Saturday, December 5, 2009

Right By Nature

There isn't much coming out of the garden these days. We do have some parsnips waiting to be harvested, the salsify that volunteered from last year, and lots of leeks. Hopefully these will be fine in the ground despite the snow flurries we're getting today and the cold weather that is forecast. It is December, after all! (And I STILL haven't cut back the asparagus! Winter always does sneak up on me!)

Sadly, the farmers' markets have all shut down for the year. Since I'm far from being self-sufficient I guess it's back to the grocery store for food shopping. Well I discovered one that I think is worth talking about. It's called Right By Nature. I first spotted it as I was driving around looking for a place to park on one of my weekly trips out to the Firehouse Farmers' Market. After checking out their web site I decided to go in and have a look (there's plenty of parking and it's FREE!) I found local produce, much of it organically grown, local products, and local, ethically-raised, drug-free meats! Although the beef isn’t local, according to the man behind the counter who managed the meat department, he was SO proud of the quality of that beef, and the fact that THIS store was the only one in the area that was offering it . . well, that’s good enough for me. And I was truly impressed by how much he believed in what he was selling. Clearly there's something different about this place. The bottom line is that Right By Nature is a grocery store I would feel good about shopping in on a regular basis. Not only do they support our local farmers but they are part of our own Pittsburgh community, and that's important for the health of our local economy. So the next time you're heading out to East Liberty to go to Whole Foods, why not head out to the Strip instead and try Right by Nature? You'll find just as nice a selection, and the dollars you spend there will stay right here in Pittsburgh!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Farm City

There's not much going on in the garden these days, thanks to Mr. Groundhog. Once he polished off all the brassicas he moved on the to the nice baby lettuces I thought were hidden under the asparagus fronds, chewed the chard plants right down to the roots, and he's even eaten the parsley! So far, at least, he hasn't discovered a taste for leeks, so we've still been able to harvest those for fall meals. For now, the only real garden-related activity I've been doing is planning for next year (more about that later.)

This leaves me time for reading, and I've just finished a great little book: Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. This is the inspiring and hilarious true story of how Novella turned an empty lot in a blighted neighborhood in Oakland, California, into a real urban farm, complete with chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, rabbits, and two pigs! The fact that she was able to feed all of these critters (that would ultimately feed her) with excellent food she foraged right out of the dumpsters of her city says a lot about the waste in our society. (Makes an urban farm seem like not such a crazy idea after all!) And as a result of her dumpster-diving she got to meet a chef, learn his charcuterie secrets and together they transformed one of her pigs into these magical foods. Novella Carpenter tells her story with such humble, self-deprecating humor that it's easy to overlook the breadth of her accomplishments. Not only did she raise food for herself and her friends, but she brought people in her dicey neighborhood together as a result of her project. Great food for thought! Now I'm REALLY inspired to get my chickens next year!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

86 Red Cabbage, Broccoli and Cauliflower. Dinner Special: Roast Groundhog

I wish! Sadly, this culprit is way too wily to let me catch him in the act. I can only imagine his modus operandi: first he nibbles his way through the plastic deer fencing, squeezes his fat self through the hole, sniffs and rejects the beets, then proceeds on to the brassica bed where he wreaks groundhog havoc! Oddly enough, the cabbage whites really did leave the bed alone this year. Unfortunately they aren't the only ones with a taste for cabbage-related veg. What do I have to do to get a red cabbage--adopt an orphaned groundhog?? Given my luck, if roast ground hog was truly on the menu I WOULD wind up doing just that! Although somehow I don't think that would count as good karma if I'd murdered the parent!

Sigh Don't worry, I'm not grabbing the shot gun just yet. (I don't even own one!) No calls to PETA necessary! The longer I garden, the more I realize that if I'm not ready to "take it on the chin", I'd better just get out of the ring! This season has been particularly painful, but I am officially picking up my tomato blight-bruised and groundhog-battered self and am already planning for next year. Unfortunately for Mr. Groundhog, those plans also include some major groundhog fence reinforcements!!!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Time to Plant Garlic!

There's a definite chill in the air. Actually it seems like it's been here since July--did we HAVE summer this year?? Looking back on the garden season there were certainly highs and lows. The peas were wonderful, and we're still eating carrots and parsnips from our garden bags. And the fairy squash were as prolific as usual. Last week I finally pulled out the pathetic remnants of our tomato plants, along with the barren eggplants and monster ground cherries. Sometimes you just have to admit defeat! But one of the really great things about gardening is that one can always find solace in the crops yet to come. The drop in temperature means it's time to plant one of my favorite crops: garlic! The raised bed that for the most part gave us next to nothing this summer will (hopefully) produce lots of garlic for next year!

Garlic likes nice fluffy, well-fertilized, loamy soil. To prepare the bed I made sure there were no weeds, and added some basic organic fertilizer, lime, and a bit of compost. Since our raised beds are pretty well-established the soil is really nice and light. I turned the amendments into the soil, and then covered the bed with black landscape fabric. The fabric not only keeps weeds to a minimum, but it seems to give our garlic a head start in the spring because of the extra warmth it gives to the soil. Next, cut some "X's" into the fabric about 4-6" apart. Plant the biggest, fattest cloves you have, pointy-side-up, about 2" down in the soil, one clove per "X". Prior to planting I put each clove on top of its "X" so I don't lose track while I'm planting. Remember, the bigger the clove, the bigger the head of garlic you'll get from it next year!

One thing that's really hit me since I started growing vegetables is just how narrow the supermarket offers are. Buying garlic at the supermarket is simple: what's in that little bin in the produce section is pretty much your one-and-only choice. The only decision-making necessary is whether to buy garlic or not. Deciding which garlic variety to grow from the seed catalogs is another experience entirely! For true garlic connoisseurs there are seemingly infinite varieties to choose from. Over the years I've narrowed my ultimate favorite down to one: Music. It's a hardnecked garlic, which means come early June you'll get a preview harvest of scapes. It has a great garlic flavor, but best-of-all, it makes great big heads with great big cloves that are easy to peel. (And since they're big, you don't need to peel as many of them!) Whichever varieties you choose, you'll be glad you chose to grow your own. Garlic is one of the most satisfying crops I've ever grown, and once you've tasted fresh garlic you'll never go back to the generic stuff in the supermarket!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

At Least Someone's Enjoying Aunt Molly's Ground Cherries!

I first tasted ground cherries (also know as husk cherries or Cape Gooseberries) when I got a bag of them in my CSA a few years ago. I had no idea what these curious berries that came in their own little wrapper were, but I figured they had to be edible sitting there in amongst all the other fruit and vegetables the farmers had packed in the box. So I unwrapped one and popped the little apricot-colored fruit into my mouth. The taste was unlike any other fruit I'd ever had: it was slightly sweet and tart, but with wonderful overtones of custard. I had to have more!! Luckily they were selling them at the Farmers' Market that year, so I managed to have a few more tastings until they were just a sweet memory.

After I'd discovered what they were I found the seeds for an heirloom variety, Aunt Molly's Ground Cherries, in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, and had to try growing them for myself. I carefully planted my ground cherry seedlings in the same raised bed the tomatoes and eggplants were in since they're all similar plants requiring similar growing conditions. Of course I had no idea how ground cherries grow, other than the description in the catalog, so how was I to know these monsters would eventually take over the entire bed??! Just two plants, and the poor eggplants were totally covered by the ever-expanding branches. I ignored the recommendation for landscape fabric in the catalog description, thinking it was just for weed control. It wasn't. Ground cherries got their name for a reason: when they're ripe they fall to the ground. Having landscape fabric under the plants would make harvesting them off the ground much cleaner and easier.

Despite the lack of landscape fabric I was able to harvest a fair number of them in the beginning, and the papery husks protect the berry inside from getting dirty. And if you leave the husks on they store for a long time a room temperature, so you can "stock up" enough to eventually make a pot of jam or a dessert from them. Unfortunately for me, however, "somebody" else at the garden has discovered the ground cherries. By the time I get to the garden to harvest them, the little husks are all empty! And the little hoarder leaves the empty husks in piles all around the garden, just to mock me! Sigh. I was tempted to pull the plants out, just out of spite (and to give my eggplants a last gasp of hope), but I didn't have the heart to deprive the little critter his treats. Luckily I put in a couple of plants at home too, so I've been able to have a few ground cherries for myself.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Sack of Potatoes

Well, the potato harvest wasn't quite what I'd hoped. I'd planted two garden bags with seed potatoes (French fingerlings and red fingerlings). As the plants grew I added compost to the bags until they were full. Once the plants started to die back about three weeks ago we harvested the potatoes. The French fingerling potatoes weren't terrifically prolific. In fact, I think we got back pretty much 1 potato for every seed potato we put in! They were beautiful and delicious nonetheless! The red fingerlings did a bit better. I think from both bags we got about 5 pounds of beautiful potatoes. Perhaps not the best return on our investment, but having freshly-dug fingerling potatoes for dinner is, of course, priceless!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

It's Looking Pretty Blighty 'Round Here!

Oh those elusive tomatoes!  Why is it that I grew tomatoes as a kid with no apparent problems (and absolutely no gardening experience!), and now that I've been learning about how to garden, pampering my soil, growing companion plants, encouraging the good insects, blah-blah-blah, tomatoes are about the only thing I haven't been able to grow so far!  (Well, tomatoes and charentais melons, but that's another story!)  What's the deal??? I've heard that "other" people grow such of a glut of tomatoes that they actually . . .  gasp . . . GIVE them away!! (Unfortunately I don't know any of THOSE people!)  Either my plants are beautifully green and lush with no fruit (too much nitrogen, I KNOW), or if they do have tomatoes on them, just as that brandywine is ripening some creature decides to taste it, then leaves it on the ground!!! If I'd have had a shot gun and caught the bugger in the act, I don't care HOW cute, it would have been TOAST! Tomatoes bring out the true beast in me!  I think the only brandywine tomato that actually got to ripen on the vine last year had a bite mark on it!   I ate it anyway!  All I can say is, thank goodness for the farmers' market and for tomato-growers much more talented than me, or the taste of home-grown tomatoes would be a just a childhood memory!
This year was SUPPOSED to be different! But then,  . . . THIS!  It's blight, alright, and it looks like I'm not the only one at the garden with some awfully sick-looking tomatoes!  Those ugly brown blotches on your tomato leaves and green tomatoes that turn brown instead of red are sure signs of tomato blight.  It's caused by a fungus that can live as spores in the soil that can then infect your plants if they get splashed up onto the leaves.  It's certainly been present at our community garden since tomatoes are grown there year after year, but this year is particularly bad.  One major reason is the cool, wet weather we've been having, which tomatoes don't appreciate but is ideal for blight.  Another reason may be that tomato seedlings purchased from some of the "big box" stores (Wal-Mart, Lowes, KMart and Home Depot) were already infected with blight right at the start, according to this New York Times article.  Whatever the cause, it's pretty heart-breaking for us tomato lovers!  

Is there anything we can do to save our tomato crop?  That depends on how far along the disease is on the plant.  If you have enough healthy growth you can remove the diseased leaves and fruit (don't compost these--get rid of them or you'll just spread the fungus.)  There are organic fungicides that can help, but they may be a bit pricey.  I found a recipe for a home-made solution here.  This site suggests spraying the plants and soil with compost tea.  The organisms in the compost will help fight the fungus, and the compost will fertilize the plants at the same time.  I'm going to try some of my worm tea since I have this on hand.  The best overall way to fight blight is prevention:  make sure your plants are healthy from the start, make sure your soil is healthy, and don't plant tomatoes for at least 3 years where there has been blight in the past.  That last bit is pretty tricky for those of us with small gardens here in a community of gardens.  I'm guessing a three-year moratorium on tomato-growing at our garden wouldn't go down very well!!  I'm not quite ready to yank out my plants just yet, and we are forecast to be getting some hotter weather, so I still have a little bit of optimism, for now anyway.  Though I must say, I was glad to see heirloom tomatoes at the farmers' market this morning, just-in-case!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Growing Up

I'm pretty greedy when it comes to garden space.  I want to grow as much as I can in a pretty small garden.  One way to expand that space is to garden in three dimensions: don't forget the vertical space!  Space-hungry plants like squashes and cucumbers can be trained to grow up a trellis, which keeps the squash clean and dry off the ground, and also keeps the plants from sprawling all over.  Unless you're growing huge pumpkins, the stem grows to support the squash, so there's really no need to worry about them falling off.  I grew butternut squash this way, and they really did stay on the plant, even the largest ones.  Just be sure your trellis is sturdy enough to hold them!

My trellis is a permanent structure made out of steel tubing sunk into the ground, with heavy-duty plastic fencing material on it.  This works well, but isn't the most attractive option.  The other down side of the permanent trellis is that I pretty much have to grow the squash there every year. I like to at least try to rotate crops and I try to make up for the every-year squash dilemma by planting peas on the trellis first every spring to give me a little rotation.  But a moveable trellis would better in hindsight.  These vegetable ladders that I found from the Territorial Seed Company would be one moveable option. They're a bit pricey for what they are, but I'll bet they'd be really easy to make for yourself.  (Or find an old wooden step ladder and put it to a new use!)  So, when you're looking for more space in your garden, don't forget to look up!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Garden in a Bag

We've been eating lots of baby carrots and parsnips lately, from a bag! Not a grocery store bag, mind you, but from one of these garden bags from Gardener's Supply Company. They sell them for potatoes, but I thought they'd also be great for other root veggies, and so far the carrots and parsnips have done great in them. The potatoes seem to be growing well too, but I'll have to do an update post when we actually harvest the potatoes.

We wanted a bit more growing space at the garden since our raised beds are pretty much stuffed to the gills with plants, and I saw these in the catalog. They're made of heavy-duty felt, and are supposed to last several years. Just fill them with nice sifted soil, water well, and plant your seeds. These would be great for small-space gardens like patios. So, even if you have cement for a "backyard", that's no excuse not to grow some food!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Thank You!!

Thank you so much Charlotte at Canning Jars Etc. for passing this award to me!  Your blog is a must-read for anyone interested in putting food by. It's well-researched, seasonal, and really informative!  Thanks again!

To get this award I have to first list 7 things about myself that you might find interesting.  Here goes:
  1. My longtime companion is from England, and I'd like to think I'm channeling his father who was an avid gardner but sadly passed away a number of years ago. 
  2. I'm a research scientist at the University of Pittsburgh's Lupus Center of Excellence.
  3. I have a much-beloved 15-year-old tuxedo cat named Chester.
  4. I love to cook and read cooking blogs.
  5. I aspire to have 3 backyard chickens (hens) next year.
  6. I love British humor.
  7. I used to be a classical musician in my younger life--I played the viola and piano.
  Next I need to nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.  I nominate:
  1. The Humans at Seven Trees Farm
  2. Farmgirl Susan at In My Kitchen Garden
  3. Anais at Little Homestead in the City
  4. Kelli at Sugar Creek Farm
  5. Amy at Eggs on Sunday
  6. Tina at Craftiness
  7. Thomas at Urban Chicken
To accept this award please do the following:
  1. Thank the person who nominated you for the award.
  2. Copy the logo and place it on your blog.
  3. Link to the person who nominated you for this award.
  4. Name 7 things about yourself that people might find interesting.
  5. Nominate 7 Kreativ Bloggers.
  6. Post links to the 7 blogs you nominate.
  7. Leave a comment on each of the blogs letting them know they have been nominated.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Garlic Harvest

The leaves on the garlic started to turn yellow this past week, telling me that the bulbs were ready to harvest.  So, digging out the garlic was last Sunday's project.  (And the reward was red Russian kale sauteed in olive oil with fresh, juicy garlic!)

I grow pretty much a year's supply of garlic in one 6' by 4' bed (somewhere around 100 heads--we eat a lot of garlic!), so preparing the garlic for long-term storage is important to me.  Ideally garlic should be harvested after a dry spell so that the heads are already a bit dry.  Dig the heads up carefully so that you don't bruise them, leave the stalks attached, and brush off most of the soil. (Don't wash the soil off--you don't want to get your garlic wet.)  Now the garlic needs to cure in a cool, dark, dry place for about a week.  Typically we don't have many cool, dry places in July here in Pittsburgh, but I cure my garlic in my garage.  Not exactly cool (although this year Mother Nature is cooperating so far with a cool spell!), but it is dry.  

After about a week the stalks can be cut off, and then I hang the heads in a cupboard in our basement. I save the biggest, fattest cloves to plant in October for next year's crop.  Growing your own garlic is easy, and fresh, just-harvested garlic is a treat you really can't buy in a store!   

Monday, June 22, 2009

Pea Update: And the Winner Is . . .

All three, actually!  

Well, the peas have come down to make room for some squash and climbing beans, and the vote (mine!) is in.  Here's the tally:

Amish Snap Pea:  Winner for earliest and for taste.
Johnny's Snap Pea:  Winner for yield.
Cascadia:  Winner for disease-resistance.

I really think all three were winners and I'd definitely plant the same combination next year. (Although I have to admit this is partly because I'm cheap and I have lots of seed peas left over!)  But overall I was really pleased with how these varieties worked out.  The fact that the Amish snap peas produced first staggered the pea harvest without having to stagger the planting:  I put all the peas in the ground at the same time.  As the Amish peas were finishing the Johnny's snap peas were taking off, with the Cascadia not far behind.  As far as yield goes, the Johnny's really won out.  Of course I didn't count the number of pea plants I wound up with of each kind so this isn't really a very "scientific" study, but the Johnny's were so far ahead of the other two I think it's pretty obvious:

Amish:  1 lb
Cascadia:  1 3/4 lb
Johnny's:  3 lbs !! (That's a lot of peas!) 

    Amish (left), Johnny's (middle), Cascadia (right)

Now, in terms of taste, I think the Amish won hands down.  They were very delicate, but sweet even if under or over-ripe.  Both the Johnny's and Cascadia peas were larger than the Amish, and although they were both delicious, (sweet, crisp, and juicy) I really loved the Amish snap peas the best.

Although I really didn't have any problems with disease of any kind (that I could see), a few of the Amish and Johnny's snap pea pods had either a few spots or were a bit deformed.  I really didn't notice this at all with the Cascadia, which were bred for disease resistance in the Pacific Northwest.  

It's been a terrific pea season and I'm a bit sorry to see it go.  But with the baby carrots, parsnips and beets starting to make an appearance I'm sure I'll get over it!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Time for Garlic Scapes!

I'd never heard of a garlic scape until a few years ago when I belonged to a CSA and these strange "vegetables" appeared in my weekly box.  They were garlic scapes, which are the flower stalks made this time of year by hardneck garlic.  You really don't want your garlic to put energy into flowering, so the scapes should be cut off just as they start to curl, which for my garlic, is now! Don't throw them away though!  Scapes are a wonderful preview of garlic yet-to-come.  You can puree them with olive oil and pine nuts to make a great pesto.  Or puree them with white cannellini beans to make a terrific bean dip.  Or cut them into pieces and stir fry them with the veggies of your choice.  Or just use them as you would regular garlic.  The scapes have a milder, less pungent garlic flavor.  

Don't have your own garlic scapes but want to try them? Visit your local farmers' market.  If you have garlic-growers at your market they'll most likely be selling their scapes about now!  Look for ones that aren't too tightly curled:  they're more tender than older, more mature scapes.  I liked scapes so much that all the garlic bulbs I plant are hardneck garlic so that I can harvest a crop of scapes every year!  

Monday, June 1, 2009

May the Best Pea Win!

It's nearly time for one of my favorite harvests of the year:  sugar snap peas!  They're easy to grow, prolific, and absolutely delicious!  Sweet, crisp, juicy, straight from the vine, it doesn't get much better than that!  And as far as healthy snacks go, sugar snap peas are an excellent choice. This year I'm trying out 3 varieties of sugar snaps to see which one I like the best.  They are: Amish Snap, an heirloom variety grown in the Amish community long before modern snap pea varieties (Seed Savers Exchange), Cascadia, an open-pollenated variety bred in the Pacific Northwest, and Johnny's Selected Seeds basic variety of Sugar Snap Peas.  

So far, the earliest and most vigorous-looking is the Amish snap.  The plants are already covered with pods that should be ready to eat in a few days.  Johnny's snap peas are coming in second, with nice tall vines, but no real pods yet.  Cascadia is in third place, with shorter plants, but lots of blooms.  I'll post updates later on overall yields and flavor.  

   Amish Snap Pea (left) Tall Telephone Shell Pea (right)
   Cascadia Snap Pea (left), Johnny's  Snap Pea (right)

Although it's much too late to plant peas now (they're a cool weather crop and should be planted in early spring) many people have asked me what the secret is to healthy prolific pea plants.  Aside from the usual (nice fertile soil), I like to soak peas overnight prior to planting, and I also use pea inoculant.  Peas are legumes, a family of plants that also includes beans, lentils, alfalfa, and clover, that have the ability to convert nitrogen from its gaseous form from the air to a form that is usable to all plants as food to support plant growth.  This process is known as nitrogen fixation, and legumes do this with the help of a family of soil bacteria known as rhizobacteria that live on their roots.  The rhizobacteria get carbohydrates from the legumes in exchange for converting nitrogen into plant food.  Pea inoculant is a powdered form of these rhizobacteria that work best with peas, and coating the pea seeds with this inoculant ensures that each pea plant will have plenty of these beneficial bacteria to help it grow.  I dig a 1" furrow, put in my soaked peas, then sprinkle on the inoculant before covering the peas with soil.  Water them in well, and by early summer you should have lots of wonderful peas to eat! 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Meet a Few of My Best Friends

OK, they're not the most attractive or glamorous bunch.   And they hang out in some pretty icky places. But honestly, these are some of the best friends a gardener can have!  Entertaining for these guys is a breeze! No fancy gourmet dinners necessary.  Just toss them a few vegetable peelings, the mushy leftovers from making vegetable stock, those forgotten, semi-identifiable remnants from your vegetable crisper, some crushed up egg shells, coffee grounds, used tea bags, corrugated cardboard, shredded newspaper, and a few toilet paper rolls and they're TOTALLY happy!  And what they leave behind is pure gold, from a gardener's point of view!  

We're talking worms here.  But not just any worms . . . these are compost worms (also known as redworms, red wrigglers, tiger worms, manure worms).  These worms are related to the good old-fashioned earthworm, but compost worms don't really want to live in the earth.  They need a diet much richer in organic matter than that, and will seek out any good compost pile in which to make their home.   And they'll be more than willing to eat much of your kitchen garbage in exchange for making the most wonderful organic fertilizers!   (For free!)  And if you have kids, starting a worm bin would be a great fun project for them!

So, how do you get started?  Basically you need a fairly large container (depending upon how much kitchen scraps you generate) that's dark (worms don't like light) and has a lid.  I use a large Rubbermaid container.  The worms also need air, so drill some holes all around the top bit of the container.  I found a really neat little video that shows this perfectly in pictures here. The only difference with the tub they set up and mine is that they didn't put drainage holes in the bottom. I did because I also want to be able to collect the liquid that gets produced as the worms break down your kitchen scraps.  This is called "worm tea" and diluted about 10-to-1 is an excellent liquid fertilizer.  I set my Rubbermaid container with the drainage holes in another similar container with no holes, and the worm tea drains into that.  I keep my worm bins (I have two) in my garage.  People say you can keep them in your house, but unless you're really vigilant about not too many fruit scraps you'll wind up with lots of fruit flies.  Since my worm bin's in the garage (detached!) I don't care about the fruit flies since they also help break down the garbage, and make nice treats for the hummingbirds that visit my flower garden each summer.  Make sure it's not in the sun if you put it outdoors as the worms can't tolerate too much heat, but also keep in mind that the worms can't survive being frozen, so for winter time it's best to find a more sheltered place for them.  My garage is unheated, but the worms seem to survive ok as long as I leave the worm bin full over winter for insulation.

Once you've got your holes drilled and figured out where you're going to put your bin you need to create some bedding for your worms.  This can be shredded newspaper or corrugated cardboard (no glossy stuff please!), moistened to feel like a damp sponge.  Throw in a couple of handfuls of garden soil (worms need a bit of grit to digest their food), and some non-acidic food scraps--avoid citrus like lemon, grapefruit, and orange peels, at least at first.  Once your worm bin is really going they can tolerate a bit of these.  Lastly, (and most importantly) you'll need some compost worms. You can get these from a well-established compost pile--you'll really need at least a few hundred of them to get started. Or you can mail-order worms for about $15 for a half-pound of worms here, plenty to start your bin off.  And if your worms are well cared for and happy they'll reproduce, A LOT!  (Look for little oval, yellow worm cocoons, about 1/8" long in your finished compost.  Each one contains from 1-5 worms!)  And each one of these guys can eat its own weight in kitchen scraps every day!  

Keep adding kitchen scraps (a little at a time at first, more after you start getting more worms). Always keep fresh, moist bedding on the top.  This will prevent most flies from discovering your bin, and keep the worms happy on the top food layer since they like to be covered with a moist mat.  And this is a great way to get rid of those cardboard boxes, newspapers, brown papers bags, toilet paper rolls, paper napkins, used kleenex, etc that would otherwise end up in the land fill.  And worms also like stuff like pet hair, human hair, and the contents of your vacuum cleaner bag!  Just make sure that the worm bin is kept moist.  

Harvesting the finished worm compost can be a bit labor-intensive with this type of worm bin unfortunately.  Obviously the finished compost is going to wind up at the bottom.  This is the reason why I ended up with two bins.  When the first one is full I stop adding to it for a while, and put my kitchen scraps into the second one.  After a few weeks I'll check on the first one again.  Most of the identifiable food will usually be gone, and it will be mostly dark, finished worm compost.  If there's still un-composted food, scrape it off and set it to one side.  Since I consider my compost worms to be as valuable as the compost, I don't want to just chuck them into the garden since they won't survive there.  So I really try to separate them from the compost.  One way to do this is to move all the finished compost to one side of the bin, and start adding fresh stuff to the other.  Eventually the worms will migrate out of the finished compost and into the new side.  To make sure you don't lose them you can scoop the finished worm compost into a cheap plastic colander (I got mine for $1!) and set it over where you want your worms to go, and put the whole set-up in the sun.  As the worms go down to get away from the light you can scoop off the top layer of the compost.  Eventually the worms will go through the colander.  Of course, if you have kids this could be a great afternoon project for them!  
If this sounds like too much work, and you don't mind spending a little bit of money on your wormery, you can purchase a really nifty thing called a "Can of Worms".  This is a system of stacked sections that the worms can travel in-between.  As you fill one section you put another on the top.  Eventually you can move the bottom, finished section to the top, let the worms migrate down, and use the compost.  You can buy one here.  There's a British company called Wiggly Wigglers who also sell them (although I think the shipping would be pretty prohibitive!) who have made a series of videos about how to set up and use a Can of Worms you can watch here-1, here-2, here-3, and here-4.  (They also have a weekly podcast that's VERY entertaining and informative.  They have me hooked!)

Anyway, I hope I've convinced you to make some new wormy friends who'll make you your very own organic fertilizer and keep your kitchen scraps out of landfills.  Once you start composting with worms you'll see your "garbage" in a whole new light!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Something for a Rainy Day

Even I am hesitant about gardening in the rain.  I think it's the cat in me, but I really hate getting wet (unless it's on purpose and I'm in the pool!)  There's nothing I love better on a nice rainy day than curling up with a good book, so I'd like to recommend one to read for those all-too-frequent Pittsburgh Spring Showers!  Although I've been known to read books about gardening cover-to-cover, it's not a gardening book I'd like to recommend right now.  But it is a book about eating and our current food supply, and I hope it will give you even MORE incentive to grow your own food.  The book is Harvest for Hope:  A Guide for Mindful Eating, by Jane Goodall.  

Jane Goodall has been a hero of mine since I was a kid watching National Geographic nature specials on TV.  She's that gentle, unassuming former secretary of Louis Leakey whose discoveries about chimpanzee behavior redefined our concept of what it is to be human.  Her studies showed (to the chagrin of many) that we are not as far removed from our primate relatives as we'd once thought.  Perhaps even more importantly they also helped us to realize that we are not separate from all the other creatures that inhabit this planet, but are indeed part of this whole fragile ecosystem that we share.  It's not surprising that after decades of devoting herself to the study of chimpanzees, Jane Goodall has become a humanist. She realized that to save her beloved chimps she needed to be attentive to the humans who share their environment.  This book is an extension of that attention, and in her gentle, unassuming way, she raises issues that we should all be aware of about our current food problems, and provides some simple, and very do-able things that each and every one of us can do to help solve them.  

Want to learn more about the food we eat?  Read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and In Defense of Food.  Read Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser.  And have a listen to Deconstructing Dinner, a weekly podcast from Canada.  It's about time we reconnected with the thing we have our most intimate relationship with . . . our food.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Free Pickin's!

It's a bit early for any real harvests from the garden yet.  I've snitched a few baby chard leaves and the tops of my fava bean seedlings for a salad, but that's about all my garden has produced so far this season.  But there's a free harvest out there waiting in the wings of our community garden. . . knotweed! The garden is surrounded by groves of Japanese knotweed, an invasive weed that was brought in (like so many other invasive weeds) as an ornamental.  Unfortunately it has done so well here that it's crowding out native plants and is considered to be one of the world's worst invasive species.  What can we do about it?  Eat it!  Yes, Japanese knotweed is edible, but only for a very short time, and that time is now.  It's only the new, tender spring shoots that are edible--in a few short weeks this fast-growing weed will be much too woody to eat.  

Japanese knotweed shoots are similar in appearance and speed of growth to asparagus, but in flavor they're very similar to rhubarb.  Pick nice fat shoots when they're a foot tall or less, strip off any leaves, and use it as you would rhubarb.  Today I'm making a knotweed crumble. Knotweed shoots are hollow, so use a bit more per recipe than you would rhubarb since it shrinks down more as it cooks.  It's also slightly less tart than rhubarb, so I like to add a little lemon juice.  I first learned about eating knotweed from "Wildman" Steve Brill's website, which includes lots of recipes and great information about the plant (along with lots of other great foraging advice).
So, do your civic duty and harvest some knotweed shoots, and get a free meal in the bargain!

Monday, March 30, 2009

Pretty with a Purpose

I love having flowers in amongst the vegetables.  They're like little surprises, splashes of beauty in the beds, and make me smile every time I visit the garden. But the flowers aren't there just for my enjoyment.  They have an important job to do, namely, to attract beneficial insects to the garden.  Anyone who's grown anything worth eating knows that there are hoards of other critters who'd be plenty willing to eat it!  It's amazing how the aphids find the fava beans every year, or how the bean beetles appear on the poor bean plants so fast that it seems like they just come with them! It's enough to make you want to reach for the industrial pesticides!  Well, . . . almost.  After all, isn't it those same nasty pesticides you're trying to avoid by growing your own veg? Before you start spraying, remember this: for each one of those insect pests munching on your vegetables there's another creature that wants to eat IT!  I remember last year I nearly reached for the pyrethrin spray to deal with the hundreds of aphids munching away on the fava beans. I'm glad I didn't because within a few days the lady bugs had moved in and made short work of the aphids.  And we had an amazing (and delicious) harvest of fava beans, no chemicals necessary! 

Nature is all about balance, and if your plants are healthy (from growing in good fertile soil) they can tolerate a few munches from the pests until the predators arrive.  The insect predators need more than just their prey insects as food however.  They also need pollen and nectar, which they get from flowers, and a water source. That's not a bird bath I have in the garden, it's a bug bath!  The stones are there so that the little guys can drink without falling in and drowning.  There are a couple of wonderful articles here and here that list many types of beneficial insects and the flowers that attract them. The flowers that I routinely add to my garden are lobelia (this is one of my absolute favorites flowers anyway), calendula (which are not only pretty, but edible!), marigolds (natural source of pyrethrin and great companion plant for tomatoes), poached egg plant, fennel, agastache, nasturtiums (also edible), gilia, and cosmos.  And the next time you reach down to pull out that dandelion, don't! Dandelions are really great early nectar sources for all kinds of insect friends, including honey bees!  There really is quite a selection of beautiful flowers you can grow in your garden to attract beneficial insects, so find a little bit of extra space in your vegetable plot for them.  You and your vegetables will be glad you did!  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Raised Beds Rock!



Last Sunday the weather was beautiful, (well, beautiful for March in Pittsburgh, anyway!), and I finished prepping the garden for early spring planting.  Did I spend hours behind a fume and noise-spewing rototiller? Nope!!  I spent about 10 minutes pulling out a few tiny weed sprouts, then spreading some nice organic fertilizer, lime, and compost onto the bed for my early cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower.  No digging necessary!  (OK, I did use a hand trowel to dig in the lime and the fertilizer before I put the compost on top.)  So why is it that I'm not battling weeds and working up a sweat with power tools (or at the very least getting my back into it with a spade)???  Did we luck out and inherit some magical plot that was totally weed-free or discover some great new herbicide??  Nope!!  It's because we put in raised beds when we got this plot about 5 years ago. Just check out the "before and after" pictures of our garden. Although the "before" picture was taken in March before the weeds got a real upper hand (root?), believe me, it was full of the thistles, mug wort, and other nasties that run rampant throughout this community garden. (Not to mention the fact that there were still tons of good old Pennsylvania clay in this plot.  Not the best medium for growing much of anything!) There are other benefits to doing raised beds than just getting the upper hand on weeds too.  Since you basically divide your garden into separate, designated planting spaces and walking spaces you avoid compacting the soil in your growing space (as long as you don't go strolling around in your raised beds!)  That means that once you have the soil prepped initially, you shouldn't have to till the soil again, EVER! (Yep, no heavy digging, with or without power tools!)  And with raised beds you can really enrich you soil and plant things closer together than you might do in a "regular" garden.  There's a great book called Square Foot Gardening that talks about this in depth, and gives great ideas on how big your raised beds should be, when to plant what, and how much space to give various vegetables--it's really a great book!  

So, how do you get started?  First, decide where your raised beds will be, and where you want your paths to be.  We made our paths about 3-4 feet wide, which seems like a lot of "wasted" space, but believe me, it's really nice to have this space to maneuver around the beds.  Next, prep the soil in each of the raised bed areas by double-digging.  While you dig your bed remove any roots from perennial weeds, rocks, and lumps of clay.  Once you have the beds dug you can install the frame of the raised beds.  We made ours 6' X 4'.  This is relatively convenient because the lumber is generally sold as 10' X 6" X 2" sizes.  (You'd get 2 sides out of one of these pieces.)  The 6" depth means that you can bury the sides of the raised beds about an inch or two down, and still have a decent amount above ground as the raised part.  Burying the sides of the beds gives more of a weed barrier than just putting them on top of the ground, and also prevents the soil inside the bed from migrating out through any space in the bottom.  And it gives more stability to your bed.  At this point you'll probably need to add more soil to your beds.  We scraped the path areas (shaving off and removing the tops of weeds there, and then sifting any nice soil into our raised beds.)  If necessary you can purchase top soil to add to your beds, and of course add lots of nice aged compost.  

To make your path areas weed-free, lay down either landscape fabric, or corrugated cardboard as a barrier, and then cover it all with a generous layer of wood mulch.   This should keep your paths weed-free for at least a couple of years.  When the mulch breaks down and the weeds start creeping in, just put down more cardboard and mulch.    

This sounds like a lot of work, (and initially it is), but believe me, it's well worth the effort!  The time you take putting in your raised beds in the beginning will be made up for by the easy spring plantings you'll have in your future!

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I'll Get it Right This Year! (I Think)

I will NOT start the tomatoes yet.  I will NOT start the tomatoes yet.  I will NOT start the tomatoes yet. . .  I really need to repeat this mantra until the end of the month because EVERY year I wind up with tomato plants that are overflowing their pots and my shelves weeks before they can go in the ground.  Why?  Because I get a whiff of spring in the air and I think "Start those tomatoes!"  In fact one year I could swear I started them in January. Do NOT try this !! (Unless you want 4-foot high tomato plants taking over every window in your house in March--this is not a pretty sight!)  So THIS year I'm going to get it right!  (I hope.)  

Last year I actually made a planting schedule for myself as part of my garden journal.  And I was smart enough to include notes about what to do better the next year, which included a stern warning not to start tomatoes until the END of March.  I promise I will listen this year! So, here's my summer plant seed-starting plans:
  • March 8:  Start fava beans. These are actually spring plants that can go in the ground in April, and they grow really fast, so they only need a couple of weeks of growing inside. Start Swiss Chard for early plants.
  • March 14:  Start peppers, ground cherries (like tomatillos but smaller and sweet), basil, lobelia, poached egg flower, Gilia flower (these are some flowers that attract beneficial insects to your garden.)  
  • March 21:  Plant sugar snap and shell peas direct in the garden.  Transplant cabbage, kale, leeks,  broccoli and cauliflower seedlings to garden.  Plant radish, beets, lettuce and salsify seeds directly in garden.
  • March 27:  Start tomato and squash plants, along with calendula, marigolds, nemophila flowers (more companion plants).  
Of course many of these plans are contingent upon Mother Nature.  I recall having to come out in the snow to cover up my new transplants in years past!  But that's all part of the gardening game.  Mother Nature has veto power over any of my plans!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Springtime Under Lights

Spring is here!  Well, at least under the lights in my basement it is! The first seedlings of the season are up and thriving! Here's what's growing:

4 types of Leeks (Giant Musselburg, Lancelot, Blue Solaize, and Prizetaker)
Romanesco Cauliflower, Veronica 
Heirloom Italian Sprouting Broccoli DiCiccio
Gonzalas, Early Spring Cabbage 
Tuscan Black Kale
Red Russian Kale

I'm hoping these guys will be ready to go in the ground around Saint Patrick's Day--that's the best time to plant peas too!  It's hard to believe it'll be planting time soon.  As I write this it's snowing sideways! Starting plants under lights lets you get a spring fix even in the winter!

It's really easy to start plants from seeds, and you don't need to spend a fortune on a fancy set-up.  Mine is just a set of wire shelves from Ikea with each shelf about 14" apart, and shop-lights that hang from the shelf above on chains.  You want to be able to keep the light source about 2-3" above your plants.  As the seedlings grow you shorten the chains to raise the lights up.  I find that, as far as the bulbs go, the real grow lights give the best results, although I've used regular fluorescent shop light bulbs in the past.  The grow lights cost a bit more, but the seedlings really do seem to do better with them, so I think they're worth the extra buck or two.  I have the lights on a timer so I don't have to remember to turn them on and off.  I give my seedlings about 14 hours of light each day.  On gray, wintery days like today I find lots of excuses to go and check on the seedlings so I can get a bit of that springtime light therapy too!  

Saturday, January 31, 2009

I Must Be Crazy

Meet Burt.  He's a cabbage white butterfly.  In the summertime you see these little guys happily flitting around the garden.  Unfortunately many of them flit on over to my cabbage patch and their voracious, green prodigy munch their little caterpillar hearts out.  So what's with Burt? Well, he must have hitched a ride on some of my veggies last fall as a chubby green caterpillar. I don't have the heart to squish the caterpillars I find on the leaves, I just put them in the bag with the compost destined to go out, and figure they can fend for themselves there.  Well, this one must have escaped, and found a place in my kitchen to do what caterpillars do over the winter. How else can I explain the fact that I came home from work one day recently to find this little guy flying around the kitchen?   He certainly didn't come from the great outdoors since our January temperatures, especially this year, aren't really ideal for butterflies! Bummer Burt!  Not the best time for you to venture out of your cocoon!  (Or I guess, technically, your chrysalis, since you're a butterfly, not a moth.)  Anyway, despite Burt's poor sense of timing I suppose he picked a pretty good house in which to reside.   Currently he is hanging out in my basement with a catnip plant I have under lights (along with some of our potted herbs we over-winter and my lettuces).  Amazingly, the catnip's actually blooming!  And being the overly kind-hearted (aka eccentric??) soul I've also been putting out some butterfly food (1 tsp sugar dissolved in 1/2 cup of water) for old Burt.  Luckily (for me, not for Burt) there's no Bertha around, so I won't be seeing green caterpillars on my soon-to-be started cabbage and broccoli seedlings!  But I'm hoping that my Burt care-taking might win me some cabbage-white brownie points, and maybe they'll leave my cabbages alone this year! 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sprouts on the Windowsill!

It's all of 1 °F outside, which is WAY too cold even for me to venture over to the garden plot!  But even in the dead of winter you can grow food for your table--honest!  With a wide-mouthed Mason jar, sprouting lids, sprouting seeds, and a few inches of space on a windowsill, you can grow tasty and extremely nutritious sprouts for your salads, sandwiches and stir-fries! I discovered these sprouting lids and seeds in the Pinetree Garden Seeds  catalog while I was putting together my seed order a few weeks ago, and thought, why not?  I've never grown my own sprouts before, but I've always enjoyed them on my salads.  Since they usually cost a pretty penny in the grocery store I assumed there must be some tricky technology involved in growing them.  There isn't!  Sprouting couldn't be easier.  Just measure out a couple of tablespoons of your sprouting seeds into a clean jar, cover them with water and put the screen lid on.  Let the seeds soak over night, and then pour out the water through the screen (which keeps the seeds inside the jar.)  Put the jar on its side on a windowsill.  Once a day rinse the seeds by filling the jar with water through the screen, and then dump it out again.  This takes all of about 10 seconds!  Within a week or so you'll have a quart jar full of ready-to-eat sprouts! How cool is that?