Friday, March 25, 2011

Lessons of the week

Every week comes with a lesson for the observant. This week mine arrived as I considered different ways to grow things. When I went to Wonder of Life Farm to pick up eggs (I love the way their eggs are a variety of sizes and colors!) and saw they had a greenhouse similar to ours. Since I’m still learning about growing in a greenhouse, I asked Maria details about hers. She had no electric-powered heating or ventilation. Like me, she had purchased a thermometer to keep in the greenhouse.

When we stepped inside it felt like a little bit of plant-birthing heaven. Not only did her plants sprout from small pots, but she had opened a bag of soil and planted seeds directly into it. They grew as happily as all the rest.

Needless to say I went home, put together a tray of sample pots to try out in the greenhouse, labeled each one and moved on to the next stage of my own experiment.Last I checked, the jicama is finally sprouting.

Yesterday an article in the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper gave me more ideas about growing containers. It talks not only about planting in bags of soil, but also about using tote bags, old planters, bushel baskets and leaky buckets. The point of the article is that even if you don’t have space for an in-ground or raised-bed garden, there are other options. Although I am blessed with space for both, I sometimes get so enthusiastic that I fill my space then search for more. I think I have a leaky water can that’s going to have a new life.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Soup season continues

Although we had a few days of temperatures in the 70s, the cooler weather has returned and along with it a pot of soup. I took two chicken backs out of the freezer the other day and didn’t use them. What to do? They looked perfect for using as a soup base to which I could combine some of our preserved vegetables. Even though this soup has very little meat in it (a chicken back is mostly bone) Jim still gave it a 10. That’s saying a lot!

Beth’s Gumbo
2 chicken backs plus miscellaneous chicken bones
1 strip dried seaweed
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 ½ c tomato juice
¾ c carrots
¾ c okra
1 onion, chopped
1 tbsp cumin
1 tsp pepper
1 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp oregano
½ tsp hot pepper
1 c barley (use less if you want more broth)

Put chicken in soup pot. Cover with water. Add seaweed and heat until boiling. Lower heat and simmer for an hour and a half.

Remove chicken from broth to cool. Add remaining ingredients and stir. When the chicken is cooled, remove the meat from the bone and add to the gumbo. Simmer for 30 minutes – 1 hour and taste for seasonings. This makes a thick soup so if you prefer more broth, adjust the ingredients.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The trial and error of spring

This is the season when I have a very difficult time working at my desk on sunny mornings. The garden, the weeds, the flowers—they all call to me as a gentle breeze blows on this first day of spring. As Margaret Atwood said, at the end of a spring day we should smell like dirt.

I certainly did smell like dirt this weekend as I planted beets and mesclun mix, planted more tomato seeds to sprout inside, dug up weeds from a raised bed and put up a greenhouse. But I also spent some time researching information I need to know for this year’s garden. Besides being a time of outdoor activity, spring is also a time of trial and error for any gardener who likes, or needs, to shake things up a bit each year.

Our greenhouse is new and definitely in an experimental stage as I’ve never used one before. I bought a thermometer with humidity meter over the weekend so I can monitor the greenhouse temperature before trusting any of my tender plants to it. I checked out a few books from the library to learn about growing seedlings in a greenhouse and I’m still reading on the subject.

Besides seeking out information about greenhouses, I also searched for a solution to the crabgrass that invaded one of our raised beds last year. We started the season by digging it out and putting down black plastic in hopes of killing it. It didn’t work. One of the problems of gardening organically is that the solutions that others report don’t always translate to your garden patch. The crabgrass spread so thickly last year that it choked out a good number of strawberries. I think I’ve lost a couple of blueberry bushes, also, but I’m trying to be patient as I watch them for signs of life.

Thus far, I haven’t found an organic method for controlling the crabgrass. Most sources of organic information don’t even address it, at least not what I’ve found. I fear we might have to resort to some sort of herbicide if we want to save that raised bed and the plants that have weathered the invasion.

Another experiment this season is growing jicama. After about three weeks, it still hasn’t sprouted. It’s a slow-growing Mexican vegetable that I so enjoy that I decided to try growing it even though I’m not sure it will be happy in this climate. Rather than seeding directly in the garden as the package suggested, I put the seeds in small pots inside. I feared that if I put it in the ground, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from a weed. Perhaps patience will eventually pay off.

Yes, it’s a season of trial and error as well as dirt-caked fingernails and briar-scratched skin. I love it!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Compost this year

It’s compost year in the Brown garden. We’ve been building a compost pile since we moved here nearly 10 years ago and every few years we find a pile of beautifully composted soil on the pile that we use enrich the garden. A few days ago I planted potatoes (St. Patrick’s Day is our marker for when to plan) and I put compost into the trench with the seed potatoes. As soon as the pile dries from the two days of rain we had, I’ll dig up more of it to put on top of the potato hill.

Composting is not difficult and it’s a great way to not only keep your garden soil healthy, but also to reduce the garbage you have. On Mondays, garbage day for our neighborhood, Jim nearly always comments on the bags of garbage and boxes of recycling he sees up and down our street. We have little of either. All of our food waste, except meat, goes into the compost pile. And although we recycle everything possible, we try to avoid buying things that are disposable which lessens our recycling and our remaining garbage.

I signed up for daily reminders during this Lenten season from the 2011 Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast. Today’s entry is about dealing with waste. They say the average U.S. household produces approximately 4.5 pounds of solid waste per day. When waste goes into a landfill, it generates greenhouse gasses; when it’s composted, it doesn’t produce carbon.

There are many reasons to compost. Perhaps it’s something you want to try this year.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Cooking with the young

I’ve been cooking with young people this week. It started on Sunday when my favorite cooking partner—Anna Lei—came to my house after church so we could work on her 4-H demonstration. She wanted to demonstrate how to make the breakfast panini we created for the Farmer’s Market this summer.

Since her demonstration required a recipe, we had to write down what we had done. Here’s what we came up with for our recipe.

Annabeth Egg

Warm a skillet on medium. Add ½ pound sausage to the skillet to brown.

Drizzle olive oil in another skillet that you can also put in the oven. Turn on medium.

Chop ½ onion. Add to skillet and sauté. Chop other vegetables you like (spinach, green peppers, etc.) and add to skillet. If you like garlic, chop and add to vegetables.

While the vegetables soften, mix 3 eggs, salt, pepper, pinch of cream of tarter, 1/8 cup water and 1/8 cup milk. Pour into skillet with vegetables. As it cooks, run a spatula around the outside of the egg circle so the uncooked eggs can seep down and cook. Sprinkle your favorite cheese all over cooking eggs. When the bottom is cooked but the top is still runny, put the skillet under the broiler until the top is nicely browned.

Makes three or four sandwiches.

Breakfast Panini

Turn on panini maker to warm.

Take the Annabeth Egg out of the skillet and cut pieces to match the size of your bread. Spread Dijon mustard (or your favorite condiment) on the bread. Slice a tomato and add a tomato slice. Put egg on sandwich and top with a second piece of bread. Drizzle olive oil on the bread and spread with a pastry brush.

Put on panini maker with olive oil side down. Drizzle oil on the other side and spread with brush. Close panini maker, pressing down slightly. Cook three minutes then remove, slice and enjoy!

While Anna Lei was here, we didn’t actually make panini but gnocchi instead. Those little potato dumplings are so much fun to make and even more fun to eat. Jim agreed they were a 10.

My week of cooking with the young continued yesterday when I took on the challenge of cooking with 10 middle school girls. Since they asked to make pizzas and pasta but we had a limited amount of time, and even more limited cooking tools at the school, I tried to introduce them to healthy choices even though we couldn’t make everything from scratch. We used bagels, English muffins and flatbread for our pizza base. We discussed the difference between using whole wheat and white flour. While they seemed to understand the rationale for whole wheat, not one of them chose to use the whole wheat English muffins.

To top the pizzas we had marinara sauce, tomato paste and pesto to choose from. In addition, we caramelized onions, sautéed spinach and mushrooms and had Canadian bacon, chicken breast, kalamata olives (no one but me liked them), mozzarella cheese and parmesan cheese. For our pasta, we tried four cheese tortellini and chicken and prosciutto tortellini. Most of the girls happily tried both of them.

The choices I gave them were healthier than what they had asked to top the pizzas with (pepperoni and macaroni and cheese were two of their choices) and they liked most of what they tried. I think the next time around I’ll try cooking with them when we can choose from a basket of fresh fruits and vegetables from my garden. Then we could try making garden vegetable panini. Maybe Anna Lei and I will test out the recipe first!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Planning to learn and to share

As I’ve been plotting my upcoming garden on paper I’ve also been adding events to my calendar that I want to be sure to attend. For those of you in Kentucky, you might be interested in attending. If you live elsewhere, check out the websites for information that you can use wherever you are.

The first event is the Bluegrass Local Food Summit which this year has the theme “Eating From Our Own Soil.” I attended the summit last year and left with ideas for stories that I later wrote, seeds that I planted in my garden and plenty of inspiration and information that I later put to use. This year the summit will be Thursday, April 21, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. You’ll find information about the event on the Sustainable Lexington website.

On Saturday, July 16 we’ll be having an impressive event right here in Garrard County. The Field to Fork Festival will be held at Halcomb’s Knob Farm, Paint Lick, Kentucky from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Organizer DS Messenger is posting frequent updates on her blog about who will be teaching classes at the festival. I’ll be teaching a class called How to Pack a Garden Lunch that will explore the principles of eco-friendly eating while looking at ideas for delicious lunches.

If you learn something at an upcoming workshop that you would like to share, let us know!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gardening saves money and requires time

Although I’ve done no scientific study to prove it, I feel sure that gardening saves money. With garden foods on-hand year-round, I’m not making numerous trips to the grocery store, saving on groceries, gas and time. I am spending hours outside during the gardening season, a great thing for a writer who so often is seated in front of the computer to meet deadlines. Besides the exercise and fresh air, it’s also good for my soul to spend time with the worms and butterflies as I dig in the garden.

Novice gardeners do need to be aware, however, that there are costs involved in gardening. Here are a few costs to keep in mind as you plan this year’s garden.

Garden seed—saving some of your own seeds, which you can then swap with seed-saving friends, means you’ll need to buy fewer seeds.

Raising seedlings—growing some of your own plant starts instead of buying them can be fun and money-saving. On Sunday I started my plants for this spring by planting celery seeds in 12 small pots. You can plant seeds in old plastic pots you’ve washed out, or homemade newspaper pots. Check out this video for how to make them.

Potting soil—be sure you buy potting soil. Years ago as a novice gardener I tried using soil from my garden without realizing I would sprout weeds, also, and might not be able to tell the difference between the weed and the plant! Potting soil is worth the investment.

Fertilizer—Because I grow organically, I typically use fish or seaweed fertilizer. I also have helpers like blood meal, bone meal and kelp meal on-hand for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium soil amendments. Organic Gardening magazine is a great source for information about soil deficiency problems and other gardening questions.

Some years I use all the seeds, soil and fertilizers I buy; other years I have some left over for the next year.

Each year, I seem to get a little bit smarter about gardening and spend less. That makes me feel smart and healthy, not a bad combination.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Eating on less than $3/day

After hearing about my friend’s challenge to eat on less than $3/day, I decided to keep my grocery receipts in February and see exactly how much we spend to eat. As I spent extra on organic milk, meat, cheese and a few other items, I worried that my total would be more than I anticipated. But yesterday I totaled all of those receipts and here’s what I found: in February we ate on $2.82/day per person.

I would like to be able to say that proves what I’ve long suspected about eating a diet of whole foods rather than convenience foods. I’ve heard people say that fresh produce is too expensive and that’s why so many people go for the boxes, bags and cans of foods. Since we eat very few foods that would fall into that latter category, I don’t think it’s true. However, if I were being totally scientific in my study I’m sure I would need to take a different approach to truly prove my point.

I also realize that my February tally isn’t a totally accurate accounting of what we ate for a few reasons:
• We ate foods that we had purchased or grown previously and frozen or canned.
• We bought foods that we didn’t eat during February.
• To be more accurate we would need to figure in the cost of our garden inputs and divide that over 12 months.

So how much does it cost to garden? I’ll look at that question tomorrow. In the meantime, I would love to hear about how much you think you spend on food per day.