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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Cheddar Dill Zucchini Cakes

Are you getting enough zucchini in your diet?  If not, you're probably not growing them. Or, you are having a bad zucchini year. Otherwise, you are no doubt looking for recipes for zucchini all the time.

These zucchini cakes are based on the traditional recipe for salmon croquettes (which we call salmon patties) that is my favorite. They will bake up a little soft because of the zucchini and cheese, so let them sit a bit before serving. They reheat for lunch like a dream.

Cheddar Dill Zucchini Cakes
1 medium zucchini, shredded
1 T. canning salt
1/2 sleeve saltines, crushed
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 egg, beaten
1 tsp. mustard powder
2 tsp. dill.

Preheat oven to 350. Shred zucchini, salt with about 1 T. canning salt and let wilt about 10 minutes; rinse thoroughly.

Combine zucchini with other ingredients and place on greased baking sheet in baseball-sized, flattened patties.  Cook 30-35 minutes, flipping over at the halfway point.

Makes 5-6 patties

The Analysis
Fast:  These are quick to put together, especially if you just have to run out to the garden for a zucchini.

Cheap:  Basic ingredients keep our costs under control here.  Pay up for the free-range eggs and organic cheese, if you can.

Good:  Good as a dinner side dish; even better the next day.

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Thursday, July 14, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: June 2016

It was all about the blueberries this month in the garden!

I love a June garden. July and August can almost be an embarrassment of riches (and I love that, too), when you are hopefully bringing in baskets of produce and trying to figure out ways to cram more veggies into your diet and more time for canning into your schedule.  But in June, harvests come on one by one, and you gorge yourself on one thing while hoping eagerly for the next.  There's nothing like having a cereal bowl full of blueberries every night while you obsessively check the garden to see if you can get a single zucchini yet.

And that's pretty much how June was around here. During the month, we brought in 61 ounces of blueberries, nearly a half gallon.  (Spoiler: we'd pass the half gallon mark the next week.)  I don't think that's bad for two mature blueberry bushes and one tiny one. Mr. FC&G had blueberries on ice cream almost every night, and I ate them straight out of a cereal bowl. Going by the prices at my local farmers' market, I harvested $23.18 worth of blueberries.

We also had some other produce come in: a few cents worth of peas that came from a plant I started from leftover seeds in utter gardening frustration in about April, and a regular influx of greens.  I've been letting the kale take a break lately, but it is almost time to start cutting on it again.

With no expenditures this month, we are clawing our way toward profitability.  Totals are below:

Cumulative Totals:
Total Ounces Harvested: 90.5
Total Pounds Harvested: 5.65625
Total Value of Harvest to Date: $45.18

Total Expenditures: ($204.08)

Net Profit (Loss) to Date: ($158.90)
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Friday, July 8, 2016

In Praise of a Clover-Filled Yard

I was talking to Papa FC&G the other day, and he recounted a story from his grandfather ("Pop").

When my dad was building his first house, Pop told him that he should be sure that he mixed plenty of clover in with the grass seed when he seeded the lawn. According to Pop, the clover would "sweeten" the soil, which was a desirable thing to have happen.

When did we start hating clover in our lawns?  Pop was right, you know. Clover is one of the crops that fixes nitrogen in the soil, making it easier for other nitrogen-loving plants to grow.  In fact, we are often happy to see some clover creep into our garden, although we usually have to get rid of it to make room for veggies.  However, when we do, we use the hoe and cut it off at the surface, leaving those nitrogen-filled root rhizomes in place.

Clover is pretty, too. Remember picking your mother a bouquet of clover and bringing it into the house? I sure do.  I loved to follow those slender stems down to the ground and picking the fluffy little white flowers, which Mom would always put in a special tiny vase (which I believe was a crystal toothpick holder).  And I spent countless summers looking for a four-leaf clover. If you have kids, you should have at least one huge patch of clover just for the entertainment value.

And the bees! We all know we've had problems in this country with colony collapse and a lack of bees to pollinate our fields and gardens. Growing a special "bee and butterfly" garden of flowers is great, but if you also let the clover grow in your yard, you will attract bees like crazy. In fact, we have one special patch of clover just outside the garden that we tend to "forget" to mow about every other time, and it attracts bees to the flowers. From there, it is a short hop over to the cucumbers, zucchini, and tomatoes, and I regularly find bees nestled in the veggie flowers. Yes, I get stung about once a year, but it is generally from a bee that I've stepped on, which seems fair to me. The bees that are already happily gorging in the veggie flowers usually leave me alone if I do likewise, and they tend to be docile, sated, and amenable to a gentle brush of the hand to move them if I really need to get into that plant.

Finally, clovers is a very economical kind of ground cover. Unlike grass, clover simply doesn't grow very high, so the more patches of clover you have in your yard, the less frequently you have to mow and the easier the job is. We have one side of our yard that is currently about half covered with clover, and it is the easiest section to mow and the one that needs it the least.

My temptation when I started this piece was to rail against herbicides and growing grass in monoculture, and I probably will do so another day.  But, on this fine summer day, I'm going to enjoy looking at my yard full of clover. Pop was right: in so many ways, it makes the yard sweet.
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Monday, June 27, 2016

It's All About the Greens and the Blues

June has been all about the blueberries and the greens, two crops that are insanely expensive to buy at the grocery and the farmers' market.  Around here, a 5 oz. clamshell of pre-washed organic greens can go for about $4, while a pint of blueberries at the farmers' market this week was $6.  That makes these two early crops some of your best bets for saving money while boosting nutrition and eating more locally, to say nothing of the boost to your self-sufficiency.

We've talked about growing greens already this month, but growing blueberries can be fairly low-effort as well.  Your biggest task will be protecting the fruit from birds, which we will discuss.

Blueberries come in early, mid-season, and late varieties, and many growers like to have a mix to extend their blueberry season.  As it turns out, the only blueberry bushes I have that survived a couple of icy winters are early varieties, so that's what I'm going with.

Often, your bushes will need pollination from another variety, so be sure to check the tag or the catalog description to make sure you are buying enough varieties to secure a good crop.  I like Stark Brothers as a source for my fruit trees and bushes, because they are so good about telling you what varieties to buy together.

Blueberries famously love an acidic soil, so they can be challenging in lower parts of the Midwest like where I live.  I mulch them once or twice a year with pine needles, which will acidify the soil a bit over time.  Currently, I have one really large, mature bush and two that are just a bit smaller. From just these three bushes, I've been bringing in somewhere between three and six ounces of blueberries a day for a couple of weeks, which is enough for me to have a cereal bowl full of blueberries every night and Mr. FC&G to have some on his ice cream.  It may not sound  like a large harvest, but if I bought this amount at the farmers' market, I'd be spending around $1.50 a day on blueberries.  It adds up, especially when you are a writer with a variable income and delusions of needing to buy beachfront property.

The one task you will have is protecting your ripe fruit from the birds.  Mr. FC&G has experimented with several netting and cage designs, and I think he really hit on a winner this year: a three-sided structure made out of tall garden stakes and fine-gauge fencing, with netting over the top and front.  I can just push the netting aside to go into the enclosure to harvest.  Right now, that structure is over just one bush with an old pop-up tent over the other two, but I have plans to, ahem, encourage him to expand it.

Blueberries do take a couple of years to get large enough to bear fruit, but once they do, they will be an early-season source of savings, sustainability, and self-sufficiency.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What You Need to Know about Growing Greens

For this post, I have to give an anonymous shout-out to one of my friends who asked about techniques for growing lettuce, or, more specifically, greens. (I use the term "lettuce" to mean only certain varieties of leafy greens, while "greens" to me also encompasses the tasty, hearty leaves that are sometimes called "potherbs" because they cook up well.)

If you grew up in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s, your mental picture of lettuce is probably of a head of iceberg lettuce. While this kind of thing is ideal for cutting into wedges and making a "so old it's hip again" lettuce wedge salad, head lettuces of any kind are often not your most efficient use of your gardening time or money, to say nothing of the fact that you are neglecting an entire group of greens that will just grow and grow for an entire season.

Let's talk a little about the basic types of greens, or lettuces.  Most common, as I suggested, is the head lettuce. Iceberg is one such variety, but so is romaine and bibb.  These lettuces grow a head that you then cut off at the soil line. The benefit, obviously, is that you have an entire head to make a large, family salad, and many of these lettuces have highly-desirable flavor profiles that are mild enough to make them great for sandwich wraps and to serve as a background for the traditional tossed salad. The downfall is that, once you cut the plant off at the soil, it is probably done. Romaine will often regrow at least once, and some of the others may send up a few additional leaves, but your primary harvest is done.

The second type of green has the homey name of "cut and come again." These are greens that do not form heads, but instead send up individual leaves for you to harvest. These include some of the heartier, more flavorful greens, like kale (seen in the photo), spinach, and arugula. The downfall of these greens is that you may be standing over your lettuce bed trimming and trimming and trimming to get a decent-sized salad.  The benefits, though, are incredible.

Let's start with the fact that these greens let you really customize how much you harvest. Instead of taking the whole head, you can easily pop outside and get a handful of greens for your sandwich, something I do almost every day. They also really let you decide the stage of development at which you like your greens best. Here's a tip: if you think you don't like kale, grow some and harvest it when it is no bigger than a silver dollar instead of waiting for the big, thick, curly leaves. The flavor is actually sweet, with just a little bit of bit. It has many of the benefits of microgreens, just a little older. These greens are also very container-friendly, so you can easily grow a pot full on a windowsill or a back patio as long as you get a lot of sun. (Note: I do grown greens in the winter, too, since they are very cold tolerant, but they grow much more slowly in our sunroom, even with a grow light over them.)

Which brings me to the primary point: these greens are ultra-sustainable. Cut them (without killing an entire plant, hence the snip-snip-snip technique), and they will regrow and regrow for months at a time. You've done one planting for a good 6-8 months of harvesting. And these greens are really economical: this bed full of kale that you see above comes from a single pack of organic seeds (that I bought at Whole Foods, so I'm hardly low-balling this calculation) that I bought for $1.89. Bags of pre-washed, organic, baby greens sell around here for about $0.88 per ounce, and I've been bringing in a half ounce to an ounce every day.  I only need to harvest three ounces to be in the black with this crop, and I passed that the first week I could harvest.

So, there you have it. Hopefully, most of what you ever wanted to know about growing greens, sustainably!

The Analysis

Fast: These greens grow quickly in the summer, ready for initial harvest in 3-4 weeks; they take longer in the winter.

Cheap: See the calculation above; these are almost instantly profitable.

Good: Not only are these little guys tasty, but they give you a lot of nutrition and will keep doing so for the entire summer and well into fall!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Random Thoughts on a Wednesday

Today, just some random thoughts about the sustainable lifestyle we try to lead around here:

  • Feverfew (seen at the right) is so pretty, I'm starting to expand my plantings from just the medicinal ones that I have in the back garden to some more decorative ones out front that are allowed to bloom. I have my eye on a spot that has been a pain to deal with for a couple of years; some perennial feverfew ought to do the trick. And it is so pretty to bring into the house for bouquets!
  • What a lovely week it has been for biking! You know (oh, boy, do you know!) that I'm not a big fan of this part of the country, but I am glad that we live within biking distance of the grocery, the post office, and the college where I teach. It is so nice to bike to those places during warm weather.
  • My two-year-old leeks are about ready to bloom, which is either a beautiful addition to my front yard flower bed or an indictment of me not being able to get myself to go harvest them this winter and throw them in a stock pot. At this point, they are far too woody to be used in anything else.
  • If you believe the news reports that the economy is in good shape, just do a financial audit on your non-essential services. I've started reviewing things like video streaming, DVR, gym membership, and the like, and cancelling the things we aren't using. Almost every one of those calls that I have made have included the company offering to "pay my bill" for a number of months if I need a break from it. That tells me that there are a lot of middle and upper middle class people who are looking for places to cut costs.
  • We are starting to bring in blueberries and peas, and the thought occurs that harvesting is so satisfying that it must be hardwired into the human brain. Along with visual, olfactory, and taste cues, there must be a tactile component to food that makes us instinctively focus on keeping ourselves fed.

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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: May 2016

So May is gardening in earnest!  And, I swear, I didn't think I was ever going to get that garden in! It was so cold and rainy, and I had this pile of plants waiting in the sunroom to go out, and I was going nuts! The only thing that kept me even partially sane was that my neighbor, who raises probably 50+ beautiful, textbook-looking tomato plants every year, just got his in the ground this weekend too.

With everything going in late, I expect some of the harvest to be delayed too. I do have a few really large tomato plants I've been buying one at a time from a guy who reputedly grows some of the heaviest-bearing tomatoes in the area, so we'll see. My container tomatoes, which went in on May 1 and were protected by a makeshift cold frame, are also doing really well.

As you can see at the right, the cold didn't really hinder the herbs. I'm already drying sage and feverfew, which are very important to the overall system. Feverfew, especially, is critical, because I've found that it works for migraine prevention for me better than prescription medications with fewer side effects. (Note: always talk to you doctor, not your blogger, about treating your migraines.)

Overall, the harvest was limited to kale and spinach, of which we harvested 7 oz this month.  That's more than a bag full from the grocery, so definitely a savings.

But I'm so looking forward to June!  I hope that we really get to get into some harvests and start making (saving) some money! Let's get this garden in the black!

Cumulative Totals

Total Expendatures: ($204.08)

Total Harvest Ounces: 15.5
Total Harvest Pounds: 0.96875
Total Value of Harvest: $11.75

Net Savings to Date: ($192.33)
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