Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Cold Brewed Coffee: You Lie, Blogger!

I'm not going to name names, but certain persons are claiming, in blogs both humble and famous, that cold brewed coffee is a good thing.  It is not.  It is bland, dull, and entirely without merit.  It is fit only for people who do not like coffee.  To whom I say: fine, then may I suggest you drink another beverage.  Tea is lovely.  Perhaps you would like some Postem.  But do not offend against coffee.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Ruth Stout Gardening Method: Victory Over Clay Soils

One of the reasons I haven't posted in a while is that every single piece of electronics I own is in open rebellion.  I can't seem to load photos from my phone to my computer; my Ipad won't talk to my computer; I've lost the power cord to my camera.  So anyway....

An update on the Ruth Stout gardening technique.  Ruth Stout's idea is so simple that it seems unlikely to work.  There's nothing to it really.  Just keep 18 inches of mulch on your garden.  It compacts pretty fast, so when it does, add more.  Weeds growing through the mulch in thin spots? Add more.  That's all.

I tried it for two seasons in my huge rural garden and was amazed.  It eliminated all, and I mean all, weeding.  I used to spend hours and hours and hours weeding.  But with that huge, deep cap of mulch in the garden, none.  No time at all.  It also meant much less frequent watering. Also, I added compostable items directly to the garden.  Veggie scraps and such were just tucked under the layer of mulch here and there in the garden.  So that's easy.

And I had one of the best crops I've ever had.

Here in town, I wasn't as hopeful.  The soil is solid gumbo clay, convered in a 60 year old lawn of thick St. Augustine.  I was sure I needed to do as almost all my neighbors do: either build a raised bed garden with purchased soil or dig in a few feet and replace the soil directly in the ground.

I tried digging but gave up after an hour in the brick-like soil yielded no more than a couple of sad little trenches.  Then I put it out of my mind in the flurry of moving in.  Then I decided to make that spot my Ruth Stout trial bed.  I just started heaping hay and leaves on it, as well as kitchen scraps. Four months later I moved aside a bit of the mulch and plunged in my hand trowel to discover rich, soft dirt active with gorgeous earth worms.  I've planted the area with tomatoes and a few peppers and I'd show you pictures of my first harvest if my camera were working.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Breaking News

It's been a while, friends.  And I've moved, into Austin, and am adjusting to urban homesteading.  Different soil, different scale, different conveniences, and different inconveniences.

Back soon to write about some new experiments in making stuff!


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter Sewn Garden, Dried Tomatoes, Soap Paste. Now with Tutus!

So I know there are all these people out there who have six children and are pregnant with twins and still find time to make cheese and card wool.  I know it because they also seem to find time to blog about it and post adorable pictures of their kids in hand-smocked blouses.  Me, with two kids?  All I can seem to do is keep the kids from maiming each other (mostly) and the house from burning down.

In between administering first aid and putting out fires, I've managed to fit a few projects that I feel inordinately proud about:

-- Winter sowing lettuces, herbs and garlic has got to be the most rewarding gardening for the least effort in Central Texas.  Because we get erratic freezes and our garden well does not have any of the infrastructure to for a freeze, I have to drain the well (it's a tiny little tank, but still) and the hoses after just about each use.  So instead I've just not watered the garden.  Not even once.  Which in these parts is usually just a guarantee that lots of insects will feast on toasty, dry, unsprouted seeds.  But we've had enough rain that everything germinated and took off.  Plus, two of my friends brought three different varieties of garlic out and we drank wine while we planted it. (Or maybe that last part was just me.)

-- I've been experimenting with some awesome soap paste, made out of my homemade bar soap, essential oils, and glycerin.  I use it to wash dishes and it makes suds, cuts grease, and rinses cleaner than regular homemade soap.  I continue the experiment and shall post about it when I feel it's good enough to share.

-- Making lots of quick sauces from last summer's dehydrated tomatoes.  Seriously, why did I ever bother to can tomatoes?  You can do just about anything with dried.

-- Planted a hillside with Winter Rye for my kids to roll down.  Just for the fun of the technicolor green in the middle of dull green and brown winter landscape.  That stuff does not even look real.

That's what comes to mind right now.  I'll leave you with this parting image.  It's two o'clock Central Standard Time and we are inside because it's raining.  My son and daughter are wearing tutus and diapers.  I am wearing flannel pajamas.

They were wearing pajamas as well until my three year old daughter stripped hers off to put on a bright green and blue tutu.  Then my two year old son tackled her and said, "Want! Want!"

I said, "Hey, don't fight.  There are tutus for everybody."

And I went and found him a pink and purple tutu.

Then my daughter said, "No, pink is for girls!"

So they switched tutus and now my son is wearing a blue tutu and my daughter is wearing a pink one.  Seriously, where do they pick up this sexist stuff?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Occupy Wallstreet and Food Gardens

Awesome post that includes reflection on the meaning(s) of Occupy Wallstreet and gardening.  Plus, social theory!

A Million Gardens

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Vertical Food Garden for Small Spaces

Vertical Food Garden

With all the talk about vertical gardens, I just had to share this link.  Most of the vertical gardens I've seen are ornamental, complicated expensive to install, and labor-intensive to maintain.  There's a multi-story garden at the Whole Foods on 5th in Austin, for example, that is stunning, and that I always stop to admire, but often has half-dead plants.

This garden, however, seems practical and productive. It's just three rows of rain gutter nailed to a sunny wall, filled with soil, and planted with salad greens and radishes.  One of the commenters suggests adding a drip irrigation system as well, which would probably be useful in our hot climate because such a small bit of soil would dry out so quickly.  I do wonder about her siding though, and the problem of rot  from regular watering and contact with the soil-filled gutters.

In any case, I love this woman's garden and just wish I'd thought of doing something similar when I lived in central Austin, with our tiny, shaded yard.  One sunny wall could enough yield salads and greens to feed our family.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tiny Rain, Big Runoff

This photo is from a few weeks ago, right after a quick intense rain that gave our area a mere inch of rain, but that I am immensely happy to have received nevertheless.

Last summer our neighbor began clear cutting several large fields, probably about twenty acres worth.  His plan was to plant Coastal Bermuda and graze Longhorns on it.  Now I don't know anything about Coastal Bermuda, and whether he could really have grown it here so far from the coast, on our stony land, without irrigation, and I guess I won't find out anytime soon.  Our neighbor abandoned the project and is left with acres of parched, bare ground.  That's his soil you see washed all over our road, and also into our field which sits below his.  So I guess we gained some soil but I don't feel like celebrating.

Our field is parched too, but the tough native grasses send roots down two, three, or more feet and hold tight to the soil in even the biggest gullywashers.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Cow Rampage

Maybe you've heard that Central Texas is having the worst drought in recorded history.  The 110 degree days seem to be behind us, and we've had a couple of tiny rain storms, but the landscape is still parched.  The cove we live on is completely dry.  The other morning we awoke to discover that the cows that normally graze across the cove had crossed over the now dry basin, somehow climbed up the cliff to our front yard, and mowed down a twelve by ten or so hedge of thornless cactus.  I don't blame them.  That cactus looked seriously juicy and is probably the greenest thing for miles.  When I was growing up farmers used to take a blow torch to the very thorny native cactus during the driest part of the summer, singe off the thorns and let the cows have at it.

The photo is post-cactus binge.  That almost bare ground is where the cactus used to stand.  The green you see is some Turk's Cap I planted alongside the cactus and which seems to need less water than just about anything else around here.  Miraculously, cows do not seem to find it tasty.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Advantages of Dehydrating Foods for Short or Long Term Storage, with Instructions

This is the time of the season when fruits and vegetables are really ramping up production and we have more than we can eat but not enough to justify getting out all the canning apparatus.  You know, ten tomatoes a day, a quart or two of figs, six or seven cucumbers, an armful of basil, a half bushel of squash.

In past years I’ve tried freezing these small bits and although it's quick and easy, it degrades the flavor of some things, like tomatoes.   Freezing also requires a lot of apparatus:  freezer bags are usually single use; plastic containers are, well, plastic, and jars take a lot of space.  Obviously, you'll need a freezer big enough to hold what you freeze and electricity to keep it going.  Sad and busy is the day when electricity goes out for more than a short while (as it does occaisonally in our neck of the woods) because then you've got to try to find ways to use or alternatively preserve all that hard won garden produce.

Canning requires a lot of apparatus and time. Jars need to be sterilized, water boiled, syrups made, processing tended.  Especially if you have small children running around underfoot, it can be hard to carve out a chunk of time  when everyone will be safe from boiling liquids.

Dehydration has a number of advantages as compared to freezing and canning:

1.  Dehydration can be done in absentia.  Just wash, slice, pop in the dehydtor and go about other business.
2.  Dehydration often improves the flavors of foods.  Tomatoes become richer and more intense.
3.  Dehydrated foods store compactly.  A bushel of dehydrated tomatoes can be stored in a couple of canning jars.
4.  Dehydrated foods are easy to use.  Ever tried to make tomato paste from canned tomatoes?  Prepare to be at the stove all day as they cook down.  Ever tried to make tomato paste from dehydrated tomatoes?  Soak in water, then blend.  That's all.

By the way, the instruction part of the title of this post is a little joke.  There’s really nothing to know, no real instructions needed to dehydrate fruits or veggies.  Just wash and cut produce in more or less even pieces and then dry until you’re satisfied.  The drier the food, the longer it lasts.  But don’t overdry herbs. 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Planting Potatoes in Central Texas

Yellow wax, french fingerling, purple Peruvian, and red potatoes

We have two great challenges to growing potatoes in central Texas.  First, potatoes like deep, rich, loose, slightly acid soil and ours tends to be shallow, poor, highly alkaline, and sticky.  Potatoes also give small yields if exposed to high temperatures or really wet conditions too early.  And we have short, wet (if we're lucky) winters and springs.  So many gardeners in this area grow potatoes in chicken wire towers or boxes from pallets.

My dad and the old German farmer down the road from us grew potatoes old school, straight in the ground, and had a good amount of success, so I tend to do the same thing.  Dad and our neighbor both had the strange good fortune to possess some small pockets of deep, black soil among the rocky hills that make up most of this area. Plus, they were both incredibly stubborn.

We too have a pocket of fairly good soil, although it's a little heavy and sticky.  Still, with lots of organic amendment, I can grow potatoes right in the ground with reasonable success. And I even take a few liberties with conventional wisdom about growing potatoes.

Here's what I know of conventional wisdom and where I've diverged:

Using grocery store potatoes versus seed potatoes
The word is, you should never plant grocery store potatoes because they may have been treated with a growth inhibitor.  I guess that may be true since everyone says it, but it's an hour drive to the nearest place that sells seed potatoes and I've yet to try and save my own seed.  So I've planted grocery store potatoes from time to time. They do sprout quite readily.  Hasn't everyone accidentally sprouted potatoes in their kitchen?

Pre-sprouting versus not prespouting
I think the idea behind pre-sprouting is that it shaves a week or so off time between planting and maturity.  It also easily lets you see where to cut the potatoes so that you have at least one growing eye in each piece. 

Our neighbor never presprouted.  He had a huge field he planted every year, and he said he had to move too fast to worry about knocking off the fragile sprout tips.  He grew more potatoes than anyone I've ever known.  My dad always pre-sprouted so I always did too, until this year when my mother-in-law gave me a bunch of very tiny seed potatoes from her nursery.  They were small enough that I knew I couldn't cut them and also, for some reason, they never sprouted above ground.  So I planted them anyway and have had a pretty good harvest. It's hard to tell if it took a lot longer for the potatoes planted without pre-sprouting to mature because we had a crazy early heat spell that caused the plants to jump ahead by about a month.  So we harvested in early May.

How to Pre-sprout (also called chitting)
 Lay potatoes in a single layer on a shallow box or tray. Do not let them touch. If your potatoes are small enough, an egg carton is a great way to keep them sorted properly. They should ideally remain at around 60-70 degrees.  But that's a temperature range that's hard to come by around here.  Outside, in the house, on the porch, in the garage, it's usually either hotter or colder than that.  I think as long as it's well above freezing and below wiltingly hot, those potatoes will sprout. Also, try to keep them dry.  Try to plant before the sprouts get too long or they will tend to break as you drop them in the ground.

Cutting potatoes versus planting whole
A large sprouted potato can often be cut into three or four pieces, so cutting is definitely the frugal choice. If you do cut, no peice should be smaller than a golf ball.  

Curing seed potatoes with sulfur versus wood ash versus nothing 
The purpose of curing cut potatoes with sulfur is to prevent rotting in the ground.  My dad always used wood ash instead of sulfur and he had enormous yields.  I confess that I have several times skipped this step entirely and have yet to suffer adversely.   I wonder if it is in wetter climates that curing really matters?

How to cure seed potatoes with sulfur or wood ash
After cutting potatoes, let them dry until a skin forms on cut surfaces.  Dust with sulfur or wood ash and let potatoes dry another day before planting.

How to plant potatoes
Dig a furrow 6-8 inches wide and 6-8 inches deep.  Most sources say to space seeds about 10” apart, but if there's room, space even more widely.  I like about 14 inched so they have plenty of room to spread their toes.  I also think it keeps disease down. Cover potatoes with soil. After plants are about  3-4” tall, add more soil.

When to harvest potatoes
Once the plants are flowering, wait a week or so, then carefully dig around the plants for new potatoes.  Between  90 – 120 days, the plants suddenly turn yellow and start looking like they're dying. Now it's time for the big harvest.  This year, the potato gods went crazy and I started havested in about 70 or 80 days.  This means I'll have a smaller crop, but it's still a good one. I think it got hot so early it sent the potatoes into hyperdrive.  

What varieties grow best in Texas?  Well, I've tried a number of red, white, yellow, and purple.  Sadly, so far I've had very limited success with purple.  I say sadly because those are my favorites and they are also the most nutricious.  Here in our alkaline soils, it seems the yellow, waxy varieties grow best. 

For red potato, Red La Soda and  Pontiac are proven favorites;  for white, Kennebec or Irish Cobbler varieties are the choices. Russets do not grow well in our area.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Are Oak Leaves Safe for Garden Mulch?

Everyone knows that walnut trees produce a potent growth inhibitor as a way of protecting their territory.  Juniper trees are rumored to do so as well.  But what about oak trees?  Live oak trees, which are our most plentiful hardwood, make small, very fibrous leaves that take forever to decompose.  For that reason, as I explained here, I've been tending to use them as mulch rather than adding more than a small percentage to my compost pile.  And because I'd heard they might contain a plant growth inhibitor, I only used them on the walkways, never near the vegetables I was growing.

But now as weeds invade my beds and rows of tomatoes, squash, greens, onions, herbs, beans, garlic, peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, and other lovely deliciousness, I wonder if I can use oak leaves as mulch near the plants themselves.  Oak leaves are certainly something we have plenty of.

It turns out the question of oak leaves containing growth inhibitors is fairly debatable.  Definitely they contain lots of tannins.  That's why if oak leaves fall in a container of water, the water will turn brown like tea.  As far as I can tell, tannins do play some role in plant growth regulation, in the plants that produce them.  It might be reasonable to expect them to affect plants growing in the same soil in which tannins from other plants are being released.  But whether that means tannins from oak leaves would inhibit vegetable seed germination and growth, I don't know.  One benefit would be that many animals find the taste of tannins unpleasant, so perhaps oak leaves would repel unwanted pests.

More definitively, oak leaves release phenols in their first month or so of decomposition, which do inhibit seed germination and growth.  So I'd conclude that only leaves that have rotted for a month or more should be added to the beds itself, but that fresh leaves are fantastic for walkways.  In fact, this is the perfect way to work with nature instead of against it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Oak Leaf Mulch

 Here in Central Texas, oaks are the most common deciduous tree.  So we have lots of leaves and they take forever to decompose.  I've taken to using them less for compost and more for mulch for this reason.  I understand that most people shed them with a mower first but I think that step is unnecessary.  They compact pretty quickly and in the meanwhile, I'm prepared to slide around a bit.  It may be that they contain some kind of plant growth inhibitor, as juniper is rumored to contain.  Just in case, I've not ever tried oak leaf mulch around the plants themselves.  I do know that I won't have any weeds between rows this season.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Easy Homemade Laundry Soap

The simplest, most effective, least costly soap I know of.  It takes a minute or two to make, works in any type of washer, is safe for all washable clothes, is non-toxic, and stores indefinitely.

Chopping the bar soap before adding it to the food processor
You’ll need some kind of bar soap.  I prefer my own homemade soap, but just about any kind will work.  Fels Naptha and Zote are especially nice because they were designed for laundry (Zote is also hot pink and makes a very pretty laundry detergent J), but I’ve also used Ivory, and once in a pinch, I used a handful of tiny hotel soaps.
 You’ll also need washing soda and either borax or baking soda.  I prefer baking soda because it’s non-toxic and does a nice job deodorizing.

A note about the ingredients:
Washing soda or sodium carbonate: It removes dirt and deodorizes.   I’ve found it in the laundry isle of my grocery store and also at Ace Hardware.

Baking soda or sodium bicarbonate:  It also removes odors. 

Borax:  Also a deodorizer but a whitener as well.  It’s a great ingredient but I don’t use it anymore since I had kids.  It’s a little more toxic than I like to have around my kids.

Finished Laundry Soap
The Recipe
 Actually, it’s so simple it can hardly be called a recipe.  First grate the soap. (I chop it roughly first and then finish the grating in a food processor.  You can also use a cheese grater.)  Then mix one part soap, one part washing soda, and one part baking soda (or borax).  Store in a container with a lid and it lasts indefinitely.  Use about 1-2 teaspoons per load of laundry.  Yes, that’s right: 1-2 teaspoons.  This soap has no fillers or liquids and you don’t need very much.

Why go to the trouble of making your own soap?
1) So, so much cheaper. By my rough calculations, this recipe comes out to about a penny a load.  Seriously, a penny.  Even the cheapest commercial soap costs far far more.

2) Less waste: no enormous plastic containers to end up in landfill.  No filler ingredients had to be manufactured either.

3) Easier.  Takes about a minute to make enough to last a month or more.  No toting heavy containers from the store.

4) Non-toxic ingredients.  I feel better about using it for my own laundry, my children’s laundry, and my pets’ bedding.  I’m not worried about the fumes created when it is dissolved in hot water, nor about storing it in my household.

The most common questions about this recipe are: Is it safe for HE  or front loading washers? And, does it work? Well,  I’ve been using it in my own HE washer for over five years with no problems. And I have two kids, two dogs, and a messy, messy life.  It works as well as any other laundry soap or detergent I've ever used.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Central Texas Plant Heritage

This bearded iris is planted near an oak tree at the entrance to our driveway.  We never water or pay much attention to it, but it gives us flowers anyway.  Irises are one of those plants that get divided and passed down between friends and family.  This one came from a patch near the front door of my current house.  I planted that patch from some divisions I took when we moved from our last house.  And that patch came from some divisions from my good friend Lori's yard.

Next weekend I plan to go out to my dad's farm and while I'm there I'll dig up some rhizomes from a patch of white irises, the kind I've heard called German Settler, and take them back to my house to plant.  I don't know who planted those white irises.  They were there when my parents bought the land more than sixty years ago.  Dad speculates that there was another house, in another site, that had long since burned down or tumbled to dust.  The previous owners didn't know, and there are no records to show another house was ever there.  But near my parents' house is a fine spot for a house, with a pretty view and a patch of irises, and another patch of horehound.  We do know that the early settlers to the area tended to plant both irises and horehound.

It would have been a woman who made these plantings, from divisions, given to to her by a friend or a sister or a mother.  She would have been looking to take care of her family, to provide medicine, in the form of horehound, and beauty, in the form of irises.