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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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Thursday, May 19, 2016

My Cycles of Sustainability

I have a confession: Along with many other sustainable living experts, authors, and bloggers, I'm guilty of making it sound like sustainable living can be broken down into a lot of little projects, with a huge focus on gardening, food preservation, and vintage-style domestic arts.

This is true, to some degree. But, if you don't take a systemic view of your lifestyle, you may find that you have simply changed your daily activities without making a noticeable improvement in your life.

Remember our fundamental purpose: sustainable living means responsible use of resources. Resources include food, clothing, land, environment, time, money, health, or anything else that you may have a demand for that exceeds the supply.

To that end, I thought it might be useful to share the overall structure of my year, which I divide into three "seasons."

Season One (January-April): Focus on Earning
The winter months are cold and dreary around here, and, as you are probably painfully aware if you have been reading this blog for any amount of time, I am not exactly a cold-weather person. Therefore, I find it helpful to throw the majority of my energy behind projects that maximize my income, since it's too cold outside to do much in the way of gardening.

Major Activities
  • Work on as much writing for Hilltop Communications as possible.
  • Take on extra teaching assignments.  This winter term, I taught eight credit hours of classes in addition to my primary writing biz.
  • Add photos to the Cucumber Key Photography web site.
  • Continue to sell and work on restocking the Carrot Creations store.
Minor Activities
  • Start garden plants.
  • Do non-vegetable canning, like stock from meat bones.

Season Two (May-August): Focus on Saving
This is my favorite season. Nearly every day brings time in the garden, and I have more time to work on various projects. During this season, I focus on projects that will either generate income or save time or money in the coming months.

Major Activities
  • Keep the garden in full production. 
  • Make as many meals as possible from primarily garden products, reducing expenditures for food and improving health.
  • Preserve as much food as possible, reducing future food bills, speeding future meal production, and improving health.
  • Buy food I don't grow at the farmer's market, with lower in-season prices. Preserve any extra.
  • Institute energy saving projects, like drying laundry on the line, using passive solar heat to warm the house or open window to cool when possible, and taking advantage of long days to avoid using lights throughout the house.
  • Work on writing projects that will sell year-round, for a passive income stream. Right now, my focus is on my book-length projects.
  • Continue to maintain regular writing and photography work.
Minor Activities
  • Split wood for fall home heating, when there are many days we can heat exclusively or primarily with our wood stove.
  • Continue to stock the Carrot Creations store.
  • Catch up on seasonal home projects that weather or time constraints will make impractical later, such as weatherproofing, necessary home improvements, or even just washing and line-drying all the quilts and bedding in the house.
  • Conduct "expenditure audit," looking at things like cell phone plans, video streaming service (Netflix) useage, gym memberships, and the like, and cancelling or altering the things that no longer fit our needs.

Season Three (September-December): Focus on Processing
I've been in academia so long that I almost reflexively think the year begins in September. This is the season that many of the projects I've worked on all year pay off and I have time to think about the next cycle.

Major Activities
  • Process orders in the Carrot Creations Christmas rush. Crochet like a mad woman to continue to keep existing stock in the store as high as possible by replacing items as they sell.
  • Plan meals around canned, frozen, and still-growing garden products and other such preserved food (like chickens purchased "in season" over the summer at harvest time). Attempt to keep grocery bill low by relying on food in stock.
  • Pick up teaching load again.  Typically, my fall semester load is lighter than my winter/spring one, but that can change according to need.
  • Continue to write and photograph.
  • Institute heat-saving and -generating measures around the house, like use of the wood stove, venting the dryer inside, using passive solar heat, and getting those freshly sunned quilts out of the closet.
Minor Activities
  • Generate ideas for future writing projects.  Keep a OneNote file on each so that I can work on them year round as time permits.
  • Focus on non-food sustainability projects like rebatching soap.

And that's the system.  Is there a project or practice you'd like to see me detail in a future post?  Let me know in the comments or on the Facebook post.
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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What Happens to the Regrown Romaine?

I never imagined the degree to which my post on regrowing romaine would capture people's imagination.  It is well on the way to being the most popular post I've written, along with the post on the fleece unquilt.  This makes me happy, because, taken together, it indicates that there are a lot of people interested in making the most of things that others would throw away.

So, here are some answers to questions I've received from readers:

Q: Do you have to regrow your romaine heart in dirt?

A: The post on regrowing romaine has been picked up by several other blogs, and many of them indicate you can regrow a romaine heart in water.  You probably can.  However, I choose to put the cut off heart in soil because plants generate some of their nutrients from the soil.  I want the healthiest product available, so it's no big deal to just jam the heart into some soil and watch it grow.

Q: Does the heart root?

A:  Yes, if you place the heart in dirt, it will start to develop roots.  This allows it to grow longer and produce healthier leaves.

Q: If you cut off the new leaves, will it keep producing more?

A:  Probably not.  None of the specimens I've tried have kept growing after I've cut off the new growth. I think this stands to reason.  Romaine is not a "cut and come again" style of green that you can trim and expect to regenerate.  Instead, romaine is a head lettuce, and the intention is for the grower to cut the head at the end of the season.  We are getting something of a "bonus" head of romaine by using this trick.

Q: What is the flavor like?

A:  Pretty good, actually.  Sometimes, I find that the new head is just slightly more bitter than the "mother" that it is coming from, but I find that appealing.  I like greens with some bite to them.  If you try a leaf and decide that you have a bit too much astringency for your taste, you can always use the resulting head as a "pot herb," stirring chopped up leaves into rice or soup just before serving. That adds some much-needed nutrients to your meal while changing texture and flavor to be more mild.
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Monday, May 2, 2016

How Much Does a Garden Grow: April 2016

Finally!  We're back into production!

I'm hoping to write a post this week about the cycles of savings and income in our household, but it should come as no shock when I note that late spring, summer, and early fall are the prime times to save money on the garden.  In fact, that's where this column got it's start: I wanted to see just how much I was saving over retail with my garden, once factoring in the expenditures.

April starts the garden investment in earnest, and this month the expenditures stand at a total of $85.08.  That will go up quite a bit (probably to the $200 range) very shortly as I buy the last of the plants and seeds for the year.

The exciting thing, though, is seeing the harvest start to come in and reduce the expenditures on our way to showing a net decrease in our food bill.  This month, it was all about the baby kale (and a bit of baby romaine).  I harvested 5.5 ounces of greens for a net value of $4.84.  This is about the weight and value of a bag of prewashed organic greens from the store, so it isn't making a huge dent in the food bill yet, but it is certainly brightening up a few meals.  I've enjoyed a great deal of this in wraps that I've made for lunches; baby kale makes a great addition to some Swiss cheese for a nice vegetarian wrap, and you already know that I've put it on some pizzas.

I'm pretty sure the majority of the harvest through May will be greens as well, as I have kale, romaine, and mesclun already started, and I want to get some arugula started as well.

But for now, I'm plenty happy with my start to savings!

Cumulative Totals

Expenditures: $85.08

Harvest Total Oz.: 8.5 oz.
Harvest Total Lb.: .53125 lb.
Harvest Total Value: $5.59

Net Annual Savings:  -$79.49
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