Saturday, December 5, 2009

Jellifluous

We're down to the last of a delectable and gorgeous mint jelly I made back in October. It doesn't get any simpler than this: apples, sugar, water, mint. It was extra satisfying to use handfuls of the big thicket of mint that took over the southern corner of our garden. A few days later a hard frost blackened the last of it.

The consistency of the jelly turned out perfect due to the pectin from the apple skins--no gelatin or artificial pectin here. To be honest, I'm a little sad I gave so much of it away, since I'm down to the last few tablespoons.

While my mom eats it with lamb, I just like it spread thickly on a toasted English muffin. Dee-lightful.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Quintessentially Autumn

With the new house and Kate's new job and Mark's deer fence odyssey, meals have gone a little downhill recently. There's even a nasty rumor that investigators found evidence of frozen fishsticks on the premises, although all suspects are innocent until proven guilty.

Tonight was our rendition of a religious revival: two kinds of sweet Genesis squash brushed with butter and thyme, then roasted with rich cherry-wine venison sausages from the farm around the corner. We just threw it in the oven, and an hour later this deliciousness emerged. Nightcaps will be buttery molasses bran muffins now cooling in the pan.

Goodbye, vegetarianism!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cloves of Raven Dark

By the light of an infernal moon, we plunged cloves into the black earth, one by one, with needles of sleet piercing our weary backs... oh wait, that's another blog. What I meant to say is that we finally scraped the grass off a few meager square feet of earth tonight in order to plant some garlic. There was a sense of haste brought on by the prospect of sleet and snow tomorrow night. (Seriously, WTF, October?) Since everything seems to take longer at the new homestead, we didn't even get out to the garden until after sunset. But considering the agonizingly slow progress of the deer fence and the lack of funds to buy the fruit trees we're coveting, this garlic is an accomplishment. We actually planted something on our new plot of land!

Mark has been spending all of his meager spare time digging trenches and post holes for the deer fence. Naturally, it's taking much longer than expected. The next step is to pour the concrete and get those posts in before the ground freezes. Considering the brutal frost on our cars this morning, that might be sooner than expected. Cue roar of the frosty undead...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Second Life

We know our adoring fans have been itching to know what we've been up to at the new homestead. Well, mostly we've been painting, unpacking, and adjusting to our colossal lawn, which needs to be mowed every 10 days or so. This lesson was learned the hard way, since we waited almost a month to mow it the first time. It was so long that only half the grass was cut by the mower blade, the end effect being one of a haircut by a blind or sadistic person.

Our ambitious plans for the fall have been scaled back for for reasons of cost and sanity, but we won't be sitting on our hands, that's for sure. We were going for a fall crop of root vegetables and greens, but we took the prudent option to spend more time planning. But seed garlic will be shipped shortly, and the big project looming is to mark out the new garden and put in a hardcore deer fence before the ground freezes. This will be a lot of work, of course, but just as difficult has been determining the dimensions of the main garden. It needs to be big enough so that we'll never feel hemmed in, but small enough to be manageable. The existing vegetable garden is 50 x 25', and we're looking to enlarge that to 75 x 50'. Now that's a lot of space, but it includes 10 annual beds, 2 of which will have cover crops each year to let them rest, interspersed with 4 perennial beds containing strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, and a wild card--chives, hardy kiwi, something like that. There will also be a considerable 4-foot buffer of wildflowers on two sides of the beds, which will deter pests and attract birds and bees for now as well as give us room for expansion later.

There's also been plenty of salivating over fruit and nut trees over at Trees of Antiquity and Gurney's, finally settling on some cherries, almonds, apricot, hazelnut, persimmon, blueberries, and our favorite golden raspberries. (Actually, after looking at that list, we may have to pare down a bit more.) Mark's grandparents also have an orphan fig tree we'll be adopting. Fruit trees will help cut down on some of our huge freakin' lawn as well as yielding the obvious deliciousness after a few agonizing years of waiting.

We're still struggling with how much of the property will be lawn come next year. It's a challenge to find portions to allow to go to meadow while keeping some nicely trimmed spaces for socializing and running around, all the while keeping the holistic approach to our place in mind. Our mantra: This is a process, not a goal. Rinse. Repeat. Repeat.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

In the Weeds

This evening I ignored the piles of boxes still scattered all over our new house and took a bath in our new cast-iron tub that overlooks the meadow. For real, people. Although we're totally excited about the new home, it still doesn't quite seem real, although the work to keep it in shape is all too much so. We're just starting to tackle big-picture plan for an annual garden interspersed with perennials, as well as plenty of fruit around the property. Since the big plan is daunting, the short-term objective for this week is to clear some space in the existing "vegetable garden" for some fall plantings of greens and root vegetables that can be coaxed with a cold frame or overwintered. Take a gander at the photo below and you'll see why I put that term in quotation marks. It's basically a thistle farm with a few sad tomatoes fighting for light. You can't even walk in there without gloves and boots on.

Since we don't have any harvests of our own right now (*sniff*), I'm making do by picking as much extra produce as possible at our CSA. The cucumbers are out of control, so last week I picked some little gherkins along with the big, beefy picklers and made cornichons (with mixed results). But what I did glean from the experience is a terrific way to make new pickles, which are my favorite kind. New pickles are the ones that are still bright green and haven't been cooked. My cornichon recipe told me to soak the cukes in salted water overnight, and when I tasted one the next day it was salty all the way through. I won't get all salacious about said delicious, salty cucumber, but I will tell you that I sliced some, sprinkled them with wine vinegar, and ended up with my ideal fresh, crunchy pickle. Today I picked several more pounds of cucumbers and attempted to fine-tune the recipe. In a day or two I'll know if I was successful or not. But either way, don't they look pretty?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Heinz Owns You: Epilogue

Marion Nestle from Food Politics illustrates why we should be wary of big business calling the shots with our organic food. Goodbye ethics, hello profits!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Heinz Owns You

I wasn't being paranoid after all! (Not on this topic, anyway.) Turns out most of the organic products we buy at the supermarket are actually made by huge international conglomerates. Read it and weep.

Courtesy of Phil Howard at Michigan State University

This doesn't mean that the products are necessarily any less healthy than we thought, although we don't know anything about how or where these foods are processed. But it does mean that buying Odwalla drinks feeds the same corporate machine that has plagued our schools with Coke machines, and I'm not fond of that idea.

What should we do about this? The first answer that comes to mind is to buy as much local food as possible, and to buy as many whole foods (like produce) as possible, so the big guys get as little of our money as possible. But that doesn't mean we're going to stop buying Muir Glen canned tomatoes or Morningstar hot dogs altogether. We are human (and Americans), after all.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Generation Next

It's so gratifying to see the enthusiasm of our son, almost three years old, in growing, harvesting, and eating his own vegetables. He still talks about the calendula seeds he planted in tiny little pots back in April, marveling at the fact that they're now flowering. Every visitor to our house gets a fresh-picked lettuce leaf thrust into their faces before they even reach the front door. He's so proud.

Today we filled a salad bowl with snap peas in the humid June drizzle. When we went inside for lunch, I cooked a grilled cheese sandwich while he transferred every last pea to his own little plate. Now that is a rousing endorsement.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fraternal

Would you believe that both of these lettuce plants are the same variety? For some reason, one is forming a nice head, as advertised, and the other is all stalky and tall. Does anyone know why? Mark's theory is that since this lettuce was grown from heirloom seeds, the outcome can be unexpected. While this is certainly true, could there be another explanation?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Garlic, For Julie

The other day, our friend Julie wondered aloud how a clove of garlic transforms into a whole head of garlic underground. It was one of those questions that seems obvious, but I realized I didn't actually know myself. While cutting up some of my favorite green garlic today, I noticed the interrupted process was right before my eyes. I'm not sure if you can see the baby garlic cloves forming in this photo (you can click to enlarge), but damn, they're tasty.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

SOLE Food


Today was our first pickup of food from our summer share at Genesis Farm. It was all I had hoped for, and more: arugula, chard, bok choy, spinach (no surprises there); but also baby turnips, radishes, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, leeks, loads of herbs, and my favorite, green garlic, which is like a cross between a scape and a scallion. When I saw the mountain of fresh baguettes and country French bread from a local baker, I was in heaven.

So forgive me if I can't resist talking about the perfect meal we ate for dinner tonight. I made a simple frittata by sauteeing four stalks of sliced green garlic in olive oil in a large frying pan for 5 minutes before adding a heaping cup of chopped chard and a tablespoon of fresh thyme. While the garlic was cooking, I whisked six eggs with 1/4 cup of cream, some salt and pepper, and about a cup of grated Jarlsberg leftover from Mother's Day brunch. Poured the eggs over the veggies and cooked until firm over medium-low heat; when I got impatient I slid it under the broiler for 2 minutes at the end. We sliced it into wedges and ate it with copious amounts of chewy, crunchy whole wheat baguette. Delightful doesn't even begin to describe the meal, plus I get to feel smug because the whole thing is sustainable, organic, local, and ethical (SOLE). Score!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Green with Frenzy

We're eating garden-fresh greens pretty much every day now. Still can't decide what to do with the rhubarb, much like the difficulty we're having deciding where to live. Mark is still busy in the garden even though we're leaving in just a few weeks. Looks like the new folks will appreciate the fruits of our labors. Also adopting out plants and concocting elaborate schemes to bring as much as possible with us. Stay tuned.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Papers Out, Pencils Ready

A couple of weeks ago we attended a seed-starting workshop at Genesis, where they showed us how they do things and then let us help with a few tasks. Kate's favorite tool was the pegboard that pops out all the seedlings in a tray at one time; we've got to make one of those for ourselves. No more mangled seed trays!

Gardening is a perpetual learning process for us, an intentional foil to our stubborn goal-oriented personalities. We're trying to train ourselves away from instant gratification and enjoying the journey. Here are a few things we've learned so far this year.

Things we learned on the farm

  • Broadcast tomato, pepper, and eggplant seeds in a shallow pan of starting mix rather than planting in individual cells. Then see what sprouts and use a nitpicker to transplant them early to 4.25x4.25" pots.
  • Sow all onions & leeks in soil blocks, 4-6 seeds per block. For onions, allow any plants that sprout to grow and transplant in a clump. For leeks, thin to one plant per block or transfer extras to blocks with no sprouts. For leeks, you want one plant per block.
  • Maybe build a watering station next year--just a free-standing tub with water supply.
  • Save & dry hot peppers and beans by pulling up plants at the end of the season and suspending, then clip and use when completely dry or as needed.
  • Store seeds in a dedicated cool, dark cabinet.

Things we learned on our own
  • Seed-starting shelf system greatly improved results and accelerated growth rate for plants. Onions, shallots, leeks, scallions, lettuce, greens, basil, broccoli, marigold, calendula, eggplants, & peppers were all planted at the right time. New Zealand spinach & tomatoes were planted 3 weeks early.
  • Broccoli grows very rapidly and needs space. Should be started in broadcast fashion like tomatoes, then potted in 3" pots.
  • Soil flats worked great for onions, shallots, scallions, lettuce, & greens. Not so much for broccoli.
  • Definitely expand irrigation.
  • Need cold frames.
  • Hoop houses accelerated season by several weeks & protected against hail. Plants outside hoop house fared much poorer; lettuce is smaller and some was lost, broccoli is still so small it probably won't form heads.
  • Scallions & leeks from last year successfully overwintered. Scallion is going to seed, leek may do the same. No mulch was used; mulch would likely improve results. Same technique should be used for saving carrots, chard seeds.
  • Johnny's seed-starting mix worked outstandingly, with some modifications. The following recipe makes 3 (cat litter) buckets' worth:
  • 2 Buckets ProMix
  • 1 Bucket compost
  • 1 C Greensand
  • 1 C Rock Phosphate or Bone Meal
  • 1 C Blood Meal
  • 1/4 C Lime
  • Try adding 1/2 Bucket bagged topsoil next year as per instructions.
  • Also, buy/build compost tumbler for easy mixing.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thorny

Here are some recent eggplant photos. We started them a little early this year since last year's showing was a disappointment. The plants seem to really love the new seed starting shelf setup. Check out the thorns!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Nomadic

Please bear with us while we search for a new home. In the meantime, take a gander at these pretty garden photos.

Broccoli and greens peacefully coexisting under row covers.
We took them off this weekend to beat the heat.

Broccoli with droplet.

The tomatoes are huge! It'll be a challenge
to keep them inside for another two weeks.

The coy and attractively draped pistou basil.

Rhubarb-ginger jam is just a few short weeks away!

The peas' first curious tendrils.

Black violets, Kate's favorite.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Let's Get Potted

4. Where and How To Plant
Alright, tired of facts and figures? Ready to shake off the winter doldrums and get started? Put down that laptop and get dressed! OK, let's consider your situation. Maybe you're working with a few square feet of balcony space in your apartment. Or perhaps you've got a little patch of dirt in your yard that could use some livening up. Let's first take a look at the container garden.

As long as your deck or balcony gets at least 6 hours of full sun daily, you'll be able to grow some fine vegetables in pots. If not, don't despair; you can still grow some of the shade tolerant plants we mentioned earlier. The first thing you'll need is some nice, big plastic pots. Plastic pots are our my (mark's) containers of choice for several reasons; they are light, they don't crack or break, and they don't absorb water. Terra-cotta pots my be more attractive but they can be cumbersome to move around. They also leech water from the soil, water which is then lost to the air through evaporation. If you're growing tomatoes, you'll need to use a 16" diameter pot or larger. This may seem excessive but it's essential for good fruit yield. We've grown cherokee purple tomatoes in 12" pots on our deck with disappointing results. Bell peppers and eggplants will also appreciate the extra space in a 16" pot. 12" pots are fine for plants like hot peppers, basil, lettuce, and flowers.

Along with the pots, you'll also need a high quality potting mix. There is a dizzying array of bagged 'soil' available commercially, how do you make a decision? In our experience, the best potting medium is light when lifted and does not clump together when dry. This is essential for good drainage, a must for all potted plants. Our personal favorite bagged product is ProMix, although you may have to visit a professional garden or nursery supply to find this. We've also had good results with Miracle-Gro Organic Choice which is more widely available. Any product that feels light in the bag and does not contain artificial fertilizer should work well; some of these are even labeled as 'container mixes'.

Now that you've got some potting soil and containers, the next consideration is what to feed the plants. Here is one important rule we have to insist on: avoid chemical fertilizers, i.e. Miracle-Gro, like the plague! You're probably familiar with these unnatural-looking, shockingly blue crystals that are supposed to be dissolved in water and dumped on unsuspecting plants. These products are a lot like fad diets; they induce rapid, unhealthy green growth in the beginning but ultimately provide no real nutrients required for flowering and fruit production. The limited amount of available growing medium to a potted plant can quickly become over-saturated with these fertilizers, which can become toxic in large doses. The best (and usually only required) food for all plants is compost. Compost is the organic product of natural decomposition of plant matter. We make our own compost from shredded leaves and kitchen scraps but often need to supplement with more from our local source, Ag-Choice. If you can't find local compost from a garden center, check to see if your county offers compost made from fall leaf collection as ours does. If all else fails, there are a number of commercially available organic fish- or seaweed-based product that will do the trick. Just stay away from the blue crystals! Your vegetables aren't ravers, after all.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

How To Get Started, Part Deux

3. Water
Watering plants seems like a compulsion for humans, often with total disregard as to whether or not the plants actually need water. To paraphrase Mike McGrath, many more plants have been killed by overwatering than by drought. Once a seedling has sprouted, it is usually beneficial to allow the plant's soil to dry out between watering. This stimulates root growth as the plant reaches out for every last drop of available water. Another good reason to allow roots to dry out is to avoid root rot. Most vegetable plant roots will eventually rot if constantly immersed in water, especially in poorly drained pots or soil. It helps that seedlings you buy from a professional nursery live in a well-drained plastic pot of adequate size with the right sort of potting soil for that variety--chalk one up for starting with seedlings your first year of gardening.

So the question remains: When to water? In our experience, the best way to judge a potted plant's soil moisture is by weight. Obviously, wet soil is a lot heavier than dry soil. A good way to observe this is to fill up two small pots with soil and give one of them a good drenching. When your plant weighs about the same as the pot of dry soil, it's time to water. Another good indication of water deficiency in plants is wilting. While it may seem like a drastic decline in health, wilting is simply a natural process that plants employ to pull water out of the leaves and stems and store it down in the roots during drought periods. While I usually try to get my seedlings watered before wilting occurs, I've found that it's not a big deal at all for well-established seedlings to wilt a bit.

Contrary to popular belief, the watering can is not the best watering method. The best way to get water to the plant roots is to use a bottom-up technique. We put seedling pots in a tray filled with a couple inches of water, then the water is pulled through the holes in the pots (your pots do have holes, right?). Don't worry if the surface of the soil never gets all that damp; the soil will be thoroughly and evenly wet where the plants need it most. Bottom-watering is a good habit because it's essential when starting plants from seed. It's also a good way to keep your plants' leaves dry; wet leaves are an open invitation to all kinds of airborne fungus and mold spores. While it's fine for the leaves to get wet, standing moisture at the soil is an invitation for fungus colonies, especially for crowded plants.

For outdoor plants, the watering can is actually more effective than a hose, since you can direct the water to the base of the plant's stem. While a garden hose may take less time, it really doesn't do a very good job of getting the water where it needs to go.

Don't go throwing all those plants in the ground just yet. Up next are Timing and Supplies, and then you can fly free. In the meantime, ask your questions, people! We know you're itching to.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Jersey Girl (& Boy)

We spent almost a decade away from New Jersey, where both of us were born and raised. There was a lot we came to love about the Baltimore-DC area, and we really do miss it, but as our 20s waned, we really found ourselves missing our home state. Where else can you can ski, swim in the ocean, and visit farm country, all just an hour away from New York City? There's the literary legacy of Paterson, the pomp and circumstance of Princeton, the colorful populism of underdog Newark, and the Appalachian enclaves of Sussex County's cow country, not to mention the nation's largest poetry festival. Of course, a trip down the Turnpike illustrates where Jersey gets its negative stereotype, but what many don't realize is that Manhattan's finest restaurants would be lost without the excellent products from our favorite local creameries and farms.

When we returned to NJ in 2005, it took us a year or two to hit our stride, seeking out the wine makers, mushroom lovers, biodynamic farms, renowned herbalists, and the best mozzarella in the world (better than Blue Ridge, even!). But now we're firmly entrenched, happy to live in a place where we've found such a diverse wealth of wise, friendly people happy to impart their gardening and artisanal knowledge.

We're sure that other folks are as passionate about their regions as we are about NJ. What are you grateful for in your area? Or for that matter, what do you like best about Jersey?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Contagious: How To Get Started

Spring is upon us. March is a now a veal cutlet and April has afforded us a soggy embrace. What the hell does this mean? It's time to get planting: I'm talking to you! A few of our friends have asked us how to get started with a garden, and we want to encourage them. Even though we've chosen to overthink every part of the process doesn't mean you have to.

Many people claim to be no good at growing plants, but anyone outfitted with some basic tools and information can be a successful gardener. Unfortunately, there is a ton of advice available to the newbie plant-wrangler, much of which is contradictory or questionable. My aim here is to embolden the botanically curious--it doesn't have to be expensive or intimidating. There's no excuse not to have a little garden; if you've got a sunny windowsill or a balcony you can grow your favorite herbs, some lettuce, or a pot of tomatoes. Growing your own food, no matter how little, is intensely satisfying.

If you want to go to the experts, here are two that we have learned a great deal from. All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew is a terrific book that helps you get the most harvest out of a small space, but it's easy to read and is great for the beginning gardener. Another invaluable source is Mike McGrath's weekly radio show You Bet Your Garden. Mike was previously the editor-in-chief of Organic Gardening magazine and has and extensive backlog of his radio show available for free online. However, as great as these sources may be, the freshman gardener is still faced with the dilemma: Where do I start? Although we still consider ourselves to be novices, we're going to give you a quick primer on what we've learned in the five or so years we've been at it

1. Plant Choices
In the beginning, keep it simple. We started about six years ago with some tomatoes, herbs and a couple of hot peppers. As with any new endeavor, success is the primary goal. Your first season will be your last if you choose obscure and challenging plants exclusively. Fortunately, there are many well-organized, informative seed and plant catalogs; on Johnny's website you can search for varieties that are easy to grow like Diplomat broccoli and Juliet tomatoes. Other seed companies like Southern Exposure specialize in seeds that thrive in a specific area.

One thing the novice should initially shy away from is indoor seed starting. While outdoor direct seed plantings of crops like peas, beans, corn, melons, and squash are usually rewarding to grow if you've got the right conditions (more on this later), some of the heirloom and hybrid vegetables that lasciviously beckon from the glossy pages of certain 'veggie porn' (I'm looking at you, Seed Savers!) are just not worth the trouble when you're just starting out. But many heirloom seed providers, including Seed Savers, offer a selection of live plants that will arrive at the right time for planting in your growing zone. Local nurseries also provide a range of plants to choose from. Keep an eye out for specialty local growers; unique local suppliers are especially useful in selecting varieties that will grow well in your region. Two notable North Jersey examples are Catalpa Ridge and Well-Sweep Herb Farm.

2. Light
We learn in grade school that plants need lots of sun and water. It's pretty basic, but when it comes to plant sustenance, one size does not fit all. For example, our favorite varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers often require full sun. One of our recurring mistakes is attempting to grow full-sun plants like melon and squash in partial shade. We love those foods, so we plant them every year, and every year they fail, which means we've wasted that garden space that could have been devoted to something more appropriate. So consider your gardening space when deciding what to grow.

If you have a lot of sun, you're in luck. It's easier to create shade for cool-weather plants like spinach and lettuce than it is to manufacture sunlight where it doesn't exist. If sunlight is at a premium in your garden, you may have to scale your expectations back a little. This doesn't mean you have to content yourself with collards and hostas exclusively; you will probably still be able to raise beautiful tomatoes and peppers. You just may have lower yields. One of the lessons we've learned is that if we can't bring the sun to our plants, we can bring the plants to the sun by putting some in large pots or planters and strategically positioning them around the yard.
  • Full sun: Winter and summer squash, melons, eggplant, fruit
  • Good sun: Tomatoes, peppers, beans, peas, carrots, onions, potatoes, herbs, raspberries
  • Part shade: Lettuce, chard, kale, spinach, cilantro
More action-packed info to follow soon. Look for updates about watering and basic gardening equipment. Tell a friend!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

MacGyver Rides Again

We were busy little bees this weekend, seeding and transplanting and improvising hoop houses with clothespins and old fencing. Mark likes to channel MacGyver, and he's got the hockey hair to prove it.

The weather was delightfully cooperative on Saturday, lulling us into a sense of security. Even Sunday afternoon was cool and overcast, perfect for transplanting greens, so we put out the chard, lettuce, broccoli, spinach, and arugula. However, Sunday evening brought hail and thunderstorms. Most of the broccoli and lettuce we'd planted outside was under row covers, but there were a few extras we planted in boxes along the driveway. They got pummeled pretty hard, but it looks like the broccoli and arugula are recovering. The jury's still out on the lettuce. We're fully anticipating an infestation of squirrels next, closely followed by a plague of locusts.

Radishes, spinach, sweet peas, and fennel seeds are all in the ground, and from the safety of our home we started marigolds, calendula, and okra. Mark raised the roof (literally) on the hoop houses, using PVC pipe to get another 18 inches out of our row covers. Last year, the plants outgrew the row covers long before the last frost date of May 15, so this solution should buy us some time.

We are very excited about the tomatoes, which are fast becoming behemoths at 4-6 inches tall, nice and bushy and not leggy at all. They're starting to fill the room with that earthy tomato-plant scent, which has been one of Kate's all-time favorite aromas ever since her very first job in a greenhouse at age 15.

And now Kate will leave you with one final image: Mark, crouched on the floor of the bathroom, with the door locked to keep the mewling cats out while he cuts the bottoms out of a dozen cat-food cans. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds. And a lot more hilarious, although I shouldn't have laughed at the bloodshed. All this to keep the cutworms off the broccoli this year, which is critical--I understand that--but this seems more painful and complicated than necessary.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Starring Monsanto as the Big Bad Wolf!

This recent Slate article by James McWilliams posits that GMO and organic forces need not be at odds with each other, and that genetically modified crops could be good for the environment. I agree with his premise, but note the rampant use of the word "could" in his piece. The way things stand now, it's unlikely that these two entitites will be working together anytime soon. And here's why: The aims of the GMO behemoths like Monsanto and organic farmers are at odds with each other.

Monsanto's only goal is to make lots of money by any means possible. Of course, organic farmers want to make money, too, but their ethics underlie their efforts. Monsanto's genetic modifications solve short-term problems by making their seeds resistant to drought and to pesticides like Roundupwhich is sold by Monsanto, of course. McWilliams doesn't mention the problematic notion of corporations patenting seeds, a concept that directly contradicts the tenets of organic farming, which encourages plant diversity, preserving unique and heirloom varieties, and most important, saving seed.

Monsanto sells its patented GMO seed to farmers with the caveat that they are not allowed to save any seeds to plant again the next year, forcing customers to buy new seed every year from the only provider available. Even farmers who don't buy genetically modified seeds can't protect their crops from cross-pollination with GMO crops, which are becoming widespread, so their harvest ends up containing Monsanto's patented genetic material. Monsanto legally owns any seed that contain those genes, so they canand dosue farmers essentially for replanting their own seed. In many states, corporate operatives are legally allowed to wander onto farms without permission and take samples to spy on farmers, although some remarkable individuals are fighting back like this North Dakota collective.

Science is a wonderful thing. I'm right in line with Obama's cheerleading; we absolutely should "restore science to its rightful place." Bioengineering has the potential to contribute the amazing benefits McWilliams describes, and then some. But as it stands right now, I would be suspicious of any claims made by GMO folks that include dicey terms like "organic" or "humanitarian." Take the controversial golden rice, for example, which is a genetically modified grain containing additional beta-carotene, designed for farmers in poor nations to help allay Vitamin A deficiency, a particular problem for certain populations in Africa and Southeast Asia. It sure makes for good PR, but golden rice has met with plenty of opposition.

No one is disputing that world hunger is a profound problem; what some take issue with is its oversimplification. The truth is that there's more than enough food in the world to feed all 6.7 billion of us. The problems are availability, distribution, poverty, corrupt governments, and loss of biodiversity. Some scientists make the point that golden rice treats just one symptom rather than the source of malnutrition and argue that it could even increase Vitamin A deficiency in the long run. And even though this "wonder grain" is touted as a humanitarian tool, it's no surprise that the Syngenta corporation, which holds intellectual property rights, is looking to make a fortune out of this situation.

This situation sounds very familiar to me. I used to work for a global non-profit organization that brought technology education to developing countries. They did great work and expanded quickly. When Microsoft became a major funder, they started suggesting nations where they wanted us to direct ourr efforts. We discovered that the areas they targeted were ones where open-source was gaining a foothold, and it became clear that they were scrambling to make these populations reliant on their proprietary software so they could make money off them later. Unsurprisingly, much of their support came in the form of Microsoft products. As with agribusiness, we were looking at corporate PR and strong-arm tactics in the guise of humanitarianism.

GMOs run rampant here in the US. In fact, you can bet that whatever you ate today has some genetically modified ingredients unless they're explicitly labeled otherwise. Note that the FDA actively discourages labels to alert consumers to GMOs in our food. I'm not against GMOs in principle, but I do object to the way they are developed and used here. Monsanto has spent countless dollars and months trying to ban labels that identify milk as hormone-free; other biotech companies won't let independent scientists research the environmental impact of their products. So far the bigwigs are using these powerful genetic tools as little more than a get-rich-quick scheme. On the other hand, true organic farming has been working for centuries to feed people and animals with delicious, nutritious food in a sustainable manner. Score one for organic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Signs of Life

As soon as we saw buds on our neighbor's pussy willow tree, we started itching to put sweet peas in the ground.

The broccoli and greens are already hardening off in the garage, and soon they'll go out in the makeshift hoop houses to brave the elements for real.


I know we'll probably see a bit more wintry weather this year, but hope is now visible and tangible. Signs of life are all over the yard--rhubarb, iris, daffodils, garlic, and lots of strawberries. Maybe we'll actually get some fruit this year. Does anyone know if we should be nipping off the runners to encourage berry production? I'm reluctant to prune if it's not necessary.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Little Patience

Had some broccoli trouble due to overcrowding. Those suckers got big fast. A few of the smaller plants shriveled and died, and the leaves on a couple others started turning yellow. I transplanted the larger seedlings into more spacious containers and all of the plants have rebounded. My conclusion is that the soil blocks are great for starting broccoli but are quickly outgrown after about four weeks.

The alliums continue to do well; not much to report there. The brassicas are also thriving. We planted lettuce, arugula, spinach, chard, and New Zealand spinach, and all had multiple seedlings by the end of the first week. We will be transplanting these and the broccoli into improvised hoop houses at the end of this month.

It's been about three weeks since we planted the eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, and a few stragglers continue to sprout. All in all, we managed to get 6 Nyagous, 6 Isis Candy, and 7 San Marzano tomato plants, which is right on target for our needs. The hot peppers sprouted quickly, though the sweet varieties have been a little slower to germinate. Top performers include the Ancho Gigante (poblano) and Golden Treasure peppers. Kevin's Early Orange and King of the North have been very slow, yielding only 4 and 3 plants respectively to date. The small quantities of eggplants we planted have yielded two or three of each variety which is more than adequate. The lesson learned in here is the importance of patience, patience, PATIENCE. The old adage is certainly true: A watched plant never grows, but a watched spouse certainly grows angry. Quickly.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Appease

Planted the peas last night. This is the earliest point in the season we've managed to get our peas in the ground. The weather was perfect; the soil was moist but not soggy from a steady drizzle all day. The ground was cold but workable, since the daytime soil temperature in the raised beds is significantly higher. Of course, this can be a detriment as well, since the temperature range can change much faster in the reduced soil volume of the raised beds. But once the peas have sprouted, this becomes less of an issue. We did miss the boat as far as the lunar planting schedule goes, but we'd rather take our chances now than wait another 2 or 3 weeks to get the peas started. Planting delays in years past have resulted in decreased yields, and we really want to take advantage of the pea plant's affinity for cold weather.

To speed germination, we pre-sprouted the peas 48 hours in advance by sandwiching the seeds between 2 layers of damp paper towels with some plastic wrap on top. After two days, about 50% of the peas had sprouted and all were noticeably swollen with water. In addition to pre-sprouting, we decided to use pea inoculant for the first time this year. Inoculant is an organic, naturally occuring bacteria that allows legumes to more easily fix nitrogen. The nitrogen is pulled out of the soil and 'fixed' to the plant roots in the form of storage nodules. In addition, the nodules help keep nitrogen in the soil even after the plant has died. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant health but is ephemeral in soil when not bound up in some kind of molecule. Nitrogen fixing is the primary objective when planting legumes such as clover and alfalfa as cover crops. We will also be employing bean inoculant at planting time in May.

The inoculant is packaged as a dry powder but is best applied directly to the peas by creating slurry with water. After thoroughly coating the peas, they should be planted as soon as possible. This isn't easy when your assistant is a two-year-old, but it can be done, especially since said two-year-old is easily distracted by shovels and dirt. Of course, immediately after planting, we received a light dusting of snow overnight. This shouldn't be a problem for the peas (famous last words) but we'll be keeping our fingers crossed anyway. The next step is to throw some row covers over the beds to keep the damn squirrels and possibly toddlers out. Although neither critter seems interested in devouring the peas, they are both attracted to recently disturbed soil and should be regarded as pests. Then again, the common house cat seems partial to napping on top of row covers as well, so you really can't win. Nature sucks.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Clip-n-Save

The Environmental Working Group has published a terrific cheat sheet on the cleanest and dirtiest produce at the grocery store in terms of pesticide residue. It's the perfect size for you to cut out and keep in your wallet.

The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen are handy lists to help you decide which fruits and veggies you should seriously consider buying organic and when you can get away with cheaper, non-organic produce. If you're interested in the science behind the list, you can read more about that here. (link via the venerable Marion Nestle at Food Politics)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lady of Shallot

The broccoli now has three sets of leaves (this is thrilling news to all of you, I'm sure), and the leeks are thriving. The little tomato, pepper, and eggplant seedlings are sprouting. So far they seem to have beat out the mold that started growing in their warm, damp cells. A light application of peat moss on the surface seems to have done the trick. We're especially stoked to see the shallots sprouting--we're actually growing them from seeds instead of sets. A lot of our choices for what to grow this year are determined by what's expensive at the store, and by what we don't get from our Genesis share. I'm trying to figure out why shallots are so expensive--does anyone out there know? Even the sets were pricey, especially the organic ones.

As we try to find our way in year four of our garden, it's interesting to note the lessons learned by these folks after a decade of gardening. It's encouraging to see that they've learned a lot of the same lessons we have, and that in the end they decided to keep things simple. They attempted a nonlinear planting pattern before settling on traditional raised rows, which makes us a little nervous because we plan on breaking out of the rigid geometry of rectangles this year. It looks like their approach was mostly aesthetic, though, while we're trying a combination of companion planting and permaculture principles. We also don't have the full sun they do, so it makes sense for us to plant little plots all over our property where we can find the best light.

Last weekend we started lettuce seeds indoors, and this weekend we may even plant peas outside. It may seem a bit too cold and too early, but Mike McGrath doesn't usually steer us wrong. He recommends St. Patrick's day as the best time to plant peas in our area, weather permitting. With that said, no seeds will do well in frozen or waterlogged soil, so we will play it by ear.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chilly Progress

We're making progress indoors, even if the weather outside is not cooperating, what with this week's March nor'easter and all. The broccoli sprouts have second leaves on them already. The germination rate of our leeks could have been better, but there are still new slowpokes coming up every day, and the first sprouts are already getting all gangly. The other alliums--Spanish and red torpedo onions, shallots, and scallions--are already sprouting, and we just planted pepper and tomato seeds last weekend. Since we're always on a mission to speed and improve germination, for the fussier tomatoes and pepper seeds we filled trays with potting mix only halfway, planted the seeds, and then put them on heating mats so there would be less distance for the heat to travel and less dirt to be warmed up. Those mats aren't very strong; in fact, a friend of ours uses more powerful reptile heating mats instead for his copious pepper plants. Right now our seeds are getting all steamy under a layer of plastic wrap; we should see some heads poking up any day now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Due Credit

I made a previous post about our multi-tier seed starting system. At the time I wrote it, I was pretty sure that I got the idea from somebody last year but couldn't remember who suggested it. After I read this post on www.thecompostbin.com, I knew exactly where the idea originated. I even unknowingly bought the exact same shelf! Thanks, Anthony, for the great idea.

Broccoli, Leek Update 1

Just a quick status update on broccoli and leeks. We've gotten superb broccoli germination rates, probably around 90%. Germination took approximately 3-4 days. Seedlings look healthy so far. On the other hand, both varieties of leek have been slow going (which I seem to recall from last year as well). After 10 days, there are about 15 seedlings so far. For some reason, both varieties sprouted one really aggressive plant a few days ago and then exhibited limited activity until now.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Best Skillet Cornbread

Sorry to keep you all on the edge of your seats for so long. I finally ended up making cornbread with that lovely cornographic (thx Andrea!) treat from two weeks ago. Why is it so difficult to find an exceptional recipe for moist, slightly sweet cornbread? Everything I dug up in my favorite websites and cookbooks was strictly savory, or crumbly, or both. The Moosewood recipe I usually use is okay if eaten straight out of the oven, but the leftovers are beyond dry. Driven to the brink, I doctored my ho-hum standard recipe within an inch of its life and was pleasantly surprised with the result. It went perfectly with our dinner of magnificent black bass sauteed simply and garnished with scallions, cilantro, and lime juice. The rough texture of the hand-ground cornmeal added a lovely color and texture to the bread, but you won't miss it with regular cornmeal.

The best endorsement: After dinner last night and breakfast this morning, there was only one little piece left for me to photograph!

Best Skillet Cornbread

1 tablespoon butter for the skillet
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour (you can substitute 1/4 cup whole wheat)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups buttermilk or plain yogurt
2 eggs
1/4 cup honey
3 tablespoons melted butter

Preheat oven to 350˚. Put cast iron skillet on low heat and melt 1T butter. When melted, turn off heat but leave on warm burner.

Combine dry ingredients in one bowl and wet ingredients in another. Stir the wet mixture into the dry just enough to combine. Pour into prepared pan.

Bake for 30 minutes or until the center is firm to the touch.

Note: You can also make this in an 8x8" baking dish. Just spray with cooking spray or grease with butter before putting the batter in.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Anticipation

Sure, I was trudging through slushy snow today, but these broccoli sprouts prove that spring is on the way.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

'Tis The Season


Kate and I vowed to get serious about seed starting a couple of seasons ago. Before that, all of our experience was with transplants from Burpee or (gulp) Home Depot. Enticed by the staggering array of heirlooms available, we took the plunge into uncharted seed-starting territory. As with most new endeavors, our first foray into plant rearing yielded mixed results. Ultimately, we ended up with lots of leggy seedlings and too few light fixtures. We moved the transplanting date up as much as possible simply due to a lack of resources. Our garden did flourish, but not before many hours of scrambling and nail-biting.

Last year, we made the same seed-starting resolution. This time, we bought fluorescent shop lights and hung them from the basement ceiling. Tray after tray of hopeful seedlings were crammed onto a utility table beneath the lights. After an auspicious start, we soon discovered that we had still overrun our lighting capacity. As it so happened, we had greatly expanded the scope of our planting from the year before, and four shop lights with two 4-foot bulbs apiece were simply insufficient. It got to the point where I built a precarious tower out of coolers and boxes in order to raise some wild-looking onion flats up close to a spare ceiling fixture. The space constraints caused us to once again rush the season and transplant too soon. We didn't lose any plants, but I think some were stressed by the sudden temperature change.

Needless to say, we're making our annual pledge to ourselves (and our future seedlings) to get serious about seed starting. We have invested in a state-of-the-art utility shelf that is way too big for the room we put it in. The shelf can hold eight light fixtures and at least eight seedling trays, possibly more.

Although the shelf is indeed a monstrosity, Kate asked me to point out that, thanks to my ingenuity, it is no less attractive than this "grow-light system" from Gardener's Supply, and our homemade version cost us a fraction of the other's $550 price tag. This sounds like slavish praise to me, but I'll take it. An added bonus: the spectral glow from our 'grow lights' creates a lovely, potentially felonious vista at night. Build yours today!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Home-Grown Hullabaloo

As Americans struggle with our economy’s downward turn, it’s interesting to see people’s different reactions to the changing times. Over the past few years, more people found an interest in gardening as local and heirloom food became trendy. Now even more people are starting to grow their own food as food safety and cost effectiveness become motivating factors.

But who knew wielding a trowel could be so controversial? At every turn we’re reading reports and news stories about firestorms surrounding food, land, and gardening issues. On one hand you’ve got Alice Waters’ call for local produce and an organic, edible garden at the White House. Meanwhile, others protest that home-grown White House tomatoes are elitist and frivolous when there are so many kids living within a few miles of the Obamas who subsist on high-fructose corn syrup and fried foods because there are no grocery stores in their neighborhoods. Personally, I think a White House victory garden is a great idea, even if it’s aspirational for kids in Anacostia. I know of a few vacant lots in Northeast DC that would be prime locations for community gardens.

At least both sides of the Obama garden argument are attempting to think about the greater good. The dark side to the second American Gilded Age was an overwhelming sense of entitlement that persists even as our fortunes dwindle. The Slow Cook talks about being invited to consult about a local community garden and being met with outrage when he suggested that gardeners relinquish their tiny individual plots and change their model to be more like that of a CSA. Forget that the space would be used much more efficiently and each person would end up taking home more food, that it would be healthier for the soil because crops could be rotated, and that spaces could be dedicated to valuable perennials and fruit; the members clung desperately to their little boxes.

At the far end of this self-centered approach are the neighborhood associations and spiteful neighbors who resist the idea that a suburban yard is for anything but (meticulously trimmed) grass. The nice ladies at Garden Rant expressed their consternation with one guy who commented on a NY Times blog entry with the following gem:

“I think we are seeing devolution as people lose their jobs and more of my neighbors are growing their own food.”
I never thought of growing my food as anything but charming and perhaps a little indulgent. Now it’s supposedly trashy, on par with a rusty old car up on blocks in the front yard?

I’ve been thinking about how we Americans have been trained, over the past few decades, to believe that we are entitled to everything and don’t have to think about what goes on beyond our own doorstep. Although gardening can be a solitary activity, I know our interest has prompted us to seek out like-minded individuals to learn from, swap experiences, and share seeds. Can this awful economic situation help us rekindle our community ties and de-compartmentalize our lives by forcing us to share limited resources and find creative uses for our living spaces? While a recession is certainly no fun, I’m eager to find out what happens next.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Corny

This is my pornography: Cornmeal made from corn grown biodynamically on a farm 10 miles from my home, hand-ground by people whose names I know, then given to me as part of my CSA share in the middle of a dreary, frozen February.

Now the question looms: What should I make with it? Cornbread seems too mediocre for such a precious flour, but a more complex preparation might overpower the cornmeal's flavor, which I want to fully savor. Maybe polenta or tamales; I'm waiting for inspiration to strike. Any ideas?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sweet Potato Muffins with Candied Ginger

I can't stop making these muffins, so it's a good thing people keep eating them. Every time I make a batch, they're gone within 48 hours. When someone tells me that a healthy food tastes like candy, it usually smacks of a parent trying to get a child to eat their vegetables, but I'm going ahead and taking that risk: The sweet potatoes we've been bringing home from Genesis Farm have a rich, mapley flavor, and they're the sweetest sweet potatoes I've ever eaten. I've been meaning to ask them what variety they grow. So they certainly help the recipe, but these little morsels are moist and sweet and a little bit spicy no matter what orange vegetable you use.

Sweet Potato Muffins with Candied Ginger

1/2 cup chopped candied ginger
1/4 cup butter, melted, or vegetable oil (I use oil)
1/3 cup unsulfured molasses
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup mashed sweet potato
2 eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 3/4 cups flour (I use up to 3/4 cup whole wheat flour)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375˚. Oil or spray muffin tins. Mix the ginger and wet ingredients in a bowl until smooth; mix the dry ingredients in a second bowl. Combine the two, mixing gently until well blended. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins and bake on the middle rack until lightly browned, about 25 minutes.

Makes 12 muffins.

Tip: If you don't feel like buying an entire quart of buttermilk, you can mix 1/4 cup plain or vanilla yogurt with 1/4 cup milk. In a pinch, you could even substitute clabbered milk, which is 1/2 cup milk mixed with 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice and allowed to sit for 10 minutes.

From Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison, with a few tweaks by yours truly

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Eggshells?

“What is this a photo of?” you may ask. Why, it’s a quart-sized container full of ground eggshells. But why do we have such a thing? Where did it come from? These are all valid questions, and we have the answers, but they may be less than satisfying.

Last year we planted each tomato seedling with 1/2 C. bone meal, hoping to stave off the dreaded blight known as blossom end-rot. We had no previous experience with this heartbreaking scourge, which renders tomato fruit black and rotten on the vine, but we didn't want to take any chances. And whaddaya know--by July we had quite the healthy crop of black, withered tomatoes as far as the eye could see. End-rot is not a disease but rather a side-effect of uneven water supply. Calcium is supposed to help the tomato plant regulate its water intake during periods of drought and deluge. According to Wikipedia, "blossom end rot can happen even though sufficient calcium is present if watering is irregular." Great. So you're damned if you do, etc.

So what the hell does all of this have to do with a quart of ground eggshells? First, Mark is totally anal about the compost and doesn’t like to put eggshells in there because they take so long to break down. This may have something to do with the fact that he is the one who ends up screening the compost and picking out perfectly preserved eggshell fragments. Second, since they are essentially comprised of calcium, Mark now saves our eggshells (along with those of anyone else he can convince) as a readily available calcium source. He painstakingly peels off the inner membrane, air dries them, and then pulverizes them with our industrial-sized mortar and pestle. Sure, we don’t have enough hours in the day to read great books or do laundry in a timely fashion, but somehow we always make time to crush eggshells the old-fashioned way (although I’m not sure there is any other way to crush eggshells, actually). Incidentally, seashells are another great source of calcium. We're investigating beachfront property as we blog.

So if you’ve come to our house and cocked an eyebrow at a row of empty eggshells on our kitchen windowsill, now at least you know why. All I can say is that our tomato plants damn well better appreciate it. We're not even sure that the added calcium will make a difference. Oh yeah, did we mention that the quart-sized container has enough calcium for a whopping 8 plants? Yay. It's three omelets a day from now until May, baby. And the end-rot problem? We're already laying out the plans for our elaborate, state-of-the-art, permaculture-unfriendly drip irrigation system. But that's another impossibly exciting story...

Monday, February 2, 2009

Toys

We may be taking a non-interventionist approach to gardening this year, but that doesn't mean we have to deny ourselves some new toys. We're not made of stone, you know! Mark couldn't help ordering these soil block makers from Johnny's, which supposedly make seed starting and transplanting easier and more efficient.

You fill the blocks with your favorite growing medium and stamp them down into a seed tray. It's much cheaper and more effective than using peat cubes or filling hundreds of tiny little cups with soil. Peat is great for starting seeds, but those new seedlings need to be transplanted quickly after sprouting since peat doesn't contain many nutrients. We're hoping to cut out that time-consuming transplanting step for our alliums, brassicas, and some flowers. Our first trial will be leeks in organic, store-bought potting soil.

Since the blocks are separate from each other, the roots of fast-growing seedlings are less likely to get tangled up. Even if each block is rootbound, it should be easy enough to separate it from its neighbors and lift it out for transplant--a lot easier than those seed trays, which inevitably get mangled during the transplanting process. So there's the added bonus of not destroying a dozen plastic seed trays every year, sending them to the landfill, and then paying to replace them.

We'll let you know if these toys are worth the investment. They are industry standard for many commercial growers, so we have high hopes. Check back soon for the exciting results!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The A List

Here's what we're ordering this year, where we're getting it from, and why we like it. Feel free to post your own favorites in the comments. We're always looking for new ideas.

Seed Savers Exchange


Baker Creek

  • Amarillo Carrot- Lemon yellow and very sweet and juicy.
  • Muscade Carrot- We're planting this one because it's unusual and intriguing, from North Africa.
  • Bouquet Dill- Tiny umbelliferous flower heads are ideal at attracting & sheltering parasitic wasps and nematodes (say what?)
  • Di Firenze Fennel- Small, sweet bulbs. Can't wait to roast these for a veggie pot pie.
  • Siamese Dragon Asian Greens- A unique mix of greens for stir-frying.
  • Bleu Of Solaise Leek- Hopefully this cold-hardy leek will get bigger than the American Flags did last year. Also it's French, so Kate couldn't resist.
  • Val D'Orges Lettuce- French butterhead. 'Nuff said.
  • King Of The North Pepper- Red bell pepper for short-seasoners like us.
  • Chinese Red Meat Radish- Look like adorable mini watermelons.
  • Bee Balm- Good herb for tea, but we're using mostly for bees.
  • Borage- Attracts beneficial bugs, also good for salads.
  • Chives- We're putting little patches of chives all over the yard. You can never have to many of these. They're also perennial.


Johnny’s

  • Garden Of Eden Pole Bean- Tender, broad green beans we'll be training over a trellis spanning the walkways between our raised beds.
  • Blue Wind Broccoli- Even after last year's broccoli disaster, we are not deterred! This is an early version, a full 26-50 days earlier than last year's Romanesco. We also have some tricks up our collective sleeve for defeating cutworms: tuna cans.
  • Walla Walla Onion- Even though we feel like it's a copout to grow these from seedlings instead of seeds, these sweet onions are so worth it (we couldn't find the seeds for sale).
  • Evergreen Hardy White Scallion- Lots of these, since we use scallions almost every day in one form or another.
  • Ambition Shallot- A successful crop of these would be a huge victory, since shallots are expensive and sometimes the pickings are slim.
  • Calendula- Pink, orange, and yellow blooms to bring color and bees to the yard.
  • Nasturtium- The petals on these red flowers add spicy zest to salads.
  • Zinnia- A Persian carpet of flowers in autumn tones.


Well-Sweep

  • Genovese Basil- A must-have, the best variety for pesto and summer dishes.
  • Vietnamese Coriander (Rau Ram)- A spicy substitute for cilantro. Heat resistant and also makes a good houseplant.
  • Tansy- Great indigenous perennial and beneficial insect attractant. Leaves can be used for tea.
  • Rosemary- Well known culinary herb of much esteem. We'd like to find a hardy version that can overwinter here if possible.
  • Yarrow- Small, low-growing flower. Member of the aster family (asteraceae).
  • Angelica- Perrenial flowering herb that can reach 6 ft in height. Tolerates some shade, which we have plenty of.
  • Lovage- A tall, leafy green plant that can be used as a celery substitute.
  • Lavender- Fragrant, flowering evergreen. Zone 6-hardy perennials exist.
  • Oregano- No description needed here.
  • Thyme- Staggeringly diverse family of perennials with tiny, delicate flowers. Perfect dual-purpose, ground-covering herb.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Packrats

We managed to save a few seeds from our plants last year. Saving seed is a priority for us because locally grown plants can pass down positive evolutionary traits to future plant generations. In other words, plants can inherit genetic improvements adopted by their predecessors, like cold tolerance, disease resistance, improved production in a new climate, etc. Besides, seeds aren't cheap, especially when you are as maniacal as we are. We try to cut costs where we can. It's also rewarding to be the tiniest bit more self-reliant this year than last. Baby steps, right? Here is a list of seeds we have kept from last year, some bought and some saved. Not too shabby!
  • Holy Basil (Leftover)
  • Queenette Basil (Leftover)
  • Lao Green Stripe Eggplant (Leftover)
  • Arugula (Leftover)
  • Early Hanover Melon (Leftover)
  • Burmese Okra (Saved)
  • Ancho Pepper (Leftover)
  • Lemon Pepper (Saved)
  • Black Beauty Zucchini (Leftover)
  • Nyagous Tomato (Leftover)
  • Isis Candy Tomato (Leftover)
  • San Marzano Tomato (Saved)
  • Monnopa Spinach (Leftover)
  • Harlequin Marigold (Leftover)
  • Perilla (Saved)
  • Lemongrass (Saved)
  • Cilantro (Leftover)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Technology

January always seems like an interminable month. I’ve been thinking about gardening a lot lately since the frigid weather has forced all of us indoors. At the peril of becoming crazed with premature enthusiasm, I’ve begun laying out initial garden plans for the upcoming season.

Kate and I want to learn as much as possible from last year’s experiences. Our biggest tasks this year will be to improve our organizational skills and to not overcomplicate things. I’ve been using a fantastic online gardening tool called Plangarden to layout our vegetable plots (see screenshot below). In addition to arrangement capabilities, Plangarden allows the user to maintain a database of seed starting, transplanting, and harvesting information. So far, it has made our planning simpler and will hopefully help us accurately track our harvest later on. Now I need to place these seed orders before I lose my mind.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Food Matters

Food guru Mark Bittman talks sensibly and accessibly about why our food choices are important. His argument boils down to this: Eat less meat, more vegetables, and make as many of your own meals as possible. I'd go one step farther and say that growing your own food--whether it's a few pots of tomatoes and herbs on your balcony or even belonging to a CSA--will make your diet even healthier, for yourself and for the planet.

If you're intrigued, Bittman's new book Food Matters will tell you more. I also can't gush enough about his recipes, which never steer me wrong. How To Cook Everything Vegetarian is exactly what the title claims, and it's like a bible for me. So many of his dishes have become a regular part of our rotation, like roasted quinoa with potatoes and cheese and banana bread. In fact, I've got some of that bread kicking around in my bread drawer right now, and I could use a snack.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Gettin' Down with the Hoes

Hot diggity dog! Turns out there's more than one kind of hoe that can help a guy out with his sexual needs. We couldn't let this one slip by without mention.

We've got to sign off now to attend to some business. Planning the garden, of course! Get your mind out of the gutter.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Cheese, Please

Love affairs may wax and wane, but none of you who know me will ever doubt my passion for cheese. I have been known to embark on expeditions to find the most delicious and obscure cheeses on several continents. I can completely empathize with my favorite local cheesemaker, who painstakingly carved a cave out of Appalachian rock to recreate the conditions in which cheese is aged in the Pyrenees.

But let’s not forget fresh, warm, comforting cheese that can be whipped up in your own kitchen anytime you have 20 minutes to spare. Although I have had mishaps making mozzarella, my favorite cheese recipe is easy and foolproof and so delicious. It’s forgiving, adaptable, and doesn’t require any fancy equipment.

Many Indian restaurants call paneer “cottage cheese,” a term that gives me the willies, probably because I'm not a fan of cottage cheese. The paneer we make at home has the mild, slightly tangy flavor of mozzarella and a moist, crumbly texture, kind of like feta, but it bears no resemblance to that stuff you can buy in a tub at the supermarket.

Basic Paneer
Ingredients

½ gallon milk (whole or lowfat, but not skim)
2 tablespoons salt
2 cups plain nonfat yogurt, whisked until smooth
a fine sieve or cheesecloth

Preparation
Boil the milk and salt over high heat, constantly stirring. As soon as the milk starts to boil, add the yogurt and stir until combined. Be careful that the milk doesn’t boil over, which can happen very quickly if you’re not paying attention.

Continue to stir over high heat until the mixture starts to separate into curds and whey, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat and drain the curds using the sieve or cheesecloth folded over into 4 layers. Some people save the whey, which is rich in protein, and use it to make soups and bread, but that’s beyond my current level of resourcefulness.

Let the cheese drain for about 5 minutes. If using cheesecloth, bring the corners together to form a bag and gently twist to get out as much moisture as possible. I use a sieve, putting a small plate and a can of beans on top of the cheese to weigh it down and extract the extra whey. Let the cheese drain further for 10 to 12 minutes—less time if you like a softer cheese, and more time if you like a firmer texture.

When the paneer is cool enough to handle, cut into desired shapes and either use immediately or refrigerate. I like it gently crumbled, myself. It can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 4 to 5 days.

Makes 8 ounces.

Variation: To curdle the milk, you could replace the yogurt with ¼ cup lemon or lime juice, 3-4 tablespoon white vinegar, or 1 quart buttermilk. Keep in mind that the vinegar and lemon/lime juices will lower your yield to about 6 ounces. Plus the yogurt version tastes better, in my opinion.

You don’t have to restrict paneer to eating with Indian food. It’s a good substitute for queso fresco on Mexican dishes, and it tastes great with any kind of beans. Tonight I’m boiling up some French lentils and basmati rice and topping with paneer and caramelized onions.

Feel free to add your favorite combination of spices. For starters:

  • ½ tsp dried oregano and 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp minced garlic and 1tsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp toasted sesame oil, 1T soy sauce, 1 tsp minced fresh ginger, 1 ½ tsp sesame seeds, ¼ cup rice wine vinegar

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On the Boil


This week our local produce market had these gorgeous and completely out-of-season borlotti beans in the pod for a very reasonable price. Of course I bought them and we ate them with fried sliced garlic and olive oil, and they were delicious.

We frequent this market because they consistently have delicious, fresh, cheap produce, but most of it isn't organic, and we choose to ignore the fact that much of it comes from distant lands. Thus, an aspiring locavore's dilemma: Support the small business owner even though they don't share our ethics, or spend a fortune at big-box Whole Foods? This is something of a false choice, though, since the third, most reasonable (and most unamerican) option would be not to buy fancy beans at all, subsisting on the root vegetables we get from the farm and splurging on a few organic greens. Dammit, this is so difficult during the winter! How will we survive until spring?