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.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Everyday Emergencies

For the last week my husband and children have had a stomach flu and all I’ve been doing is wiping whatnots and cleaning up unspeakables.  And just when my husband and daughter are able to mostly control their bodily functions, it has somehow transmogrified into a respiratory infection.  My poor little boy gets both problems at once.

This is our first round of simultaneous illnesses with the kids and we’re lucky that I didn’t get sick too. Yet. So I’ve been learning what everyone who has small children knows: at a time like this there are two many temperatures to take, tummies to tend, brows to cool, cries to comfort, and messes to clean up, for anything like normal life to carry on.  That means laundry doesn’t get done, bread doesn’t get baked, yogurt doesn’t get fermented, gardens don’t get weeded, jam doesn’t get made, and so on.  Certainly errands and appointments have to wait.  These are the kinds of ordinary, everyday code reds that I realize now I was unprepared for.

I somehow managed to run out of yogurt and the small jar I usually set aside to start the next batch turned out to be a jar of home-rendered lard my sister had given me at Christmas.  Where did my starter jar end up?  I don’t know but I assume we ate it at some point.  And yogurt was the only thing my daughter wanted or could keep down.

We had no juice on hand, since we ordinarily don’t drink it, and my daughter was refusing regular water.  We had nothing like Pedialite or Gatorade either.  No soup ready-made.  No crackers.  A cold front came in and tore through some tender just-sprouting greens before I could get a chance to cover them.  Laundry is piled in mountains. 

By a cruel twist of fate, for the last few months I’ve been trying to use up last years home-canned, frozen, and dehydrated foods, the bulk-purchased flours and grains, honey, beef, chicken, and pork, all to make way for the next season.  So we were low on everything.  We didn’t actually run out of any of those things, but if we’d needed to go much longer without a trip to the store, we would have.

The kind of preparedness I’d been working on, the stockpiles I’ve built, the skills I’ve developed, are useful for many things, but not necessarily for the intensity of a bunch of sick people in the house.  So now I’m thinking through how to develop preparedness for the everyday emergencies of life.

1.  Have a week of easy meals at hand, canned or in the freezer.  There are times when scratch cooking just isn’t possible or practical.  I can’t tell you how much I would have appreciated some homemade chicken soup last week, but I could never find the time to make it. I actually did something like this when my family came to stay for Christmas.  I had many gallons of soup, stew, and beans along with a dozen loaves of bread waiting in the freezer.  It meant we had plenty of time to just enjoy each other.

2.  As much as I despise the stuff, I’m going to start keeping Pedialite, Gatorade, and frozen juice stocked in the house.  Depending on the day and the mood, the kids would refuse or prefer Pedialite, Gatorade, water, my homemade electrolyte solution, or juice.  And some days, even the time to mix up the electrolyte solution was too much.

3. I also need to plan a method for rotating stockpiles that doesn’t involve letting so many things run out at once.  I’ll be thinking this through more over the next few weeks.

I don’t want to make this sound more dire than it was.  It wasn’t dire at all, in fact.  Just inconvenient.  I could have run to the store or sent my retching husband.  At any point, I could have called a friend to fetch me some things.  We still had plenty of everything, including some stores of food designed to last thirty years or more, sent to us by my sweet in-laws.  But how nice some homemade chicken soup would have been, waiting in the freezer.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

On Not Trying New Things

I started making this bread about twenty years ago, from a community cookbook that had been my mothers, and that she gave me when I left home.  It's just a simple sandwich bread, made from white flour, although over the years I started making it from mostly wheat.  

Then, after a trip to France, I fell in love with baguette style loaves, and because at that time we lived within walking distance of two very fine bakeries, I stopped baking althogether.  When we moved out to this rural area, I started trying to duplicate French style baguettes, with moderate success, using the no-knead bread recipes the New York Times went crazy over.  

Which us all well and good.  It's fun to experiment and learn new things.  But my husband really prefers sandwich bread so we ended up buying bread half the time and my trusty old recipe got mostly forgotten.  When my large family came to stay for Christmas, I pulled my old recipe out again, and discovered I was a pretty rusty sanndwich bread maker.  I wanted to have enough loaves baked and frozen so that everyone could help themselves to sandwiches for lunch.  That means I needed about a dozen loaves to get through the holidays, minimum.  The first few loaves came out kind of wonky.  I could no longer double and triple the recipe with ease.  I'd forgotten how much whole wheat I used to substitute for white, that I'd started using less yeast and letting it rise longer.  That sort of thing.  The sort of thing a cook knows how to do from years of practice or learns in the kitchen of another experienced cook.

I guess what I'm talking about is tradition.  I'm talking about the ordinary, every day traditions that we lose all too easily in a generation or so, if we're not careful.  My mother talked about my paternal grandmother's yeast biscuits, which to hear her tell it, were as big as a loaf of bread and as light as a wisp of smoke.  Maybe they were really that special or maybe they only became so in her memory but we'll never know because that recipe was lost when Grandmother left her mortal coil.  Now that my own mother is gone too, I find myself reaching for the phone sometimes still, to ask her how she made her oatmeal, and why mine never tastes the same.  My younger sister does the same thing and we both pine for that oatmeal, but too bad for us.  We waited too long to get her technique.

Too bad for the world too.  It's all too easy to lose touch with skills that were common just a generation or so ago: gardening, sewing, home repairs, animal husbandry, and so on.  In the world I grew up in,  cheap oil and the notion of an ever-expanding economy allowed us to believe we could, even should, let go of those traditional skills.  And we can't reclaim them overnight either.  It takes time to learn how to garden well, for example.  It takes season after season to learn about a particular climate and microclimate, to even begin to get a glimmer of understanding about how seasons work, how seeds like to sprout, what makes a tender plant thrive and what consigns it to failure.  It takes time to develop any skill and it's always best to learn from an experienced teacher, although books are a great source too.

So what I'm circling around to in this rambling post is that it's fun and instructive to try new things, like French style baguettes, but having a practiced, make-it-in-your-sleep skill, like I once had for sandwich bread as part of our every day repertoire cannot be neglected.