light enough to need some toasted bread for extra ballast

If we'd had any potatoes left, they would have been a perfect addition to this soup.  They'd give it some heft, turning it into a far more substantial meal, and would be a satisfying way to use up the last of the winter stores by pairing them with a bright new flavor from one of the earliest spring crops.  Another option that suggests itself to my tastebuds is the addition of wild rice to this soup.  I think the complex flavor of the lovage would complement the dark nuttiness of wild rice very nicely.  And fully cooked wild rice is an excellent thickener when pureed.  With the addition of either potatoes or wild rice, the roux could be omitted, making the dish gluten-free.

I suppose I should talk about lovage, since it's not the most familiar herb to modern palates.  The taste of lovage is commonly likened to celery, but I think there's a great deal more to it than that.  While I certainly taste the kinship to celery, lovage also reminds me strongly of cardamom.  The later in the season, the more the celery taste recedes, and the more the cardamom flavor predominates.  But lovage has something else all its own that is neither celery, nor cardamom.  It's hard to describe, but lovage is a big flavored herb, far stronger tasting to my palate than self-effacing celery.  The stalks of lovage are round and hollow, so some people apparently use them as straws - particularly for bloody marys, which benefit from the celery-ish taste imparted by the stalks.

As a plant, lovage has many virtues too.  It's perennial and hardy to zone 4 or 5, depending on whom you believe. On my homestead it tolerates half a day or more of total shade, and actually requires partial shade in warmer zones than mine (6b).  It is reputed to improve the health of many other crops when companion planted, and it provides habitat for beneficial insects, especially hoverflies.  Though it can become bitter and tough in hot weather, you can cut it back hard in summer to encourage the growth of tender new stalks with milder flavor.  Like many herbs, lovage is unfussy about soil type, water, and temperatures once it has established itself.  In the second and subsequent years it gets tall by mid-summer - up to 5 or 6 feet, but is not an aggressive spreader.  This is an herb that I have utterly ignored except for an occasional shovelful of compost side-dressing once in a while, usually in fall.  It comes up reliably for us and is much appreciated at this time of year, when we crave green things.  It can be propagated from seed or root division, which we plan to try next  year.

So that's the run down on lovage.  If you've got a shady spot that has gone begging, you might consider giving it to this early, delicious, and easy to grow herb.  If you already grow and cook with lovage, I'd love to hear what you do with it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Native Bee Boxes

With the arrival of intermittent spring weather, I've been very busy lately.  The outdoor projects have begun in earnest and my hands and forearms are feeling the strain of that work.  Typing doesn't help much.  So excuse the recent lack of posting. 

But here's something I wanted to write about: nest boxes for native bees.  My husband made one of these a few years ago and put it up on our shed.  We've already observed that the sealing walls constructed by mason bees last year have been dismantled, and a new generation of bees is checking out the nest holes for deposits of eggs.  So early in the year!  It seems there's so little in bloom yet for them to feed on, but the warmth has them up and about.  The nest box consists of a block of wood with deeply drilled holes in various sizes.  They serve as shelter for the eggs of several kinds of bee.

We have a huge three-bay garage that came with the house.  Its footprint is larger than the house itself.  It's great for storing all kinds of stuff pulled out of dumpsters and projects in progress, which means it gets packed to the point of becoming unnavigable.  On rainy days I've been working to triage some of the ungodly mess that has piled up in there over the last six months.  I found a short length of 4x4 post and decided to turn it into more nest boxes for native bees.  Small pieces of scrap wood furnished roofs to keep off the worst of the rain.  These will be mounted on the scaffolding for our solar array.  I'm sure they will soon be fully occupied.

Our foray into keeping honey bees last year resulted in unmitigated failure.  Our longest surviving colony didn't make it through the winter.  We're going to try again this year, and we hope that we'll have more success with some hard lessons under our belts.  Seeing the help our efforts provide to native bees offers some consolation. These bees are under the same environmental stresses as honey bees.  The human race cannot afford to lose the free services of pollinator insect species, and bees are preeminent in this work.  As it turns out, some of our native bees are even more effective pollinators than honey bees.  Keeping honey bees requires a significant commitment of time, labor and monetary outlay.  It took me all of two hours to build these two native bee nest boxes at almost no expense whatsoever.  I paid for four screws, a tiny bit of silicone sealer (leftover from energy efficiency improvements for our home) and the electricity to run a power drill.  My work for the native bees ends the moment these bee boxes are mounted. 

I mentioned recently how last year there was a sense of my garden and homestead finally beginning to come together.  If anything, that feeling is increasing this year.  When we bought this house the backyard was a monoculture of open lawn, with a border of conventional, uninspired landscaping.  Now it's stocked with dozens and dozens of perennial plants, and we grow a wide variety of annual vegetables there every year, both of which supply food and habitat for numerous insects, which in turn provide food to birds and other wildlife.  That's biodiversity that simply wasn't there before.  Putting up these boxes for the bees is another effort towards that cause.  It's the inter-species connections on this tiny piece of land that are going to make what we do here sustainable over the long term.  I'm convinced that every additional species I can encourage is a strength for my homestead.  I don't even know exactly what these native bees are doing here.  I'm sure they venture off my property as much as they conduct their business on it.  But they are a knot in the living tapestry I am making of this place.  I want them here.  With some scrap materials and a couple hours of labor it's easy enough for me to make this place attractive to them for decades to come. 

One way of looking at this is as a token gesture of atonement for the environmental damage my actions have caused, and continue to cause; a tiny way to give back to the world that supports me.  Seen another way, it's self interest.  Monocultures are fragile things.  By encouraging as much biodiversity as possible, I get more resilience, healthier soil, lower pest pressures, better pollination of our fruits and vegetables, and less work for me.  That's what I'm talking about when I say things are coming together.

If you're interested in helping populations of native bees, you could build your own bee boxes.  You could even salvage the materials from a dumpster on a construction site, thus diverting useful stuff from a landfill and saving yourself some money.  For guidance on this simple project, check out this fact sheet (pdf) from the Xerces Society, a wildlife conservation organization.  On their website you can also find lists (tailored to each region of the US) of beneficial plants to for native bees, including many edible plants.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Nice Cuppa

Originally uploaded by Salihan

I have a tendency to discount what I know.  If I've had a skill for a long time, I take it for granted.  I know intellectually that all skills must be acquired somewhere, somehow, at some point in each person's life; and that I too had to learn all these things one by one.  But in many cases I figure everybody must already know all about something I know, and therefore it would be pointless if not condescending to write about it.  Having volunteers around my home and garden disabuses me of this attitude quite often.  And I love that.  I love being surprised by opportunities to teach things, pass along skills that I haven't given any conscious thought to in years.  It gives me an inkling of what it must be like to be a grandmother passing along to a new generation skills that were unremarked in her youth, but not so commonplace today. 

So I'm writing about something utterly quotidian in my home - making a pot of tea.  Maybe my first instinct was correct and this is quite familiar to all of you.  Maybe not.  I should say that my teacher in making a proper pot of tea was an elderly English lady who was old enough to be my grandmother.  She had lived through the Blitz in London, and came from a working class background.  Her formal education had been minimal (it would be appallingly deficient by today's standards), but she knew her way around a kettle and teapot.  When I knew her, she was a pensioner living very modestly in Cornwall.  I'm going to tell you exactly how she instructed me to make tea.

You will need a kettle, or some way to boil water, a teapot, teabags or loose leaf tea, teacups or mugs, a spoon, and whatever you like to add to your tea - milk, cream, lemon, sugar, etc.  For preference, you will also have a tea cozy for the pot, and your cups and the pot itself will be ceramic.  A timer is also handy, and you will need a strainer of some sort if you use loose leaf tea.  It is possible to make a perfectly good pot of tea with teabags, provided they are of good quality.  Loose leaf tea tends to be of high quality, while there is considerable variation in the quality of tea sold in teabags.

To begin with, boil a good quantity of water - more than you will want to serve as tea.  Bring the teapot as close as feasible to where the kettle is heating.  The saying was: "Bring the pot to the kettle; not the kettle to the pot."  This old rule may seem arbitrary, almost a superstition.  But really it has to do with making sure the water is at the right temperature for steeping the tea.  You don't want to carry the kettle very far, letting it cool all the while; having the pot near the kettle means it will also be near the heat source, and thus stay at a good temperature as well.  When the water comes to a full boil, turn off the heat and straightaway pour a modest quantity of the water into the pot, at least enough to fill one teacup.  Put the lid on, snug up the cozy, and let it stand for 1 minute.  If you don't have a tea cozy, you could improvise with a kitchen towel.  During this time, keep the kettle on the warm burner, but with the heat off.  After one minute, pour the water out of the teapot and into the teacups to preheat them.  You don't need to fill each cup to the brim, but you do need to empty the pot.

Add tea to the teapot.  Traditionally the rule of thumb was one for each cup of tea, plus one for the pot.  "One" in this case could be a teabag, or one heaping teaspoon of loose tea.  I find this produces an incredibly potent pot of tea when using teabags, but it's just about right for the loose tea.  I suspect teabags have gotten bigger since my lovely English mentor learned to make tea.  You may need to play around with this and see what works with the tea you prefer.

As soon as you've added the tea, pour the still hot water into the pot, put the lid on, and replace the cozy.  Set a timer for four minutes.  Tea needs extremely hot water to steep properly, and it needs that heat for a few critical minutes.  This is why it is impossible to brew decent tea in a paper cup with water from a hot tap.  It's also the reason preheating the pot is necessary.  However, never make tea with water that is boiling.  This is too hot, and it will produce tea with a bitter tannic flavor.  Letting the kettle sit for just about a minute lets the water cool to the optimal temperature. 

At some point during the steeping process, open the teapot briefly, and stir the tea leaves around with a spoon, or bob the teabags up and down a few times, then close everything up again.  Tea in the pot can sometimes just settle to the bottom, so that it's very thin and watery on top.  A gentle mix makes it more uniform and encourages better steeping.

When the four minutes are up, empty the water from the pre-heated teacups (you could use the still warm water to soak any dishes that need washing) and serve the tea, not forgetting to employ the strainer if you've used loose tea.  There's a great deal of form to tea drinking in England.  The upper classes have an absolute prohibition against putting milk or cream into the cup before the tea is added.  I think adding the sugar first is possibly less vulgar, but I'd need confirmation of that from a British reader.  I'm not aware of any rhyme or reason behind the horror of putting the milk in first.  As far as I know, it doesn't affect the tea.  It may simply be a case of a distinction without a difference, which the upper classes have decided signals a class division.

There is some flexibility with the amount of steeping time.  I find some teas are ready sooner, while others take a little more time.  It should never take more than five minutes though.  If you find the tea is weak and thin after five minutes, you didn't put enough tea in the pot.  If it's dark as coffee in less than three minutes, cut it back a bit or add more water next time.  Keep in mind that how the tea looks is less important than how it tastes.  Color and flavor are only loosely correlated.  Some teas release color very quickly during steeping, while releasing flavor more slowly.   Teabag manufacturers have a trick to their advantage.  The finer the particles of tea in the bag, the faster the water will darken.  And since we've been conditioned to appraise foods more with our eyes than with our tongues, this produces an attractive result.  But the finer the particles of tea, the more susceptible they are to aging and damage, both of which affect flavor.  It should go without saying too that very fine particles of tea are "waste" products from the processing of higher grades of tea; thus some companies buy the cheapest tea dust, knowing it will produce a pleasingly dark cup of tea anyway. So beware a teabag that produces an instantly dark tea.  Taste is the real criterion.  I don't say that all teabags contain poor quality tea, but pay attention if you want to use teabags.  If you're very curious, you could open a teabag and examine the size of the tea bits inside.  There are no absolutes, because much depends on how the tea has been stored and how old it is.  But in general larger particle size will indicate higher quality.

So there you have it.  Boil water, preheat the pot 1 minute, preheat the cups while the tea steeps, steep for 3-5 minutes, stir the pot once during steeping, serve hot.  I've written a lot about making tea, and it may sound now like a complicated procedure. I hope not.  For me it's a simple, familiar and comforting morning ritual.  It's not instant gratification, but I like the process of making tea.  I often think very fondly of my tea mentor, especially when stirring the tea while it steeps.  An English gentleman once told me, when he observed me stirring the tea in the pot, that it reminded him of his grandmother, and that he hadn't seen anyone doing this in decades.  It made me smile.  I like feeling connected to old ways of doing things, even if they weren't passed down to me through my own family.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Pee in the Garden

My crusty old uncle Jay told me one of his characteristically amusing yarns once while we were puttering around his garden.  He looked kinda like Colonel Sanders, but much leaner, and he spoke with a lovely Louisiana drawl.  (He was an uncle by marriage.) His story was about a writer who composed a lengthy poem dedicated to his beloved, who liked to garden.  He entitled it, She Sits Among the Lettuces and Peas.  His editor liked the theme, but suggested he come up with a more tactful title.  The poet considered this advice and then submitted the revised manuscript under a new name, She Sits Among the Cabbages and Leeks.  I can hear Jay's gasping sort of laughter now. 

Nope.  This is not an April Fool's post.  I decided that this would be the year we start using pee in the garden in some sort of systematic way.  Human urine contains abundant nitrogen, a key nutrient for plants and soil microorganisms.  My husband has used the compost pile for the odd leak now and then with my encouragement, but we've never approached the use of urine with any organized intent.

I'd heard of the value of urine in the garden from various sources.  After all, garden centers sell urea (which is actually fake urine) as fertilizer, and I know that some compost enthusiasts use pee as a compost activator.  Sharon Astyk has written in her inimitable comically informative way about the renewable and cheap nature of human pee.  I attended a session on humanure systems at the PASA conference last year, and was sold on the concept even though we don't have access to a good supply of cover material to make it work.  I read Carol Deppe's The Resilient Gardener, which further extolled the virtues of urine.  And it's not just crackpot greenies talking about this.  Heck, even the Washington Post reported on the concept.  Researchers at the University of Kuopio's Department of Environmental Sciences in Finland...

...concluded that urine produced by one person over a year would be enough to grow 160 cabbages -- that's 64 kilograms (141 pounds) more cabbage than could be grown in a similar plot fertilized with commercial fertilizer. They recommend collecting urine from eco-type toilets, storing it, then scattering it on the soil around the plants rather than directly on them. 

After being bombarded from so many directions, the idea finally worked its way up my priority list.  While we may not be able to employ a full humanure system, we can at least divert the less problematic of human wastes into useful channels.  Several million pounds of nitrogen are flushed "away" in the US every single day.  Homesteading is a process of learning to use what you've got, and learning to find value in what society so often treats as garbage.  This is one more resource available to us that we will no longer squander, one more dependency we can rid ourselves of.

Okay, a few technical details.  Urine should be diluted 1:7 with water if you keep yourself well hydrated, or 1:10 if you don't typically drink enough water.  Too high a concentration of the nitrogen in urine will chemically "burn" plants.  Of course, I like to streamline functions around the homestead, since convenience means my good intentions are more likely to result in good practice.  So I came up with a simple bucket hack.  All that's involved is marking the inside of the bucket to indicate the fill levels that represent the correct proportion of water to pee.  There are two ways to go about this, depending on how quickly you anticipate "contributions" being made.

The first approach is to work out the volume of just the first pee of the day per household.  Carol Deppe wrote that she uses only her first pee of the morning, since that is typically the most concentrated specimen of the day.  I've been doing this off and on for a while now, so I know generally what volume is typical for me.  From there one can multiply by 7 or 10 to get the volume of water, measure that quantity of water into a bucket, and mark the surface line with a permanent marker.  You may need to empty the bucket and dry the inside very well to mark it.  With this method you don't really need a second line indicating the additional volume of urine if your estimate is reasonably accurate.  But if you want to put a second mark as a check, go ahead and add your estimated volume of pee to the water and make a second line above the first.  Check your accuracy over a few days and adjust as needed.

The other approach is to start with how much liquid you want to carry in the bucket, which should take into account the distance you'll need to carry it, how you will be emptying the bucket (lifting?), and your physical strength.  So let's say you're comfortable carrying the bucket half full, or a third full, or whatever.  Put your first mark inside the bucket at that level.  Then fill to that line using a measuring cup to determine how much liquid it takes to fill to that level.  From that measurement, do your calculations - either multiply by 6/7 or 9/10, depending on hydration habits.  That will give you the amount of water needed for correct dilution rates.  Then empty the bucket and measure in the amount of water indicated from your calculations.  Make your second mark at that line inside the bucket, which should be below the first line you marked.  When you're ready to start, fill the bucket to the lower line with water, and when enough pee has been collected to reach the top line, it's time to empty the bucket.  Rinse, fill, collect, empty, repeat.  Free, renewable fertilizer.

There's also the direct method with no need to muck about with dilution or measuring.  Over the winter months I've just been adding my morning collection directly to the compost pile.  A well established and active compost pile should be able to sort out a concentrated dose of nitrogen and "digest" it, so to speak, before it is applied to the garden.  This approach feeds the soil microbes directly, which then later indirectly feed the plants where you apply the compost.  If you want to use this method, it's better to not let the collected pee sit around very long, especially at indoor temperatures.  The nitrogen in pee is such a valuable commodity that airborne bacteria will colonize the pee almost immediately and begin exploiting it.  The faster you get it into a compost pile, the more use it will be to soil microorganisms.

Now for the tedious caveats and common sense warnings, lest I fall foul of the hygiene police and the white knuckled.  Human urine is very nearly sterile when it exits the body, unless you happen to be carrying one of a very few nasty diseases.  Theoretically, hepatitis B, CMV (cytomegalovirus), and HIV (possibly others) are transmissible via direct contact with urine.  There's no data I know of on disease transmission through consuming food from soil fertilized with urine.  I regard healthy soil as a universal cleanser of toxins and pathogens of all stripes anyway.  Further, it's impossible to infect oneself with any disease.  Either you've got it, or you don't.  You don't pick something up from yourself.  If you're using your own urine in your garden, you have nothing to worry about if you're the only one consuming that food.  If you're super cautious, go ahead and test any member of your household for disease who might contribute urine to the cause.  Make sure none of you have any disease that could theoretically be passed on to another.  As indicated above, apply diluted urine around crops, not directly on them.  Finally, you probably want to steer clear of this technique if you sell to the market.  The last thing you need is a frivolous lawsuit.  To be on the safe side, use it on your fruit trees, berry bushes, corn (maize), ornamentals, or your asparagus crop after this year's harvest is finished.

So what are your thoughts?  Is pee in the garden just beyond the pale?  Do you already use urine (human or otherwise) as fertilizer?  If not, would you consider it?