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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow? Spring Peas


Welcome to the first official installment of "How Much Does a Garden Grow?"

In mid-March, just before we headed off for a much-needed week in the subtropics, Mr. FC&G and I put up the pop-up greenhouse over the garden soil, let the soil warm up, and planted peas and carrots.  We returned to find pea sprouts, and we harvested peas all through June.

Today, I took down the pea vines.  I could have left them for a few more days and a few more pods, but they were getting woody, and besides, the cucumbers growing right beside them desperately need the trellis to grow up.  Peas were always intended to be a spring crop that would make way for the summer cukes.  Today, I realized the cukes were heading toward the squash and zucchini and reaching out their little tendrils, and I had to do something before I had menage-a-squash on my hands.

Upon doing the math, I realize that the peas were a much greater success than I expected.  At one point, I was afraid that it would be a better economic deal to just eat the pea seeds from the pack rather than go to the trouble of growing them, but I was quite wrong.

I planted about two-thirds of a pack of Sugar Bon peas, for which I paid $3.25.  From that, I harvested 3.18 pounds of peas, which we ate both as young pods and mature peas.  I could have upped my poundage by letting them all mature, but the pleasure of peas comes from munching them in both forms.

In the first part of the season, I could find Sugar Snap peas at Meijer for $2.49 a pound.  I could not find an organic version when I looked, nor did I see any readily displayed at the farmers' markets when I went.  So, had I wanted to purchase 3.18 pounds of peas this year, I would have paid $7.94 for them, and I would not have had an organic option that I could easily find.

Subtract the cost of my seeds (which I will plant the remainder of this fall, but I will subtract the full cost because I could not buy a partial pack), and I saved $4.69 by growing peas myself. 

Mr. FC&G just breezed by and commented that the peas also netted us "sanity," by which he means that he could start throwing me in the greenhouse barefoot when I became moody a good month or two earlier than usual.  He is also correct in pointing out that we would not have purchased peas at all, so growing our own enticed us to consume additional nutrients and fiber. 

The Analysis

Fast:  As long as you warm the soil for germination, peas are a fast-growing crop, and easy to grow.

Cheap:  As you see above, a $4.69 savings resulted.

Good:  Fiber, nutrients, and yummy spring goodness. 

2011 Tally to Date:  3.18 lbs of crops; $4.69 saved
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Monday, June 27, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow?


When we were newly married, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to determine how much money my garden saved us from our normal grocery bill, and I came up with close to $1,000.  At the time, the garden was much smaller, as were food prices, but I was using garden food to replace a lot of expensive prepared and packaged food that I had gotten used to as a single person.  Therefore, it was easy to say that having a garden shaved about $20 a week off the grocery bill for 50 weeks of the year.  Now, with a much larger garden and food prices through the roof, I thought it was time to do a different sort of calculation.

This summer, I will be running an experiment and a blog series called How Much Does a Garden Grow?  Each column (and a summary at the end of the primary garden season) will examine how much (in pounds and in some cases raw numbers) of each crop I am able to bring in and attempt to put a retail price on each crop.  I'll compare this retail price to the investment in seed/plant costs where possible and determine whether each crop is a money-saver or not.  At the end of the season, we should have a pretty good idea how much produce my garden generates and what the retail value is.  A few ground rules, if you plan to follow along:

  1. I will not be collecting weight data on leaf veggies and herbs, as that could get slightly insane.  Suffice it to say that I will note which leaf veggies we grew and whether it was a good year for them (so far, not so much).  I will also try to do an end-of-season tally of dried herbs and spices and give you a cost guess-timate for what those filled spice jars would cost me at the store.
  2. I will not change my gardening behavior.  That is to say, if I eat peas or strawberries or cherry tomatoes while weeding, I will not be weighing those.  If I eat a bunch of them, I'll put my thumb on the scale at the next weighing or something.  But I don't want to give up that pleasure for the experiment.
  3. I will collect at least one comparable price for each crop at a retail establishment.  When possible, I will get the price for the organic version of the crop, since we grow organically; when I can't, I will note that.  When possible, I will also get a farmer's market price for the crop and will report that too.  However, the price I will use for comparison is the one most readily available at my handiest retail source -- likely a grocery store -- because I want to know what this produce would cost me if I simply shopped for it without additional effort in my day.  My garden is ultra-handy, since it is right outside my door, so I want to compare with a source that feels almost as handy.
  4. I will discuss how the garden changes our eating habits.  As a preview, consider veggies like zucchini.  If I'm having a good zucchini year, we will make zucchini pie in place of making or (shudder) ordering a pizza or going out.  If a $5 zucchini pie (counting price of cheese and crust), which generates at least one dinner for two and a couple of lunches, replaces an $18 trip to Noodles & Co. (our go-to desperation dinner), then I will include that in the commentary.
  5. I will also occasionally feature value-add projects, like food preservation, and talk about how much those projects save (or don't).  However, the final tally will be poundage and total price of garden output.
  6. I will not make a regular point of discussing investment of time.  Gardening is my summer hobby.  I would garden even if it cost me money overall, which I'm sure it doesn't.  If I didn't garden, I would do something else -- probably, take more dance lessons, which would be a really expensive substitution!  Therefore, I'm not going to tally my hours and try to get a living wage out of the project.  However, I will comment here that, if one so desired, gardening would be a more-than-adequate substitution for time exercising in the gym.  I'm not going to put my gym membership on pause (which would drop it from $35 a month to $10) because I like to swim and take the exercise classes, but if I wanted to, I could easily pause my membership at minimum for the months of May-September for a savings of $125.  That will not be in the final tally either.
At the end of this, I hope we all have a better idea of how much a suburban garden will grow, what crops are the best money-savers, and which are a labor of love!  If you have other ideas for data collection, please leave them in the comments!
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Friday, June 24, 2011

Sustainable Glassware for Leftovers


Note:  See here for a correction about the foraged wild strawberries.

Like many of you, I'm trying to reduce the amount of plastic in my life, particularly that which comes into contact with my food.  Plastic, particularly that which contains BPA, can leech hormone disruptors into your body, certainly not a good thing.  Plus, I have always thought I could taste the plastic when something acidy (like soda pop) is stored in it or when it is used to microwave -- and if I can taste it, there is something there I don't want to eat.

However, we all keep turning to plastic storage containers for leftovers -- they are cheap, stackable, sealable, and transport easily to work or into your microwave.  I've looked for a substitute, and luckily market forces are on my side this time.

What you see above are glass containers with sealable plastic lids from (bottom to top) Pyrex, Rubbermaid, and Ziplock.  All of them go from freezer to fridge to microwave to oven to table (sans plastic lid, of course).  All have the benefits you want plastic for -- that is, the sealable lid.  But all of them allow you to remove the lid, reheat the food, eat, and go about your merry way.

Are they perfect?  No.  They will set you back a bit more money than plastic substitutes, although they will last longer and stain less.  They do have plastic in the lid (although at least one of the above said it contained no BPA), so I'm careful to let my leftovers cool before I put them in so there is no condensation off the lid.  And of course I don't cook with the lids on.

However, they are easily stackable, and they come in a variety of sizes if you are packing leftovers for lunch.  I commend these companies for responding to consumer demand and trying to give us options that are healthier.

The Analysis

Fast:  In some ways, these are -- if not faster -- easier to use than plastic containers because they have more structural integrity and are easier to hold and to stack in the fridge.

Cheap:  No, these are not cheap.  Even with coupons you can spend $5-$8 for each of the sizes I show above.  Theoretically, they will last longer than plastic and therefore have a lower cost per use, but if you are on an extra-tight budget the price of these could be a barrier to entry.  I like to pick them up one at a time when I have a coupon and some extra in the grocery budget.

Good:  While not a perfect solution, these go a long way toward letting you keep your food out of contact with plastic.  And that's something worthwhile.
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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Oregano Blossoms


One of the best parts of gardening is being able to select your fruits, veggies, and herbs at the stage at which you like them best -- if you love green tomatoes or baby zucchini, they are there for you without the need to pay a premium price.

One of the luxuries I like is dried oregano blossoms to use as the herb oregano in lieu of just using the leaves.   The blossoms, picked just before they open into a pretty white flower, have a really intense oregano flavor and smell, even when dried.

This year is shaping up to be a great year for this sort of thing.  We had a long rainy spring, followed by a heat wave, which means that many of my young herb plants are misreading the signs and thinking it is time to bolt -- that is, shoot up and blossom so as to produce seeds.  My young oregano plants are sending up stems with blossoms on them, and I picked a bunch this morning to dry and save to use as an herb this winter.  It helps the plant be more productive, and it gives me the luxury of using almost exclusively blossoms in my cooking.  You can bet that isn't usually one of your options on the grocery spice rack!
The Analysis

Fast:  Pick a few stems, rinse, and pop them in the food dehydrator; in a few hours, you have concentrated herb goodness!

Cheap:  Drying food and herbs is one of the cheapest methods of preservation out there.  To maximize the electricity used with an electric dehydrator, I try to make sure I have at least 3 of the 5 trays full.

Good:  If you are growing oregano this year (and it isn't too late to start for most gardeners, as it grows quickly), try saving some of the blossoms.  You'll be pleasantly surprised at the intensity.
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Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Praise of Volunteers


My cilantro reseeded itself last year, giving me quite a free crop of the herb (and, soon, coriander) without any intervention from me.  I have dill coming up on its own all over the property.  I found a leek growing in the leek bed that I didn't have to purchase, and the tired old potatoes that I planted after cleaning out the potato bin have sprouted and show every sign of generating potatoes.  And this is all not counting the tomatoes that grow up everywhere I have spread finished compost -- I have a row of 10 of them I have transplanted into the garden, and there is a new little tomato sprouting out of the compost at the base of nearly every carefully-nurtured "purebred" seedling that I have planted in the garden.

In my world, these are called "volunteers," plants that so badly want to be part of your garden that they don't wait for you to ask them.  I once read a blog where the writer spoke of painstakingly "weeding out" all the volunteers so that they didn't disturb her perfect greenhouse plants. I think Mr. FC&G had to revive me with smelling salts.  I was horrified.

For me, volunteers are free food.  Not only free, but free food from plants I didn't have to start from seed!  Epic win!

One of the traditional objections to volunteers, especially volunteer tomatoes, is that they don't breed true to the mother plant unless you are careful about growing only heirlooms.  And even then, they don't necessarily breed true.  I actually love this part; we typically get a variety of volunteer that is clearly the result of the crossing of some long-ago grape tomato with a juicy slicer; the tomatoes are the size of golf balls, pleasingly round and red, and very juicy.  I have a hard time bringing any of those in from the garden, because they seem like a ready-made snack while I'm out working.  Seeing the crosses that develop, suited just for your own microclimate, is part of the fun.  And if you are worried about accidentally growing a sterile hybrid, think of it this way:  a plant that doesn't produce viable seeds this year won't be a volunteer "problem" next year.

I have so many volunteer tomatoes this year that I could probably have grown exclusively volunteers and still had close to 40 healthy plants.  I still like to start my seeds myself in the winter, but I am always excited to see what the volunteers will bring and enjoy guessing about their parentage. 

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go harvest some dill and coriander for the spice rack, from the plants that required nothing from me but a helping hand at harvest and the willingness to allow some seeds to remain on the plants to go into compost.

The Analysis

Fast:  Certainly, a plant that pops up on its own and gives you food is not a time-consuming endeavor for the gardener.

Cheap:  Again, volunteers are free food.  Can't get better than that!

Good:  Allowing plants to adapt to your microclimate and return year after year is a net gain for all.
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Monday, June 13, 2011

Dried Strawberries


Saturday, Mr. FC&G and I made our yearly sojourn to the u-pick strawberry field.  The farm has had a tough year; the variable weather has made the berries small and sparse on the plants.  But the plants were sending out lots of runners, and I think there is hope for next year's crop to be much more robust.

Once we got home, I started the process of preserving the berries.  We had plenty of jam, so no need to make more.  Ditto on preserves.  (The difference between jam and preserves is the amount/source of pectin.)  We even had some frozen ones left from last year, so I froze fewer than usual.

So, I decided to dry some berries as an experiment.  I dried two trays in my food dehydrator, which gave me about a half pint of dried berries, and I think I'm going to have to (gasp!) disagree with the wisdom of my beloved Putting Food By and say that this is a must-do!  The berries are concentrated sweetness, and I'm envisioning adding them to a batch of muffins for a wonderful treat.

To dry, simply wash and hull the strawberries and cut them in quarter inch slices.  Place on the dehydrator trays and dry for 4-6 hours, until rubbery.  I store my jar in the freezer to further keep them stable, but obviously I could keep them on the shelf if need be.

I think food dehydrating is a great skill to explore; it is especially helpful given the skittishness of the grid around here these days.  With the power going out every time we get severe weather (and severe weather seeming to come more often), dried and canned foods will be the ones I am not worried about losing.

The Analysis

Fast:  Not as fast as freezing (because of time spent slicing berries) but faster than making jam, this is a good preservation technique.

Cheap:  The only input other than berries is electricity, and even that is not needed if you have (or build) a solar drier.

Good:  Seriously yummy.  Can't wait to try them in muffins!
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Friday, June 10, 2011

The Havahart Trap


I've made no secret of our rabbit problem around the micro-farm.  Seriously, these little guys (and gals, most often) are so cute in the spring, but by summer they become an army of defoliators.  Something had to give.

Enter the Havahart trap.  This little beauty is available from one of my favorite stores, Lehman's, and it performs as advertised.  The bunny enters the trap, trips a bottom plate, and finds himself confined by two end pieces that drop, enclosing the trap.  He is unhurt, leaving him for you to do with as you wish.

We caught our first rabbit the other day, and we immediately took him for a little ride out to a nice country field, where he could make new friends and life a happy life.  If you so decided, this would also be a good trap if you wanted to catch your prey live and later consider it what one of my sustainable living books euphemistically describes as "added protein" from your garden.  Your call.  We decided on catch-and-release.

At $50 for the rabbit size, this may be the ticket to keeping the rabbits out of the garden.  And with food prices spiraling out of control in the store, we could recoup that investment very quickly.

The Analysis

Fast:  The trap is easy to set up and safe to use.  There is nothing sharp or dangerous to hurt you or your prey, and it is easy to carry away without ever touching the animal inside.  A foot lever allows you to release your bunny once you get to his new home.

Cheap:  I consider this a good investment in gardening. 

Good:  The best thing about this trap is that it allows you to treat the rabbit very humanely.  I realize that, in the best of all possible worlds, the bunnies would prefer to live out their lives eating my tomatoes, but barring that, this is a good option for relocation.
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Monday, June 6, 2011

Not Nonna's Ricotta Cheese


A couple of years ago, Mr. FC&G and I started to make our own cheese, using Ricki Carrol's Home Cheese Making as our guide (there's an affiliate link below).  Although we haven't yet progressed to hard cheeses like Cheddar, we enjoy making our own mozzarella when we can find milk that is both hormone-free and not ultra-pasteurized, a harder task around here than you might think it would be smack in the middle of the Midwest.

Anyway, when we mentioned this to Mr. FC&G's father, he told us that he remembered his Italian grandmother, Nonna, making her own ricotta from the whey left over from cheese-making.  Ricotta means "recooked," and it is a way to strip the last proteins from the whey in order to get every available bit of cheese.

My father-in-law said that Nonna would just reheat the whey to nearly boiling, then "throw in some vinegar" and get ricotta.  So, the next time we made mozzarella, we got the whey up to a good simmer, and introduced a tablespoon or so of cider vinegar.  A little ricotta formed, but not much, so we figured we were doing it wrong.

"He said, 'throw,'" Mr. FC&G said.  "Let's try that."

So, we took aim and threw the vinegar at the whey.  Nothing.

"Nonna was Italian; she surely said something special during cheese making," I ventured. 

"Mangia!" we yelled, the only Italian we knew.  Nothing.

"Perhaps Nonna was actually Greek," we guessed, yelling "Opa!" at the whey as we introduced the vinegar. 

Nothing.

"Maybe Nonna was really a sailor," I suggested.  And we swore heartily at the whey, which responded by producing nothing.

By now, we had a pot of really vinegary whey, and we gave up.  The next time out, we made Ricki Carroll's whole milk ricotta, and it worked perfectly.  We figure that ricotta really is a super-low-yield cheese, made even lower in yield by the fact that modern rennets and acids strip nearly all of the protein from the milk on the first go round.  We've made whole milk ricotta ever since, and we always think of Nonna.

Not Nonna's Whole Milk Ricotta
Up to 1 gallon whole milk (It doesn't matter if it is ultra-pasteurized, thank goodness.)
1 tsp. citric acid, dissolved in 1/4 cup water

Combine milk and dissolved citric acid, and heat until milk is between 185 and 195 degrees.  As it reaches its final temperature, you will see ricotta form.  The whey will be clear and yellowish.

Remove ricotta with a slotted spoon and drain in a fine sieve over a bowl until you reach desired consistency.
And think of Nonna while you do it.

The Analysis

Fast:  You can make a batch of ricotta in under 30 minutes.

Cheap:  Your ricotta will be cheaper than store-bought.  Use the leftover whey in any baked good that asks for water, such as bread. Your bread will have a crispy crust and a more robust flavor overall.  That's a double savings.

Good:  Personally, I will eat homemade ricotta when I won't eat store bought, so I obviously think it tastes better.



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Friday, June 3, 2011

The Bean Bench


The only thing I regretted about the addition of the Key West sunroom was that one of the new walls eliminated the little stoop that I used to sit on to do little garden tasks, like snapping beans, braiding garlic, or stripping the flowers off dried lavender.  It was a sunny, sheltered little spot that I really enjoyed.

Lucky for me, our suburban neighborhood seems to be really good about sitting useful but unwanted things out to the curb.  We've salvaged a large footed planter bed that way, and we just got rid of an unwanted patio chair by sitting it out by the curb.  Everyone seems to drive by the freebie item for a couple of days until it is clear that it is up for grabs, and then someone claims it.

Last year, after the sunroom was installed, I expressed the need for a bench on which to sit and snap my beans.  Lo and behold, the next week a neighbor set out an old rocker bench, on which the bottom rocker was broken.  After we drove by it for a couple of days, we picked it up.

Mr. FC&G removed the bottom rocker, and then the weather turned cold.  The icy winter did a nice job of removing any remaining stain on the bench, and I had plans to paint it in March or April.  But we did not have two days of good weather back to back for over two months, and then my schedule got busy as well.

Finally, I manage to get four cans of spray paint (two of which we bought with a gift card) and I gave the bench a couple of good coats and moved it by a sunny wall just outside the sunroom.  For a total expenditure of $8.50 in paint, I now have a lovely little bench to sit on while I snap my beans.

The Analysis

Fast:  The project did take a little time for removal of the broken parts and painting, but it was all a pleasant task.

Cheap:  A total investment of $17 in spray paint, for which we only were out of pocket for $8.50.  I could have purchased cheaper paint, but I did want the kind and coverage that came in the spray cans.

Good: This is now one of my favorite outdoor spots, and certainly adds a bit of charm to the container garden area.
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