Thursday, July 30, 2009


It's two o'clock in the morning and I can't sleep. So I might as well use this time to 'fess up.

My garden is an abject failure. Despite a good start, my plants are now dying left and right and I don’t know why. Of the ones still living, many have lost most of their leaves – eaten away by an unknown agent. I would suspect grasshoppers, but I haven’t seen any. The weather has been unusually mild for July -- highs in the upper 80's and an occasional rainstorm, so that's not the problem. I’m not getting any lessons learned because I really don’t understand what is going on.

Here are the sad stats:
Arkanasas Traveller tomato – turned brown and crispy almost overnight.
Ancho pepper – turned wilty overnight. Water failed to revive.
Eggplants and potatoes – leaves eaten to the nubby nubs.
Cucumbers and crookneck squash – vines shriveled away almost overnight.
Zucchini – squash get half grown and then turn to mush. I’ve started picking them at half grown stage just so I have something!
Amaranth – stalks broken by first good rainstorm. Some seed heads still retrievable.
Remaining peppers, tomatoes, and watermelon – failure to thrive. Spindly, weak, with little fruit happening. The one exception is the jalapeƱo plant which, while small, is producing quite a few peppers.

Thankfully, not everything is a disaster. I expect to have a good potato harvest despite the missing leaves. My herbs are, for the most part, doing quite well. The okra is producing reliably, especially those from the seeds my cousin sent. The Swiss chard is still producing, which is more than I expected. And the peanuts are amazing -- they're growing and spreading like crazy. The plants in window boxes are doing well, too – the French sorrel looks like it needs to go in the ground and so does the lemon verbena.

So, okay, I need to start playing detective and try to figure out what went wrong. Some of the plants, like the tomatoes, may have been getting too much sun and/or not enough nutrients(despite watering the straw bales with compost tea). Some, like the squash, may have been getting too much water -- unless an autopsy reveals squash borer damage. The missing leaves are obviously insect or bird damage. And I’m also wondering about all those bags of top soil and composted cow manure I bought at Walmart -- did they have herbicides or other undesirable residues?

When I think of how much I spent on soil amendments and organic fertilizers and seeds and plants and water, and how small the return, it's depressing. I really need to do some controlled experiments – growing identical plants in different soils and conditions. I’ve ordered a bunch of seeds for a fall and winter garden, so I’ll have a chance to do just that. After I pull myself out of the doldrums.

I'm just glad we don't have to rely on the garden for our food or we would have starved to death by now. Bummer!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Stressed Out

Well . . . my garden is showing stress. The tomatoes and peppers are hanging in there, but looking rather scraggly. My cucumber is still producing, but not as vigorously. My squashes still aren’t squashing and my eggplants have quit blooming. I read on Mother Earth News that once temperatures get above 86, a lot of summer veggies shut down. They recommend creating shade for hot gardens. I guess that is my next step . . .

On the plus side, my okras are still doing well and so are the peanuts. The Swiss chard is still producing in spite of the heat (and this week is predicted to be a bit cooler than normal, so we are getting a break!). I have a baby watermelon in the works and think it may be time to harvest my potatoes.

As for my worm bin, lately I have been adding household waste that is cut in small pieces anyway – vegetable and fruit peelings or trimmings (ie strawberry hulls, peach bruises, eggplant peels). That eliminates putting garbage in the freezer and then thawing it. Always good to eliminate steps. The bigger pieces (ie banana peels) go into the compost bin. I’ve also been adding my cardboard egg cartons to the worm bin. When I’ve finished with an egg carton, I wet it thoroughly, tear it into bits, then throw it on top of the worm food. It seems to be adding more bulk while keeping down unwanted visitors (ie fruit flies, etc).

Now for the weekly roundup:

1. Plant something – more okra and ginger, a confederate rose cutting and red kidney beans (from the pantry)

2. Harvest something – tomatoes, peppers, okra, eggplant, herbs

3. Preserve something – ummm

4. Reduce waste – I bought a sheer curtain at the local big box store and made it into bags to use when I buy produce so that I don’t have to use those plastic bags. And while this news is a couple of weeks out of date, I did make an art quilt from scraps in my scrap bag – and took second place in our guild’s challenge!

My husband recycled the neighbor’s trimmings from their palm trees and made a ‘roof’ over our bar. And lastly, at my mother’s suggestion, we turned the thermostat up another degree. It’s now set at 81 and I’m thinking we could take it to 82 without noticing much difference. If we set it too high, the humidity in the house builds up and we start having problems with our appliances.

5. Preparation and Storage – I pulled out my crochet hooks and yarn and have been practicing a bit. It’s been a long time since I crocheted. However, with the house as warm as it is, the yarn tends to stick to my fingers – which affects the tension. So, I’m putting it on hold until cooler weather. Meanwhile, I’m continuing to look at properties on the internet and to hint that this might not be the best place to hang our hats long term. Not working very well. Hmmm.

6. Build Community Food Systems – I blog (on occasion). I bought multiple copies of What’s the Worst that Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate to give as gifts (that may not seem like building community food systems, but as climate change is related to food production, I’m including it!)

7. Eat the Food – mostly soups and salads. The peppers went into a chicken and rice dish from a Rachel Ray cookbook.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Sunday Mornings

I love Sundays! For one thing, my husband makes us breakfast. For another, Sunday is my official day of rest. Not because it’s Biblical, although it is, but because it makes good sense. We all do better when we have ‘time off.’ So Sundays are for things that absolutely have to be done (like water the garden) and for things I want to do. Like blog!

This has been a week of inspiration and new energy. First, there is the story of Will Allen:

Like others in the so-called good-food movement, [Will] Allen, who is 60, asserts that our industrial food system is depleting soil, poisoning water, gobbling fossil fuels and stuffing us with bad calories. Like others, he advocates eating locally grown food. But to Allen, local doesn’t mean a rolling pasture or even a suburban garden: it means 14 greenhouses crammed onto two acres in a working-class neighborhood on Milwaukee’s northwest side, less than half a mile from the city’s largest public-housing project.

And this is why Allen is so fond of his worms. When you’re producing a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of food in such a small space, soil fertility is everything. Without microbe- and nutrient-rich worm castings (poop, that is), Allen’s Growing Power farm couldn’t provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites — through his on-farm retail store, in schools and restaurants, at farmers’ markets and in low-cost market baskets delivered to neighborhood pickup points. He couldn’t employ scores of people, some from the nearby housing project; continually train farmers in intensive polyculture; or convert millions of pounds of food waste into a version of black gold.

And then there is the energizing commencement address of Paul Hawkin to the class of 2009, University of Portland, OR:

This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food—but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

With all that inspiration to keep me going, I’m offering my weekly update:

1. Plant something – This week, I ‘planted the pantry.’ I raided my pantry for seeds – anything I thought might grow – and planted them in recycled plastic containers. I don’t know what will grow, but that’s the fun of it. My pantry yielded: four colors of pepper corns, fennel seeds, coriander, allspice, cloves, caraway, poppy and chia. I didn’t have to wait long for the chia – it was up the next day. We’ll see what the rest does. I also planted a chunk of ginger from the grocery store – since the expensive piece I ordered from Gurney’s rotted in the ground.:-(

2. Harvest something – mostly herbs but a few okra pods. I harvested some dollar weed from the garden but haven’t gotten up the nerve to eat it yet (why is that so hard, I wonder?) My garden has really slowed since the weather got so hot and dry. I recently found a couple of leaks in my soaker hose so I’ve switched back to hand watering. Maybe I’ll get better results now. I hope . . .

3. Preserve something – maybe never? I did buy a book, Well Preserved: recipes and techniques for putting up small batches of seasonal foods by Eugenia Bone. Bone gives basic advice as well as detailed instructions for preserving foods – everything from cherries in wine to smoked scallops, along with recipes for using the preserved food. Stay tuned.

4. Reduce waste – I was in Target this week (hey, my shopping options are extremely limited . . .) and noticed that the Starbucks counter was giving away bags of used coffee grounds to one and all. I took all they had. I also asked my mother’s hairdresser for her hair clippings. I had read what a wonderful mulch/compost they could be and thought it worth a try. But the hairdresser pointed out to me that the hair contains not only all the good stuff from our system (vitamins, minerals), but all the drugs as well. Changed my mind!

5. Preparation and Storage – I learned to make my own pita this week. I used the recipe in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Hertzberg and Francois. Wasn’t all that hard and turned out really well. I did find out that cooking the pita less was better than more, more being rather tough and crunchy.

And I’ve spent huge amounts of time on the internet – I discovered Freedom Gardens, an interactive community where I joined groups all the way from ‘making ink’ to ‘permaculture’ to ‘culture club’ (as in yogurt and sour dough and other cultures . . . )

And I’ve been fantasizing over property in other, more amenable-to-self-reliance locations. This place is just too hot, too dry, too sandy, and too vulnerable to hurricanes!!

6. Build Community Food Systems – blog (on occasion) and comment on other people's blogs.

7. Eat the Food – I made a fantastic Greek salad with cucumbers and peppers and herbs from the garden (to go in my yummy pita bread). The okra goes in my ‘refrigerator soup’ made from leftovers.

And that's it for this week.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Three O'Clock and All Is Well

Ah, insomnia! Well, it’s a good time to blog . . .

I haven’t been keeping up with my blogging because . . . well, because this is the time of year when I log onto the Hurricane Center for an update the first thing each morning. This is the time of year when the 100 degree sun shrivels the blossoms on the tomato vines before they ever have a chance to set fruit. This is the time of year when running around with a watering can trying to keep my plants happy starts getting old. This is the time of year when I look at the calendar and realize it’s only June. This is the time of the year when I spend every spare minute looking at real estate on the internet and fantasizing that somehow my husband will agree to move somewhere more sane. Like North Carolina. Or Portland, OR. Hmm, dream on, girlfriend.

Well, something has been eating my tomatoes and it isn’t me. At first, I thought it must be a largish animal to have so totally annihilated my one ripe tomato, but my husband did a little sleuthing and it’s . . . mocking birds! So I went off to Walmart for bird netting. Did not find any, but I did find holographic streamers that I’m going to try tying to the tomato cages. Maybe the blowing, twisting ribbons will scare the birds away. After I had bought the streamers, I read somewhere that tomatoes should be picked when they first start to turn pink. Let them ripen on a countertop (out of direct sun) – that way the critters won’t get them first. Now I have two options for dealing with the mocking birds . . .

As for the rest of the garden, I have some winners and some losers. The okra is doing well and I have to check it every day or the pods go past prime. I’m not getting enough at any one time to cook as a side dish, but I have been throwing them in a soup pot with whatever else is in the frig and making some pretty good lunches. The Swiss chard is doing surprisingly well considering the heat. It goes in the soup pot, too. My one cucumber plant is keeping us well supplied with cucumbers, and the peanuts look lush:

I’ve harvested more eggplants and served them up in a moussaka, but the squash aren’t really squashing. The crookneck has tons of babies and keeps growing new ones, but the babies never grow past infancy. The zucchini is doing much the same thing but with a measly two babies. I don’t know what their problem is. Guess we need to have a heart to heart. And the poor nasturtiums have turned to crispy critters despite frequent watering. Guess they don’t like it here.

Okay, for the (semi-)weekly roundup:

1. Plant something – I did get my herbs planted in flower boxes and repotted a citrus tree in a bigger pot (it has oranges, grapefruit and limes all on one tree – and is currently covered with fruit!).

2. Harvest something – okra, Swiss chard, peppers

3. Preserve something – still no. I thought about drying herbs but with the exception of basil, I have fresh herbs available year round. So why dry?

4. Reduce waste – I’ve started saving my vegetable cooking water and using it to water the big pots on the balcony.

5. Preparation and Storage – I tried my hand at homemade spinach pasta which came out pretty well. I also bought a soil blocker and two super new cookbooks: The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash and Greens, Glorious Greens by Albi and Walthers.

I read about The Victory Garden Cookbook in a comment on Sharon Astyk’s blog. (Scads of good cookbook suggestions if you're interested!) The book is out of print, but I managed to get a used copy in great condition through It’s a big, heavy book with tons of information. Each vegetable has its own chapter --there is growing advice, harvesting and trimming advice, and a slew of recipes. The moussaka recipe looks better than the one I used (which was okay but not great) and I’m looking forward to trying it. And it includes a lot of vegetables I've wanted to try but didn't know how to cook -- things like rutabagas and parsnips. I absolutely love this book and recommend it to one and all. (Hmm, I did buy the last 'cheap' copy available. You might want to check your local used book store.)

The second book is a winner, too. Greens, Glorious Greens is also organized by variety. There is advice on buying, storing and preparation for each green, and a good selection of recipes. The book covers not only every green you would find in the grocery store, but a few wild ones as well – dandelion greens, for example.

6. Build Community Food Systems – blog (on occasion)

7. Eat the Food – before the nasturtiums turned quite so crispy, I added a few to a salad. I’ve also added fresh herbs to many of my dishes, cucumbers to salads, peppers to stir-fries, okra and chard to soups, and eggplant to moussaka.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

First, another book review: Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. This is the best book on gardening theory I have ever come across. But this is also a book that cannot be read just once. This is a book to read over and over – there is way too much to absorb in only one or two readings!! I've already learned a huge amount about soil life and what it means for the garden and gardener, about the complex interactions of all life within the garden, and how working with nature makes the gardener’s job much, much easier. There are chapters on ‘Catching, conserving and using water,’ ‘Bringing in the bees, birds, and other helpful animals,’ ‘Creating communities for the garden,’ and ‘Growing a food forest.’ There is also a very helpful appendix of useful plants. Highly, highly recommended. I just wish I had known he was about to come out with a new and improved version!

Second, I’m taking a different tack this week. Instead of listing what I’ve accomplished (which, unfortunately, is too little to mention), I’m going to list what I hope to accomplish this coming week. Or so.

1.Plant something – I have a new herb collection: French sorrel, French tarragon, lemon verbena, lemon thyme, pineapple sage, and mint-chocolate peppermint. I hope to get them tucked into some flower boxes sometime this week – I’m waiting on the proper moon cycle. I’m not sure I’ll garden by the moon again next year. I feel like I’m gardening with one hand tied behind my back.

I probably won’t use straw bales again next year, either. My tomatoes and peppers need daily watering and frequent applications of compost tea. They are growing, but they’re not as vigorous as I think they should be. Of course, the straw bales may not be at fault. Maybe my plants are not getting enough sun . . .

I’m still having problems with my stevia. Seed germination is poor and the tiny seedlings, when I am lucky enough to get one, don’t want to grow.

2. Harvest something – we’ll see what ripens. I have tons of summer crookneck squash on the vine but none big enough yet to harvest. I have okra and Swiss chard ready to pick, but alas, I planted too little. What does one do with one okra pod or a couple of leaves of chard? Next year, I’ll plant more!

3. Preserve something – I think I’ll start drying some of my herbs. I bought a(nother!) book entitled Making and Using Dried Foods by Phyllis Hobson so now I have no excuses! I also want to learn more about pickling. Sounds like another book purchase is in order . . .

4. Reduce waste – I’m hoping to get a clothesline put up and start drying outside in our plentiful sunshine instead of wasting energy with fluff and dry.

5. Preparation and Storage - I’m continuing to read every chance I get. Another recent purchase is Home Cheese Making: Recipes for 75 Homemade Cheeses by Ricki Carroll. According to this book, the best temperature for cheese-making is 72 degrees. We keep our house at 80 during the summer months, so I’ll have to wait until cooler temperatures for my foray into cheese-making territory. Ah well, that gives me time to read and prepare. Of note, one of the featured cheese-makers is just down the road. I wonder if they offer lessons?

In the meantime, I’m dusting off my copy of Sunset’s Pasta Cookbook. Time to try making my pasta from scratch!!

Oh, I did buy a magnesium firestarter in the camping section of Walmart. It only cost me $6.94, and I now have the ability to make fire without matches. Could be useful! There are other firestarters out there and I may start a collection -- it seems different styles have different advantages and at this price, having more than one can't hurt.

6. Build Community Food Systems – For now, this blog is my attempt at building community food systems. In time, I hope to start sharing more – actual food and knowledge grounded in experience.

7. Eat the Food – My growing stack of cookbooks is aimed at becoming better at using what I grow. For now, I want to make better use of my many herbs.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Yumm Factor

I have bought several cookbooks lately and as yet have not actually cooked anything from them, but they hold great promise and I wish to share them here.

Cooking With Sunshine: The Complete Guide to Solar Cuisine with 150 Easy Sun-cooked Recipes by Lorraine Anderson and Rick Palkovic. This book includes not only recipes but directions for making and using solar cookers. Of especial interest to the rank beginner like myself is a chapter entitled “Warm-up: Easy recipes to show what your solar cooker can do.” The “What’s for Dinner?” chapter includes vegetarian fare as well as the usual meat and fish dishes, beans, grains and breads. “What’s for Dessert?” offers a variety from chocolate cake to butternut squash pie. “Menu Ideas” covers a wide range – easy, one-pot and last minute meals, meals for cloudy days, vegan and wheat free meals. Overall, it appears to be an excellent book!

From the Cook’s Garden: recipes for cooks who like to garden, gardeners who like to cook, and everyone who wishes they had a garden by Ellen Ecker Ogden. Okay, you’ve got a garden full of luscious vegetables, or your share from the CSA, or maybe you’ve just come back from a trip to the local farmer’s market. Now what do you do with it all? This book offers simple recipes for garden produce along with tips on the best tasting varieties to grow. The last chapter offers a few suggestions for “Preserving the Bounty,” but mostly this book is about eating what is fresh and in season.

While not strictly cookbooks, two books by Rosalind Creasy have found their way onto my bookshelf: The Edible Flower Garden and The Edible Herb Garden. Both books are lovely to look at and worth it for the pictures alone. These books cover the whole gamut – from garden design, cultivation, and preservation to an encyclopedia of plants and recipes for beautiful, eye-catching dishes.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Challenge Update

I don't seem to be getting much blogging done. At least I have my challenge update to offer:

1. Plant something – this week I planted more nasturtiums and cosmos in the flower beds, replanted stevia, Mexican tarragon, and cinnamon basil as the first plantings didn't do well, and transplanted my lemon balm to a bigger pot.

2. Harvest something – I harvested grape and Arkansas Traveller tomatoes, several varieties of peppers, and two eggplants.

3. Preserve something – umm. Still no.

4. Reduce waste – Instead of automatically jumping in the shower each morning, I'm going on an 'as needed' basis. Plus I pulled a bunch of wine bottles from the recycling bin to use in my drunkard's path. Even recycling takes energy -- reusing is a better option!

5. Preparation and Storage - I've been reading Gene Logsdon's The Contrary Farmer and ordered several more books on related topics. If it seems like I'm ordering a lot of books, it's because I am. I know I can't learn it all, but I can build a library of in-the-flesh honest-to-goodness books to have on hand if and when I need them. I also spend an inordinate amount of time reading blogs . . .

6. Build Community Food Systems – umm. Still no.

7. Eat the Food - Besides the salads, I cooked a killer eggplant parmesan with homegrown eggplant and basil. Yum!