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, 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


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


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


“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


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!