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!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig

Two weeks of travel -- visiting our kids, our kids-in-law and our brandy-new grandkid. One week of trying valiantly to get caught up with the pile of bills, jungle of weeds, and various and sundry things-that-need-to-be-done! A huge thanks to my brother-in-law who kept the house, the garden, the cat and the Mother happy while we traipsed around the country. It's good to be home!

The garden is thriving!! The potatoes are threatening to smother everything in their path and the 'bush' cucumber is vining all over the place, but all is well and very happy. It does look like the straw bale plants need more watering now that the weather is getting hotter, and could probably do with regular doses of compost tea. I'll get right on that . . . Also noticing a big difference in the two eggplant plants. One got a mix of amendments (blood meal, bone meal, epsom salts and kelp meal) while the other got inoculated with mycelium. The amendment plant is winning by much more than a nose. (Actually, it's winning by three or four eggplants). I'm going to try feeding number two the same mix as number one and see if it can catch up.

My potatoes (darker green)have overwhelmed the pepper plants (lighter green)!! Peppers and tomatoes are looking a little anemic anyway. They seem to be hungry . . . nothing a regular diet of compost tea won't cure (I hope!)

And as for the weekly roundup:
1. Plant something – I planted some cannas in the front bed. Not edible, but pretty!
2. Harvest something – We harvested a handful of grape tomatoes. several peppers of different varieties, and a few radishes -- those that didn't get too woody in our absence. The woody ones have been left to go to seed.
3. Preserve something – Umm, not yet.
4. Reduce waste – Added more bottles to my 'drunkard's path.'
5. Preparation and Storage - Made more yogurt. Bought the following books (on sale at Mother Earth News):
The Contrary Farmer by Gene Logsdon
The Contrary Farmer's Invitation to Gardening by Gene Logsdon
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms by Paul Stamets
From the Cook's Garden by Ellen Ecker Ogden
Read Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk (Highly recommended. Review to come one of these days!)
6. Build Community Food Systems – I bragged about how well my garden is doing, does that count?
7. Eat the Food - It all went in salads or yummy chicken fajitas.

That's it for this week. Next week should be a bit more productive!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Challenge Week One

1. Plant something – replanted chard and okra to compensate for a less than stellar germination rate. I also planted three flower boxes with a mixture of leaf lettuces and rocket (arugula).

2. Harvest something – harvested a couple of bell peppers from a bush that overwintered on my back porch and some radishes.

3. Preserve something - Not this week. Florida has such a long growing season that fresh food is available year round – if not from the garden, at least from the wild. Preserving is not a biggie on my list – but it would be nice to learn a few tricks in case I ever need them.

4. Reduce waste – Composting with and without worms. Worms look happy so far as I can tell. Recycling what I can. Reusing wine bottles to make a border for the beds along my walk -- better known in quilting circles as drunkard’s path! Making my own yogurt in reuseable glass jars.

5. Preparation and Storage -- Baked bread using the method described in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois and made yogurt. Finished reading Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew. While the book does not go into enough detail to be a true ‘how-to’ book, it does introduce a whole panoply of possibilities for what can be done in an urban (suburban, or even rural) setting. Topics covered are: food, water, waste, energy, and bioremediation. Ordered Depletion and Abundance by Sharon Astyk. Started an emergency pantry and began stocking with beans, rice, dried fruit and canned goods. Here on my sandbar in the Gulf of Mexico, our most likely emergency would be a hurricane – in which case the pantry might be gone with the wind. Hence, I’m building an emergency supply but in very limited amounts.

6. Build Community Food Systems – Gave a loaf of homemade bread to a neighbor and took another neighbor on a tour of my garden.

7. Eat the Food – The radishes and peppers went into a salad; bread and yogurt don’t last long in our house.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Looking Good in the 'Hood

This past week, I carefully dug up my potatoes (which had already sent up shoots), dumped out the barrel, and replanted with better drainage (crushed cans in the bottom, sand and ironite mixed with the soil and manure). And they survived!! They even look happy! I was afraid they would rebel at the second planting but I figured it was either that or let them drown. Looks like I definitely made the right choice.

I also planted my flower boxes with a mixture of leaf lettuces and rocket (arugula), replanted some okra and chard that failed to make an appearance, and inoculated much of my garden with mycorrhizal fungi. (After watching the video Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,
I was so intrigued that I ordered the book Mycelium Running and the supplement MycoGrow™ For Vegetables. I purposely left some plants uninoculated as a control group. Stay tuned.)

So far, everything is looking goood. The peppers are peppering, the tomatoes, eggplant and squash are blooming, and everything is coming up roses, er, vegetables. Let’s hope the good results continue once we get into the hot hot season. . . .

Up for the Challenge?

Sharon Astyk has issued her Independence Days Challenge and I’m a sucker for a challenge. I’ve decided to post my updates here on my blog – gets me blogging on a more regular basis (ahem) – and allows me some expansion room. The idea is to keep track of our successes, however small, and to quit beating ourselves up for not doing everything at once. Just what I need! So the challenge is to do the following and report back once a week:

1. Plant something - I doubt this one needs a lot of explanation. Obviously, those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are doing a lot of this right now, but it should be a reminder that gardening isn’t “put in the garden on memorial day and that’s it” - most of us can grow over a longer season than we do, and even if you live in an apartment, you can sprout seeds. So keep on planting!

2. Harvest something - some people are full swing here, but even if you just picked the first dandelion from your yard, it counts if you ate it or saved it. Don’t forget to include food you forage - whether from wild marginal areas, or even just from the neighbor’s trees that he never harvests (ask, obviously).

3. Preserve something - this starts around now for me, as asparagus, nettles and rhubarb are up. Canning looks like a big scary project if you have to can a truckload of green beans on a hot day in July. Dehydrating seems overwhelming if you have to pick the pits out of 4 bushels of plums in a single afternoon when you’d rather be doing something else. And yes, sometimes everything comes ripe at once, some big jobs can’t be avoided, and you just put on the loud rock and roll and go at it. But a little at a time is possible, you can be canning corn relish while you are washing up from dinner, or stick the strawberries in the sun to dry on your way out the door.

4. Reduce waste - This category covers both the old “Reduce Waste” and “Manage Reserves” group. Once you’ve got food, whether purchased or home preserved, you have to keep an eye on it. In this category goes making sure you use what you buy or grow, cutting down on garbage production by minimizing packaging and purchasing, composting, reducing community waste by composting or feeding scraps to your animals, and taking care of your food storage - everything from keeping records and writing dates on jars to checking the apples and making sauce when they start getting soft. BTW, reduce waste also refers to money and energy - stretching out your trips to the store and not “spending” gas on your food, cutting your grocery budget and reducing cooking energy.

5. Preparation and Storage - This is the category where you report the stuff you’ve done to get ready that isn’t growing/storing/preserving food. That means the food you buy for storage, the things you build, scavenge, rescue and repair that get you further down the path. Did you get a good deal at goodwill? Scavenge some cinder blocks for your raised bed building project? Find a grain mill on Craigslist? Buy some more rice and put it away? Inventory the medicine cabinet? Pick up a new book that will be helpful? Tell us!

6. Build Community Food Systems - Great, we’re all doing this stuff at home. But what did you do to help spread the message, because that may even be more important. Did you talk about your victory garden at your kid’s school? Offer to share space with a neighbor in your sunny yard? Bring a casserole over to the family that lost their job or moved in? Donate to your food pantry? Teach the neighbor kids to make yogurt? Offer to teach a canning class? Show someone else where the nettles are growing wild? Talk about your food storage or gardening plans? Share a plant division or seeds?

7. Eat the Food - Sometimes I think people have more trouble actually eating their garden produce or CSA shares than they do growing or buying them. Ultimately, eaters have more power over our agricultural future than they know - farmers can’t necessarily lead the way - they have to sell what eaters want. So cooking and eating are the way we will change the food system. This is where you tell us about the new recipes you tried, or the old ones you adapted to new ingredients, about how you are actually eating what you store and store what you eat, or getting your kids to try the kale.

So that’s the challenge. We’ll see if I’m up to it!!

Monday, April 20, 2009

How to Drown Your Potatoes in One Easy Step

I have been busy gardening even if I haven’t been busy blogging about it! I’ve gotten my straw bales planted with five peppers, three tomatoes, one cucumber, one watermelon and some nasturtiums for added interest. To plant the peppers and tomatoes, I dug a hole in the straw twice as wide and twice as deep as the containers they came in. Well, ‘dug’ is a misnomer. I used a trowel to loosen the straw and then pulled it out by handfuls until I had a hole the size I wanted. It was slow, tedious work. Then I filled the holes with a 50-50 mix of topsoil and composted cow manure, sprinkled with a bit of soil inoculant. I used the straw I ‘dug’ out of the bales as mulch on my lasagna beds, so that was a bonus. I did notice that the bales are already showing signs of breaking down – I’m hoping they’ll last this season and almost certain they won’t last for a second. In all truth, it seems like doing things the hard way – sticking the plants in the ground would have been easier. But I didn’t have a suitable piece of ground to use, so the straw bales are serving a purpose. Once the bales were planted, I topped them with a soaker hose strung through some tile bricks I had lying around. The hose goes under the stairs, where the shade preferring potatoes and horseradish are planted, then winds its way through the lasagna beds – good system if I do say so myself. I may go with a timer for the hose eventually, but for now I can turn it on manually, walk way, and come back with the plants have had enough. Only I have to remember to come back, which I didn’t last time – hours later, I heard the water running and figured out why . . . .

On other fronts, I finished planting my third lasagna bed – ginger (which I ordered from Gurney’s – paid quite a bit for a tiny sliver – won’t do that again), a banana tree which came from a plant I just divided, and peanuts. I also planted my potato barrel. Hmmm.

Okay, the potato barrel. The idea is super: plant potatoes in a barrel and as they grow, add more soil --which increases the yield. When the season is over, dump out the barrel and pick up the liberated spuds – no digging, no potential for damaging the tater skins. Sounded great, so I bought a very suitable container at Wal-mart, had my husband drill the bottom with as many holes as possible, then mixed equal parts of peat moss, soil and compost as a planting medium. The potatoes (purchased from Burpee’s for more than I should have paid) had been languishing in their plastic baggie for way too long. When I bought them, I didn’t realize three things – one is that they are a cool weather plant, two, that the planting season in Florida ends in March, and three, that I wouldn’t find time to plant them for a while. One of the potatoes had already started to rot and the others were sprouting, but, hey, this is an experimental garden, right? It’s not so much about growing potatoes as it is about learning from my experience, mistakes and all. So the potatoes got planted and then I watered. Guess what? The water didn’t drain . . . well, it did, but very, very slowly. I’ve let the potato barrel dry somewhat and I’m going to dump it out and start over. I may kill my little sprouts in the process, but I’m almost certain that if I leave as is they will drown in our next big rainfall. When I redo, I’m going to crush some tin cans and put them in the bottom to improve drainage (oops, meant to do that the first time and forgot), then I’m going to mix some of our sand into the planting mix. Our sand is quite alkaline and potatoes like acid soil, so I’ll throw in some ironite to balance the PH. Then we’ll see how they do.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading, reading, reading. I’ve ordered a slew of books and getting ready to order more. As I have time, I’ll try to provide some book reviews. LOTS of fantabulous information out there! So much to learn, so little time!!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Bird, Watching

I am finally making some progress! I now have two ‘lasagna’ beds finished and planted. In addition to the layers of newspaper, peat moss, compost, organic matter (mostly weeds) and topsoil that went onto my new beds, I sprinkled on bone meal, blood meal, kelp meal and soil activator (with microbes that are supposed to help bring the soil to life). These were raked into the top layer. I may add ironite if new growth isn’t as green as it should be. All the amendments had suggestions for rate of application – so many pounds per so many square feet. I can never figure that out – so I sprinkle and hope for the best.

Yesterday being a good day for planting ‘above ground annuals,’* I planted amaranth, cucumber, two varieties of squash, eggplant, nasturtiums, swiss chard and okra. I also planted a variety of herbs, some of which are perennial . . . so I cheated just a bit. Just recently, I read in Mother Earth News that swiss chard does not like full sun and, of course, the bed for it was in the full sun, so I inter-planted the chard with okra in hopes that the taller plants will shade the shorter ones. I had soaked the chard seeds overnight and ended up with more than I needed, so I tossed the extras under a shady tree. Maybe I’ll get something, maybe I won’t. I also realized, after-the-fact, that I had violated the rules of companion planting by putting cucumbers and herbs in the same bed. Well, I don’t have many options at present, so we’ll see how it goes. There should be room in one of the straw bales for another cucumber, so I can compare results. Sort of. I don’t know that comparing a plant in a straw bale to a plant in a lasagna bed is exactly scientific, but it’s an experiment all the same.

When it came to labeling, I had read that one could use plastic knives as labels. I didn’t have any plastic knives, but I did have plastic spoons. So I wrote on the spoon handles with a permanent marking pen and stuck them in the ground in front of the seeds. The labels will likely be illegible by the end of the season, but by then, I shouldn’t need them anymore anyway.

Now I need to keep it all watered until the seeds sprout. Rain is forecast for tomorrow and the next day, so Mother Nature may help me out. Once the plants are up, I intend to snake a soaker hose through the garden and put it on a timer – that will not only save me a lot of work but will keep the garden watered when I go to visit my kids in a month or so. The beds are not all contiguous, so this should get interesting! I will also need to mulch. I’m not sure what to use. In my flower beds, I use pine bark nuggets, but those are awfully coarse for a vegetable garden. Cypress mulch is an environmental no-no, straw is not readily available, compost tends to crust over, and we don’t have a lawn to provide clippings. I think I may use weeds – young, seedless weeds.

In our yard, we have three categories of weeds. There are weeds I like. I call those ‘wildflowers.’ There are weeds we can eat. I call those ‘salad.’ And there are weeds that I don’t like or are growing where they shouldn’t. I call those ‘weeds.’ The neighbors don’t seem to understand my classification system, but they tolerate my eccentricities anyway! I have an abundance of all three categories of weeds, so finding mulch shouldn’t be too onerous.

So why did I title this post "Bird, Watching"? Because today when I watered the garden, there was a bird, watching. 'Charlie,' as we call our blue herons, waited until I had finished and went in for a closer look. I don't think he's seen a lasagna garden before!



it out!!

*according to my moon calendar

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Online Education

I love, love, love the internet! I learn 100 new things every time I log on, and that’s in just the first ten minutes! Okay, slight exaggeration, but I do learn tons . . . better and cheaper than a college education!

One of the things I learned about is straw bale gardening. Straw bale gardening is not suitable for root crops, but for just about anything else – including tomatoes and peppers, which are what I’m planting in mine this year. You start with wheat straw bales tied with synthetic twine, if you can find them. Place the bales with the ties horizontal to the ground in whatever spot you plan to use them (can even be on a balcony, driveway, or other hard surface), and keep them watered for 7-10 days to prime them for planting. During the saturation stage, the wheat supposedly heats up and then cools off. Once they are cool, they are ready to plant. Rough up the top three inches of straw and work in compost, soil -- whatever you plan to plant in. Then plant and water as usual.

I’m using this method for several reasons – one is that I can plant under an existing pergola, giving my tomatoes and peppers dappled sun. I’ve found that full sun can be too intense in this area. The second reason is that tomatoes should not be planted in the same place each year – otherwise diseases build up in the soil. If you have a small garden, as I do, it’s not easy to find new places to put the tomatoes. And lastly, I just want to try it and see how it works. Last year, I tried planting my one tomato upside-down in one of those baggie things, and that was a disaster. Our strong winds whipped the plant around and broke off major branches. Then the winds turned really salty as Gustav and Ike passed through the Gulf. What was left of the tomato plant turned brown and crispy. This year’s crop will be in a more protected spot, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

So the first step is to find straw bales. I was looking in garden centers. Not the place to look. At least around here, you have to look in feed stores or saddleries. I figured I needed four bales and hoped they would fit in the back of my Toyota Highlander. They did, but just barely. I had put a blanket down to protect the interior of the car, but I still had a lot of cleaning to do after I pulled the bales out. The little things they never tell you! I put my bales in place and it has been raining ever since. We have a couple of clear days in the forecast and then more rain, so keeping them wet could not be easier! In the meantime, my tomatoes and peppers have arrived and I have them acclimating on the screened porch.

With all the rain, I’ve been spending more time on the internet learning more wonderful things. Yesterday, I learned about chia seeds. It seems that chia seeds have more omega three’s than flax seeds, don’t have to be ground the way flax does, and are easier to store. Plus they are packed with protein, calcium, anti-oxidants and other wonderful stuff. They supposedly have a pleasant, nutty flavor and can be added to almost anything. If put in water, they turn into gel – which makes me wonder if they could be used to for a Jell-O substitute or added to stewed fruit to make jelly. They can be sprouted and eaten that way, or grown and harvested as young greens (remember chia pets?) I’m not sure how easy they are to grow to maturity – but why not try and find out? I found several sources for the seeds on the internet, but shipping and handling was mucho expensivo, so I’m going to look in our local health food store first.

More tidbits from yesterday’s surfing: Rocket and collard flowers are supposedly delicious! If you live in a warm area like mine, the season for greens like arugula (also known as rocket), lettuce, spinach, cilantro and other cool weather greens is decidedly short. Everything wants to bolt – wherein the leaves turn tough and bitter and flower stalks shoot toward the sky. Of course, the plant doesn’t know it’s supposed to stay a tender, young baby, it just wants to get on with reproduction. But now I know I can eat the flowers if not the leaves, at least of the rocket plants. And cilantro, once it goes to seed, is known as coriander – another second use for a versatile plant. But I am also going to try growing cilantro and arugula indoors this summer, another experiment. Will they last longer in an air-conditioned house? (We keep our thermostat at 80 so it’s not exactly cool . . . but cooler than out-of-doors).

And lastly, I ran across an amazing video yesterday -- A Farm for the Future. This is a long one, fifty-some minutes, but well worth the time it takes to watch. Rather sobbering, really.

Well, another rainy day on my little island. Wonder what I'll learn today?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Another Ooops!

I’ve been too busy to do much blogging, but I have managed to get my one-half a bed planted. I now have my herbs transplanted from their winter flower boxes, some radishes coming up from seed, summer squash and basil popping through the soil. Then I read that pressure treated wood should not be used for raised beds. And what borders my garden?? Pressure treated wood. Oh dear, here I go again . . .

Well, before I started ripping things out, I decided to do a little research. It turns out that pressure treated wood, while not the best choice, may not be totally horrible after all. It also turns out that plants not directly next to the wood are not likely to be contaminated and that any that are contaminated will probably croak on their own. So I’m leaving things the way they are and hoping I don’t poison anyone. I figure my veggies, even with a toxic border, are probably healthier than anything in the grocery store. Life. Always interesting!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Queen of Underestimation

I have got to be the queen of underestimation!! I started out today with high hopes and major plans. According to my nifty calendar, Gardening by the Moon 2009, today is propitious (don’t you love that word?) for planting for root growth, especially flowers and herbs, and for dividing perennials.* So I made my list: divide and share daylilies, divide banana, plant herbs and flowers. I had my herb bed all planned out – a corner by the back stairs with afternoon sun, protection from winds, close and easy to water. I had my method all planned out -- the no-till lasagna method of layering wet newspaper, peat, organic matter, etc. First I removed the sea oats and baby palms to replant elsewhere and then I was ready to prepare the bed.

My mother has used the lasagna method before and she warned me to make sure the newspaper was wet all the way through, so I put water in a plastic box and threw in some of the newspapers my neighbor has been saving for me. I quickly determined that it wasn’t a good idea to soak the papers too long or they would start falling apart. But overall the project went well -- until I ran out of newspapers about half way through. As it became evident I wasn’t going to have enough newspaper, I started using the slick inserts and old catalogs, but even they didn’t stretch nearly far enough. Oh well, I would do half the bed today and half another time.

Next came a layer of sphagnum peat moss. I drove over to Walmart and bought a 2.2cuft bale thinking it would be enough. Well, it covered the newspaper, but barely. That bale of peat cost me $8.56 and it only covered half the bed!! Next came a layer of free weeds, then a layer of topsoil. I dumped three bags of topsoil onto the bed and found it didn’t cover even half of my half. Back to Walmart! Four more bags of topsoil later, I finally finished that layer. Next came a layer of compost from my tumbling compost maker. Some of it has been in that thing for four years waiting for me to actually use it! The composter is now three-quarters empty. The other half of the bed is going to get short-changed!! Finally, I put down four bags of composted cow manure. It does look beautiful!

By now I was drenched in sweat and dead tired. All that planting I had planned would have to wait for the next propitious day. . .

So far, this dirt has cost me $8.56 for peat moss, $8.40 for top soil, and $5.08 for composted cow manure. I still have the other half of the bed to go and organic fertilizers to add. Expensive dirt!!! If I knew for sure this dirt was going to be here year after year, it would make more sense, but who knows when the next hurricane will wash it all into our canal? Okay, let’s call this ‘tuition’ money – better than calling it foolish!

So, not only did I underestimate the amount of money, newspaper, peat moss, soil and compost that I would need, I also underestimated the amount of time and sweat it would take. After lugging 40 pound bags around all day, I’m tired. But it’s a good tired. Now for a glass of wine . . .

*I’ve never planted by the moon before – don’t know if there’s anything to it or not. But I’m for anything that might remotely give my garden a fighting chance, so what-the-hey!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Time Marches On

I have been so busy of late that I haven’t had much time for homesteading activities. That will need to change in the near future or my whole experiment in more sustainable living will be a wipe-out! Ah, life, it does catch up with the procrastinator!

I did want to post a short update on the worm bin. My worms are quite happy and still odor-free. I have been freezing their food in a little baggie, then thawing and adding it to the bin. They seem to like it much better than the raw, whole stuff I was giving them originally. I still have more food scraps than my worms can eat, but I recently read about another method of enriching planting beds that could make use of my partially decomposed compost from the tumbling bin. It’s called lasagna gardening. More on it later.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Playing the Links

I have found some terrific websites recently, ones I’d like to share:

The Well Run Dry: a diary of life on the down side of Hubbert’s peak offers discussions of the problems we face, with peak oil as the core issue. Both heavily religious and political, it nevertheless offers solid information and practical means of dealing with the coming crises. It was on this site that I learned of the next two links.

The Open Source Machine Site [quoting the description on Well Run Dry]: “The Open Source Machine site is dedicated to providing potential manufacturers with small, easily-built manufacturing machines that can be made from recycled and reused parts. Plans for these machines are developed for free and published on the Web without copyright or royalty or intellectual property restrictions, so that anyone can use them. One of their projects is called the “MultiMachine,” described as “...a humanitarian, open-source machine tool project for developing countries.” The neat thing about the MultiMachine is that it provides many metalworking functions in one device that can easily be made from used vehicle engine parts. The Open Source Machine project site also has links to plans to build other machines, including plans to build an air compressor from scrap.”

Casaubon’s Book: Sharon Astyk’s Ruminations on an Ambiguous Future is a treasure chest of practical information on homesteading and related topics. Sharon’s growing conditions couldn’t be more different from mine. She lives in the northeast with a short, coolish, rainy growing season, heavy, clay, acidic soil. I live in the southeast with a long, hot, dry growing season, salt winds, and pure, alkaline sand. However, I am hoping that I can adapt her growing suggestions to my own circumstances. She recently posted a list of the 25 best crops to try – and her readers’ comments are almost as helpful as the original post. I’ve plans to plant several on her list and will experiment with more next year. Of course, Sharon deals with more than just crops – food storage, animal husbandry, container gardening, etc – and she has multiple links to more information. I’m on information overload at the present, but loving it!

Also on homesteading is Path to Freedom, the story of the Dervaes family plot in Pasadena, CA. On merely a fifth of an acre, they have managed to grow tons of food annually, selling their excess to local restaurants. Their website offers not only practical advice, but videos and a store. One of the features I particularly like is their weekly menu posting. When one eats primarily from the garden, what does one eat? Well, they tell you and even have the photos to prove it.

Mother Earth News has been a source of information for decades now, and it wears its tradition well. It was on their site that I first learned of the Dervaes family, as well as discovering a new way to bake bread and suggestions for creating biochar (posts on both of these at a later date). Another rich source of information!!

The Rhizome Collective self describes as “We are working to build the world we want to live in. In our worldview, the dominant values of competition, greed and exploitation would be replaced with cooperation, autonomy and egalitarianism. We believe that all struggles against oppression and for self-determination are connected, and that it is important to construct viable alternatives while simultaneously fighting for social justice.” Practical suggestions for sustainable living in an urban setting – everything from vermiculture to building your own windmill out of recycled bicycle parts. Great source!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Eating Weeds

Forty-some years ago, I was in college, and my Anthropology 101 professor said something so shocking that it has stayed with me ever since. He said that over the millennia, humans have always lived as hunters and gatherers and that it was only in ‘recent’ times that we invented agriculture. He also pointed out that agriculture is a human experiment that might someday fail and that we could conceivably revert to the tried and true, hunting and gathering. He said that civilization as we know it could be the aberration and that the pockets of ‘primitive’ people still remaining could represent mankind’s true success story. Pretty heavy stuff to lay on eighteen-year-olds!

As I consider his words now, there is no way that Gaia can sustain 7 billion human hunter/ gatherers, especially with natural ecosystems so degraded. But hunting and gathering can be supplementary means of feeding ourselves as long as we respect the limits of nature and do not overharvest. That said, I have not yet reconciled myself to hunting, though I do not fault those who cull over-populations of wild animals and then make good use of their takings; I would rather an animal be wild and free until the moment of its death than raised in overcrowded pens on huge agri-farms. But the gathering aspect suits me just fine.

Of course, being a city girl, food is supposed to come in plastic packages in the produce aisle, or from carefully tended home gardens. Harvesting from the wild is a bit scarier, so I got some help. A local nature center offers classes in collecting wild foods, and I signed up. It turns out that dollar weed, a local pest, is actually in the carrot family and completely edible. So are our poor man’s pepper, dock, henbit, wild onions, and many other ‘weeds’ I’ve been throwing into the compost bin. And the yaupon holly bushes that grow wild on our island can be used for making caffeinated tea!

I came home from the course with the book Edible Plants of the Gulf South, which is specific to our region. Since then, I’ve purchased The Complete Guide of Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts: How to Identify, and Cook Them, and Florida’s Best Fruiting Plants: Native and Exotic Trees, Shrubs, and Vines. I’m still not sure how to prepare some of these plants – instructions are sometimes a bit vague. I’m completely new to this! I need details! I’m hoping that as I gain experience, the confusion will dissipate.

I still find it odd to walk out into the yard, pull a weed from a flower bed, and throw it into our evening salad. I’m going to take it slowly, adding the wild harvest a bit at a time until I become more confident. I also intend to buy a good field guide for identifying poisonous plants. I don’t want to make any fatal mistakes!

A recent hurricane took out about half the houses on our island and some may never be rebuilt. That means a lot of land is ‘natural,’ which translates as ‘free salad bar.’ And after spending the last four years unsuccessfully trying to rid my yard of what I have now discovered are edible weeds, I can be assured that overharvesting would be difficult. Thank you, Mother Gaia, you do take care of your own!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Stevia Rebaudiana

I mentioned stevia in my last post and want to expand a bit. I had never heard of stevia until last spring when I saw the plants in a Gurney’s catalog. Stevia is also known as ‘sweet leaf’ and is touted as a healthy, natural, no-cal sugar substitute. What’s not to like? So, I ordered one and eagerly awaited its arrival. I was curious to see this wonder plant! The plant arrived, but it was mashed in the packaging and looking quite iffy. The poor thing didn’t take long to succumb. I re-ordered and was told to expect the replacement in October. Well, the replacement plant was DOA as well. “Stevia must not travel well,” I said to myself, and ordered seeds instead. Now the seeds have arrived, and it turns out they’re a bit tricky to start. Well, I’m going to try. In the meantime, maybe I’ll find a plant in the local nursery. The stevia word seems to be getting out – I saw packages of sugar substitute made from stevia in the local Winn-Dixie, so it’s no longer a big secret.

Being new to both growing and using stevia, I bought a couple of books to help me out. The first is Stevia Sweet Recipes: Sugar-free – Naturally by Jeffrey Goettemoeller. Tons of recipes, but most of them use stevia extract and I have no clue how to get from plant to extract. So I bought a second book, Growing and Using Stevia: The Sweet Leaf from Garden to Table by the same J Goettemoeller and Karen Lucke. This book has growing hints as well as directions for processing the leaves to make extracts and powder, plus some additional recipes. Between the two books, I should have enough information to get me started. To find out how the experiment goes, stay tuned!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Seeds and Plants

Now that I’m on my way to having compost, it's time to plan what to plant and where. We have a protected area in back of the house that should do well as a small garden. It’s out of the wind, gets shade part of the day (full sun all day is too much here in the Florida panhandle!), and is easy to access. I’ve ordered some heirloom tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, mint and horseradish from Tasteful Gardens, a relatively local nursery that carries varieties supposedly well-suited to our climate. From Hirt’s (, I ordered seeds for amaranth, cucumber, Mexican tarragon, stevia, watermelon, okra, squash, and swiss chard. From Gurney’s, I ordered a dwarf banana, ginger, and peanuts. I ordered a soil tester from Burpee’s – one that tests both PH and fertility. I still have radish and lettuce seeds from last year and some herbs that overwintered on my back porch – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme – plus oregano, marjoram and cilantro. That’s enough to get me started!

A word about amaranth – I’ve never grown it before but it's a wonder plant and I’m hoping it will do well. The tender, young leaves can be used in salads, the older leaves can be steamed, and the seeds can be eaten as is or ground into flour. It has an attractive 'flower' and can even be used as a natural red dye. Worth a try!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Worms Crawl In, the Worms Crawl Out . . .

I’ve discovered another composting tactic: worms! With a worm bin, I can enlist hundreds of worms to do my composting for me! I found several ideas for make-it-yourself worm bins on the internet, but I decided to go with the more attractive, expensive model with the spigot for worm tea (hey, I had a coupon for money off!) Rather glad I did. I had read that worm bins can be set up inside or out, but come to find out that outside means out of direct sun, out of wind, out of rain, and ideally between 40 and 80 degrees. If I had a garage, that might have worked, but we have a carport, so the worm bin is in my kitchen and now part of my decor.

Word of advice: don’t order your worms and worm bin on the same day from different catalogs just so you can use two different coupons. Wait until your worm bin arrives or you may have worms and nowhere to put them. Voice of experience. Also, be prepared with newspaper. If, like me, you get your news on the internet to save trees and money, you may have to rely on your, uh, less environmentally conscious neighbors. Or do what I did and help yourself to a big stack of the freebies at the grocery store. The instructions also called for adding some finished compost to the bedding. Thanks to my tumbler, I had the compost. Other people might not have such easy access.

It all worked out, though. I now have worms living happily in a corner of my kitchen. If there is any smell, I haven’t noticed. They are hard at work eating my garbage, but not all of it. I still have garbage left over that is going into the tumbling composter (dang! I was planning on letting that compost finish its thing and now I have it working again!) The one problem I have with my worms is that they’re too picky. They like their food cut into small pieces (have you ever tried convincing your significant other that he should cut his banana peel into little pieces for the sake of worms?) Second option is to cook the garbage in the microwave to soften it up. But I’m trying to avoid using any extra energy, so that doesn’t seem to be such a good option, either. Third option is to freeze the garbage and then let it thaw. I may try that. So far, the worms have been getting their banana peels fresh and whole, but they haven’t been making great headway, either. Guess I do need to give them a helping hand.

[More information on vermicomposting. With a hat tip to Sharon Astyx for the link]

So far, so good. . . I rather like lifting the lid to the worm bin and seeing all those little red bodies hard at work. Rather like having an army of slaves!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

World’s Best Compost

We don’t have soil where we live, we have sand – pure, white, make-a-sandcastle sand. We have salt winds that shriek through the garden, UV rays that will burn holes in your shirt, and rain that comes in infrequent tsunamis -- when it rains, it pours! Oh, and the occasional hurricane or two. That’s the downside. The upside is a long growing season, plentiful sunshine that just needs to be moderated, and rainfall that can be collected and stored.

I figure the first task is to create a growing medium amenable to more than sea scrub. I have a compost maker, one of those that tumbles. I spent a lot for that compost maker and there are a couple of problems with it – first of all, when it is full, it doesn’t much like tumbling. I took it off the base and now just roll it around the yard. Still not easy, but easier. Second problem is that I am continually adding new kitchen garbage, weeds, etc to the tumbler, so I never have finished compost! I need another way of making compost – something fast.

I found a website that promised the world’s best compost in one day. Sounded too good to be true, but I plunked down $34 to learn the ‘secret’ all the same. First of all, the compost isn’t finished in one day (I knew that!) -- it takes one day to make the compost pile and three to six months for the compost to happen. All you need is a truckload of fresh cow manure, preferably from grass-fed cows, quite a lot of straw, some herbal concoctions (not necessary but recommended) and the space for a heap five feet high by five feet wide by six and a half feet long. At some point in the process, worms are supposed to appear in your pile, coming up from the ground, I guess. So what happens if you can’t get a truckload of manure, don’t have the space for huge compost pile, and your sand is a worm-free zone? This technique may well produce the world’s best compost, but it isn’t going to happen in my garden. Time to rethink.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A City Girl Goes Country

With the peak everything knocking at our doors, I decided it would be prudent to become as self-reliant as possible. That means growing more of my own food, securing a reliable water supply, learning survival skills, and becoming self-sufficient when it comes to power. Not easy for a city girl, especially for one who lives on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. This city girl is going to have to go country, and quick!

I am marking my trail with this blog – so that others may profit from my mistakes as well as my successes.