Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Thousands of cups

First, let me just say that I do not like the new "MyPyramid" nutritional guide. I prefer the simpler "eat 3 to 5 veggies a day," with none of the complicated variations depending on age, size, gender and activity levels.

On the other hand, I do like the way the newer guide breaks veggies into five categories: dark green, orange, beans/peas, starches and "other."

Using the old rule, if the recovery garden produced 100% of one person's vegetable intake, it would need to produce 1,095 to 1,825 servings of vegetables. That seems a little overwhelming.

With the new rule, for my age and gender, the recovery garden would need to produce 104 cups of dark green vegetables, 78 cups of orange vegetables, 912 cups of beans/peas, 912 cups of starches and 2,007 cups of "other" (which includes my favorites: peppers and tomatoes and onions).

We're not growing any of the starchy veggies, and we've got the orange veggies covered easily(butternut squash). That leaves almost 3,000 cups of veggies to grow for one person, or 18,000 cups for the six people in our two households.

I'm having trouble picturing that, especially since growers generally think in terms of weight, not volume, and when we use volume, it's bushels, not cups. If I did the math right, we need 141 bushels to feed the two households!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


The peas in peat pots are sprouting.

It's a luxury to have a heat mat (to keep the pots at optimum germination temperatures), but it does make a difference in how quickly the seeds sprout, especially in my cold kitchen.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Peas in peat pots

Started sugarsnap peas indoors in peat pots today.

Early, early, early

The earliest backyard crop is usually some form of greens. In our garden, it will be tatsoi (sometimes called "tah tsai").

I tossed some tatsoi seeds in an outdoor planter a couple weeks ago and covered the planter with glass to make a sort of greenhouse. After a couple mild, sunny days this week, they sprouted despite the night-time temperatures falling well below freezing.

In addition to being cold-tolerant, the plants are pretty -- perfect little rosettes -- suitable for growing in a decorative spot. They're ready for harvest in about six weeks. The leaves can be eaten either fresh in a salad or lightly cooked (e.g., added to a stir fry or tossed with cooked pasta or steamed/wilted like spinach).

Any uneaten plants will bolt in hot weather and produce flowers with multitudes of seeds (in elongated pods, like extremely tiny peas). If they're allowed to self-seed, depending on the timing, they'll either produce a second crop in time for the late-fall harvest or will over-winter for an early spring crop the next year. If you want to control where they're growing, the casings make it easy to harvest the seeds.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


Apparently, six-year-old basil seeds are no longer viable.

Some seeds seem to last forever, while others (e.g. onions, I believe) have a very short lifespan.

I had hoped to use up old seeds this year, but, at least for the basil, I'm going to need some fresher seeds.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Head count

We have thirty-one garlic sprouts now, which should turn into 150 garlic cloves at harvest time.

We may have to plant more next year.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Container gardening

Even though we have a large amount of land (by urban standards), we sometimes choose to grow certain crops in containers.

Two years ago, we experimented with growing tomatoes in upside-down buckets, with herbs growing in the top.

The results were mixed. On the plus side: harvesting was easy with everything up off the ground, and there was virtually no weeding. On the minus side: they required daily watering, and the plants were puny compared to the ones in the ground.

Last year, we reserved the hanging garden for grape tomatoes, and enjoyed the easy harvesting, but there were hardly any fruits to harvest.

This year, all the tomatoes are going into the ground. They just do better there for us.

On the other hand, we had some volunteer dill plants in one of the buckets last year, and they did great. Dill is particularly sensitive to competition from weeds, and the buckets filled with potting mix are both less weed-seed-infested than dirt and more conveniently reached than the ground.

We've also had success growing lettuces in planters on my neighbors' deck. The bunnies and woodchucks aren't great stair-climbers, and the slugs/snails dislike crossing the surrounding expanses of dry wood to get to the planters.

This year, we're planning to grow some additional crops in containers. I've already sown some tatsoi (a very hardy oriental green that can be eaten raw or lightly steamed/sauteed like spinach/chard) in a deck planter. The first set of lettuce seedlings is growing under lights indoors, and we expect to have a cold frame in place this weekend or next, so we can start a second sowing of lettuces indoors. Radishes and miniature carrots, which are as timid as dill when competing with weeds, will go into planters (probably the tomato buckets) when the weather improves.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Joy of Squash

Last year's big success was the winter squash (Waltham butternut), the majority of which were volunteers from some not-so-broken-down compost. They took over a good chunk of the garden, climbing the fence and threatening the passing lawn mower.

By the end of the season, we had thirty-two of them, mostly family-sized, but a few in the single-serving range.

Besides tasting great and brimming with nutrition, winter squash also stores well. They don't require refrigeration or freezing or canning to last through the winter. I took the picture of our remaining squash today, and they should last another few months.

Traditionally, squash is over-wintered in a root cellar, where the temperature is above freezing, but below what we consider room temperature today. I don't bother with a root cellar, since the thermostat in my kitchen area is set just below 60 degrees (although it's sometimes warmer in there, especially if the oven's been used).

Once the squash is cooked, if there's left-over, it freezes easily. The frozen squash can be microwaved as a side dish, or -- my favorite -- thawed and added to pancake batter. Just use your favorite pancake recipe or mix, but add pumpkin pie seasonings to taste, along with about 1/4 cup of the squash for every cup of flour (or dry mix), and reduce the milk (or other liquid) to get the right consistency.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Signs of spring

We have garlic!

We planted approximately thirty (forgot to count them at the time) cloves of garlic in October, and now we've got sprouts. We have 21 so far, but it's early still, and they're heavily mulched, so they're difficult to spot.

The variety is "German Extra-Hardy," the organic strain, from Johnny's Seeds. It did well in our garden last year, while the elephant garlic was unsuited either to us or our climate/soil, and either didn't survive the winter or produced anemic bulbs.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Greener than stimulus cash

Our vegetable garden will include:

  • garlic

  • onions

  • tatsoi

  • black seeded simpson lettuce

  • new red fire lettuce

  • cucumbers and miniature cucumbers

  • butternut squash

  • zucchini

  • yellow crookneck squash

  • spaghetti squash

  • honey bear winter squash

  • Bright Lights swiss chard

  • Ace peppers

  • banana peppers

  • grape tomatoes

  • paste-type tomatoes

  • asparagus

We'll also be growing the herbs to season the vegetables:

  • rosemary

  • oregano

  • basil

  • dill

  • sage

  • chives

  • garlic chives

  • lavender

  • catnip

  • thyme

  • rose geranium

  • lemon balm

Friday, March 6, 2009

Return on investment

I'll save my rant about Thoreau for another day, but for now I'll acknowledge my (admittedly begrudging) indebtedness to him for inspiration to tally up the costs of my recovery garden and then, in the fall, compare that to the value of the harvest.

I'm fortunate to be spared many of the major expenses of farming:
  • land acquisition

  • tool acquisition

  • initial clearing and cultivation

  • established perennials (e.g., asparagus and rhubarb)

  • anti-critter fencing
I could, if absolutely necessary, grow a garden this summer without purchasing anything at all. Unlike Thoreau, however, I don't see virtue in parsimony or deprivation. I'm aiming for more balance, getting a solid return on investment, not mere subsistence.

So far, and with the assistance of my next-door neighbors who are farming with me, I've incurred the following costs (including shipping and/or tax, as applicable):

  • Garlic bulbs ................................$29.10

  • Seed starting soil.......................... 4.19

  • Peat pots .................................... 18.00

  • Onion plants .............................. 28.60

  • Assorted seeds *......................... 34.75

  • Dill seeds .................................... 1.05

The total, so far, is $115.65.

We'll be buying tomato and pepper plants and a few other things from the local nursery. I'll report on those costs later.

*In case you're wondering, the ordered seeds are: black seeded simpson lettuce, new red fire lettuce, rocky cucumbers, basil, butternut squash, honey bear winter squash, spaghetti squash, Bright Lights swiss chard, and yellow crookneck squash.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Growing my own recovery

The government can't fix the economy, locally or globally.

We're the ones who have to fix the problem, and, now that the initial shock is wearing off, it's time to act. We need to get our own lives in order, get our feet solidly beneath us, and then reach out to help others who are still struggling.

It's easy to feel helpless in the face of the daily news and the enormity of the problem and the smallness of our abilities to help. I was getting caught up in the way everyone was counting on "new" things to save us: new technology, new businesses, and even new workers in old occupations. If that's true, I can't help. I'm not new. I'm an old worker in an old occupation.

But sometimes old is good. My role in the recovery will come from something as old as dirt: growing my own food.

I've planted a summer garden every year for decades, but always in a slapdash sort of way. I enjoyed seeing things grow, and that was enough of a reward, even if the bunnies and the bugs and the droughts and the floods consumed the bulk of my crops.

This year, though, the harvest matters. This year, I'm growing my own recovery.