Monday, October 31, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Leeks and Peppers

Behold, the silliest cold frame ever constructed!  Thank heavens we have an opaque fence around the microfarm, because the neighbors would think we're nuts.  But under this miracle of engineering constructed by Mr. FC&G lies a crop of carrots and the rest of the crop of leeks.

For right now, we are going to sum up the 2011 summer gardening year as follows:

Leeks:  As I mentioned, I still have the leeks going, and I have probably a dozen under the cold frame.  Thus far this year, I have harvested 45 leeks, most on the small side to total 58 ounces.  The price for trimmed leeks at Trader Joe's was 50 cents an ounce, giving me $29.00 of leeks.

My problem was that I bought leek plants, not leek starts.  That was expensive, at $3.29 per plant.  Next year, I will buy the starts.  Nonetheless, although I show a loss right now, my leeks will come in about even when the season is totally done.

$29.00 of leeks (3.63 lbs) - $39.48 of plants = -10.48

Peppers:  Would would have thought that peppers would be the last crop I finished bringing in?  However, yesterday I harvested my last pepper.  I grew 50 peppers of various kinds this year, for a total of 24 ounces.  A comparable pepper at Trader Joe's was $1.59 for half a pound, so I grew $4.77 retail worth of peppers.  I used about one pack of seeds, depending on saved seed and leftover seed for the rest.  That is an expense of $3.29, and a profit of $1.48

2011 Tally to Date: 126.44 lbs of crops; $244.71 saved

So, overall a bit of a disappointing garden year, even though it isn't done yet.  On average, my gardening this year brought in more than 10 pounds of veggies per month in the year, and saved me $20.  So, even a bad year was a kind of triumph.

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post.  I will discuss the lessons learned and the FC&G analysis, and I'll tell you how we will be considering "How Much Does a Garden Grow" in the future.  I think you'll like the new plan!
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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Herbs

As the summer gardening season winds down, and we are about to strike a total on how much the garden grew (we still have leeks and peppers finishing up outside), it is time to consider herbs.  This is where the garden really gets some bang for its buck.

Herbs are a tricky thing to measure.  As I stated at the outset, I didn't weigh most of them, but I'm going to do a rough tally of how many store-jar-sized amounts I used and/or dried for winter use.  For many of the plants, this will be an underestimate, because the plant would in most cases have given even more than I harvested.  However, with herbs, I try to harvest enough to use myself and to share with family and friends.  I am comparing to organic dried herbs available from my local Meijer, except for some specialty crops for which I got prices on the internet.

Many plants are also perennial, so there was no investment in the plant this year in some cases.  For others, my local greenhouse had a price of $3.29 per plant.

Dill:  I love dill.  It goes in pickles in the years that we put dill pickles up, and it goes in my cheesy potato soup.  It is hard to dry enough dill to get me through the year, but I put up about one jar worth.  My dill grows from seeds that I gather each year, so no up front cost.  Store price: $3.39/jar.  Profit: $3.39

Basil:  Strange basil year.  I put in two Genovese basil plants, and I lost one to wilt.  Nonetheless, I did put up two half-pints of frozen basil in oil, which I use to make pesto.  I prefer this to the dried variety, and I have some dried left from a prior year for applications that need it.  I will estimate that my one plant gave me about three jars' worth of basil, counting that I used this summer.  Store price: $3.19/jar x 3.  Plant cost:  $3.29.  Profit:  $6.28

Sage:  I can't believe I used to pull the sage plants out at the end of the season and buy new ones each year!  My sage bushes have been growing for three years now, and they give far more sage than I can use -- and I use a lot.  I probably use at least three jars' worth, and I will give my mother at least two.  Sage is expensive at the store, too, at a price of $5.79 per jar.  Profit: $28.95

Coriander:  My cilantro and coriander (coriander is the seed of the cilantro plant, if you didn't realize this) reseeds itself each year.  We never use as much cilantro as is available, but we do use it to make several Latin American-inspired meals in the spring, plus we put up some coriander for use in making sausage in winter.  Let's say the whole thing was one jar's worth.  Profit:  $3.19

Marjoram:  I bought a marjoram plant last year on a lark, and I find that I like it in pot roasts and in sausage.  I dried about 2 jars' worth this year, with no plant cost.  Store price: $3.39/jar x2.  Profit:  6.78

Rosemary:  My rosemary bush is alive and thriving in my front window, giving me all the rosemary I could possibly use year round.  I like rosemary in potatoes, and I may use a jar's worth over the course of the year.  Profit:  3.19

Thyme:  Bad pun, but I literally never have enough thyme.  I purchased one plant this year to compliment the two or three I already had growing in a pot.  I dry as much as I can, but it doesn't add up to much.  Perhaps one jar worth over the course of the year, but I love it.  Store price: $3.39/jar.  Plant cost: $3.29.  Profit: $0.10

Oregano:  Like my marjoram, my oregano plants are perennial, but I put in new plants this year of a variety I like better than my old plants.  I put up about two jars of dried oregano flowers.  Store cost:  $3.39/jar x 2.  Plant cost: $3.29 x 2.  Profit:  $0.20

Feverfew:  Feverfew also comes back each year, and thank heavens, because it is my secret weapon against my headaches.  I'll keep the plants going as long as I can before they die back and go dormant, and I will probably try to bring one inside.  Organic feverfew capsules are $10.89 for 90 days.  I try to take feverfew year round, but it is hard to estimate how much fresh plant is equivalent to the dried herb, so I will pretend I replaced one bottle's worth.  Profit:  $10.89

Lavender:  Finally, lavender.  Some people use this in cooking, but I use it primarily as a potpourri. I love to put some in the powder room in the winter to remind me that summer is coming.  I dried an ounce, which is equivalent to $1.37 online.  Profit: $1.37

Our lesson here?  Grow other crops to take care of prepping and independent living needs, so definitely get proficient with growing potatoes, squashes, beans, and tomatoes.  But if you are gardening purely to save yourself money (and flavor all of those potatoes and beans!), you need to grow herbs.

Herb Total:  $64.34  (And, just for giggles, let's call that a pound of herbs.)

2011 Tally to Date: 121.31 lbs of crops; $253.71 saved
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Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pattern Review: McCall's M5551 Apron

Confession:  I'm an apron girl.  I do a lot of canning and food preservation, and that inevitably leads to splashes and stains, so having a nice stack of aprons is an investment in preserving expensive clothes.  But on top of that, I just like the retro-prettiness of having an apron while I cook.

For a while, I have been planning on making a full-coverage apron, much like farm women have worn for decades.  This weekend, I finally got around to making McCall's pattern M5551, and I think it was a success.

The pattern includes four apron styles:  a gathered apron with a bib front, a gathered apron with no bib, a butcher's apron, and the one I made:  a front-and-back sheath style apron.  The apron I made is lined with the same fabric from the front (although I guess you could mix and match), which means you need about 5 yards of fabric, plus a bit for the pocket.

I made a couple of alterations to the pattern.  I didn't create a button hole in back where the slits join, because I didn't make a deep enough slit to need buttoning; I just needed to get my head through.  I did put a decorative button at the base of the slit, to cover a bit of pucker I had there.  (I used to be really good at these kinds of openings, but I guess I'm out of practice.)  I also didn't do side ties, but instead created a self-belt that was sewn to the back and which wraps around the front.

The apron turned out pretty heavy, which Mr. FC&G pointed out will be nice in the winter.  I think future versions will not be lined, because that will save on fabric and make them lighter.  I also will position my self-belt up a little higher, or perhaps experiment with side fastenings that are not ties.  The pocket is cute but is not necessary if you don't want to spend on the fabric.

All in all, I recommend this pattern.  I plan to get some denim the next time there is a sale and make Mr. FC&G a butcher's apron, since he spends so much time in the kitchen.  Expecting him to wear my flowered aprons is probably a bit much.

The Analysis

Fast:  This entire apron probably took me four hours to make, and I am not the fastest seamstress on the planet.

Cheap:  Oops.  I fell in love with a fabric that was not on sale, and I didn't even wait for a coupon.  Five yards of it ran up significantly.  Next time, only sale fabrics, and no self-lining.

Good:  Wouldn't a nice new apron brighten your day?  It did mine!
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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Are You Freezin' Yer Buns?

Here in Zone 5b in Ohio, we have been blessed with a really mild fall, almost as if Mother Nature is apologizing for the three months of March weather followed by two months of August weather that passed for a growing season this summer.  I haven't seen a real frost yet (although one is due this weekend), and we have had spells of 80-degree weather in October.

But now it is chilly in earnest, and it is funny to watch the Facebook posts to see when my friends turn their whole-house heat on.  "I give up!  I'm turning on the heat," they all seem to post.

However, our heat is still off, and I hope to keep it that way for a while, as do many other hearty and potentially slightly-crazy bloggers.  This territory of "keep it off as long as possible, then keep it as low as you can" definitely belongs to The Crunchy Chicken, who every year sponsors her Freeze Yer Buns Challenge, in which she asks for commitments to keeping the heat off, then keeping it set to the lowest levels that still allow for livable conditions.  For the past several years, I have played along with 65 degree day temps and 57 degrees at night.

If you are playing along this year, let me suggest that the way to minimize that heat bill is to heat the smallest possible space you can stand.  So here's my strategy:

Heat Yourself:  In graduate school, I lived in an apartment building for which the heat was included in the rent, and believe me, I used to pride myself on being able to wear tank tops in January in that place.  Now that I'm paying for my own heat and not feeling so cavalier about such resources, I bundle up.  As I write this, I am wearing a pair of yoga socks over a pair of fleece socks, and my feet are nice and toasty.  So, your first job when the temps dip is to put on a sweater, just like Dad told you long ago.  "What, do you think we're made of money?  Put on a sweater!"

Heat Yourself and Your Immediate Environment:  I can't say enough good things about fleece quilts and lavender bed-warmers, warm mugs of cider and hot bowls of soup.  These heat your body and keep heat in the immediate environment, like a bed or a couch.  If there is anything to be said for winter, it is the joy of cuddling up with your spouse or pet under a quilt and reading a nice book.  So, don't think of it as a frugal move -- it is an indulgence!

Collect Heat from Passive Sources:  If anything around you is creating heat, we want to capture that for the room or house.  So, open the curtains on south- and west-facing windows if it is sunny, vent your dryer indoors if you have a good layout and set-up for that, and catch up on your baking (leave the oven door open after you finish).  If you take a hot shower, open that bathroom door to the bedroom so that some of the heat rolls out (a little humidity probably won't hurt you either, especially when the heat really does come on and dries out the house).  Try to avoid passing up free heat and then paying for heat later.

Heat Just a Room:  I work from home, and I write, so most of my work-time is spent at a desk.  There is no need to heat 3,000 square feet of house when what I really need is a space heater at my feet.  We also successfully heat the family room with our wood-burning fireplace insert; by closing the doors to the family room/kitchen area, we can have a cozy little evening and weekend retreat and not ever turn on the whole-house heat.  Then, we microwave a bed warmer or two and escape up into a cool bedroom that is made pleasant by the bed warmers and fleece quilts.

The Analysis:  Freeze Yer Buns Edition

Fast:  Speed really isn't a factor here.  Preparation is.  If you are ready to employ these strategies, you will.

Cheap:  That's the name of the game here!  Avoid turning on that heat, and avoid the bill that comes with it.

Good:  Remember, it isn't deprivation.  It is extra money (or needed money); it is a game; it is an indulgence.  You aren't depriving yourself, you are making a lifestyle choice for your own benefit.
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Monday, October 17, 2011

Beef and Leek Pie

(I just realized how many of our main dishes are in pie or pasta form!  Oh, well, they all taste different!)

As we have discussed, grass-fed beef can be significantly more expensive than corn-fed, CAFO-raised beef.  However, the expense is worth it to us for the increased nutritional value as well as the increased sustainability factor.  Grass-fed beef smells better (even raw), feels better in the hand, and tastes better, even to me (and I'm about 90% vegetarian). 

However, when you are paying $5 a pound for ground beef, you want to get the most out of it.  So, this weekend, we made beef and leek pie.  (Actually, we made two of them, since Mr. FC&G devoured the first one in two days.)  The recipe stretches the beef with the addition of pie crust, garden veggies, and some leftover beer.  It was so good, I had two pieces over the weekend, which probably hits my meat quota for the month!

Beef and Leek Pie

1 double pie crust
1 pound grass-fed beef
3 medium leeks, diced
5-6 small tomatoes, diced (I used yellow tomatoes, which accounts for the yellow tone of the pie above)
1 cup beer (We had some specialty beers, including one I received as a speaker's gift.  The more robust the beer, the more you taste it.)
1 T flour
1 t. dried thyme (optional)

Make your pie crust.

Brown ground beef in a skillet and drain (we don't need to, because the grass-fed beef we get is so un-fatty).  To the ground beef, add leeks and tomatoes and saute for a couple of minutes until the leeks are wilted.  Add the beer and the thyme, and bring to a simmer to let some of the alcohol and liquid cook off.

Add the flour and cook until the broth thickens.  Put mixture in the pie crust.

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until pie crust is done.

(Optional:  If you don't like leeks and/or don't have garden tomatoes left, you could use a pint of canned corn as your veggie.)

The Analysis

Fast:  Not the quickest meal we've ever made, but pretty do-able when both Mr. FC&G and I are cooking.

Cheap:  This relies on garden veggies and herbs to stretch the expensive meat.  If you are buying meat, beer, and crust ingredients, the whole thing would probably come in at about $8 to create an average sized pie.  To save yourself another buck or two, I highly recommend giving speeches at venues that pay in exotic alcohol!  (Right now, I'm on the "will speak for lunch and booze" tour.)

Good:  If you are a meat eater, this is a well-balanced meal and a yummy hearty option on a chilly fall day.  It was particularly welcome after we spent the day putting the garden to bed.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

In Praise of Natural Yarns

When I was a little girl, my mother taught me to crochet.  She bought me my very own crochet hook, which I picked because of its shiny blue color, and probably because the size -- J -- made it feel like it was monogrammed.  I still use that hook today. 

Back then, your only yarn choices were acrylic.  (In fact, most of your clothing choices were of non-natural fibers too; it was the 70s, after all.)  Acrylic certainly is easy-care, but it tended to be scratchy, and it never had the feel of a nice homemade item.  Today's acrylics are much better, and they are well-suited for some applications.  However, they aren't quite the sustainable choice that one might hope for.

As gardening season gives way to more time inside, I spend more time on crocheting, knitting, and sewing, and I thought I'd share some of my favorite yarns.  All of these are used for our products over at Carrot Creations, and they would make fine choices for your own sustainable textile arts projects.

From left to right:

100% Cotton:  Cotton is, of course, a natural fiber, and these basic cotton yarns (once called "kitchen cottons") come in a wide range of twists, ombres, self-striping patterns, and solids.  They also wear extremely well.  I have kitchen towels that I have had for a decade made from these yarns, and they are still going strong.  Ditto for some socks that have gotten hard wear for two or three years without fraying.  Items made from this yarn will have a little "give" in them, and you can also shrink them a bit by drying them. 

100% Organic Cotton:  All of the benefits of cotton, plus organically grown.  This is my favorite yarn, not just for the sustainability credentials, but also because it crochets up fluffy and warm.  Because of the way the yarn is spun, it has the most "give" in it, and it is super-soft.

Bamboo/Wool Blend:  This particular yarn seems to take the dyes very well, so some of the most vibrant colors come in this yarn.  Bamboo has some antimicrobial properties, so this is a good yarn for socks or other items that you will use during exercise.  Because it does contain wool, you will want to wash it by hand or on cool, and lay flat to dry.  If you accidentally wash it on hot and put it in a hot dryer, it will felt on you.  (Guess how I learned this.)

Bamboo/Cotton Blend:  This yarn crochets up with a very light, silky feel, making it a good summer item option.  It combines the benefits of bamboo and cotton and gives you the lightest weight product of the four yarns.  Because it is a finer yarn than the others, you will be using a smaller hook and doing more work, but the yarn is very pleasant to handle.

What are your favorite sustainable yarns?
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Great Tomato Experiment

If you are following me on BeGreenInfo (and you totally should be!), you may have seen my recent post about Extending the Growing Season.  Especially with the ultra-funky weather we had this year, I need to squeeze every spare day of growing season out of the year.

This year, I'm trying an experiment that so far seems to be working.  If you still have a healthy tomato plant, particularly one you grew in a container, I invite you to play along to see if we can get some winter tomatoes!

This year, I had a ton of volunteer tomato plants, and I also had a lot of finished compost.  So, after I finished top dressing the garden, I started filling large pots with the beautiful humus, and in one I put a variety of leftover veggie plants to see how they would do.  I put a pumpkin vine, a cucumber vine, a pepper plant, and a volunteer tomato.

The tomato quickly took over the pot.  It grew three feet tall and smothered the other plants, but it didn't give any fruit.  I chalked that up to uneven weather and the fact that I had a volunteer in there rather than a container-specific variety.

However, a couple of weeks ago, a cold night was threatening, and I looked at this lovely healthy tomato plant with some tiny buds, and I couldn't bear to let it freeze.  So I brought it into the sunroom. 

The buds quickly opened.  Not knowing if it would really take to self-pollination or if it needed some help, I got out my trusty paint brush and went to work, going from flower to flower and brushing the pollen.  I sang some Barry White tunes to put the plant in the mood.

Lo and behold, I now have about six small tomatoes that are growing by the day.  I'm very hopeful that I will have a few tomatoes to harvest later than ever before.  If I could eat a fresh tomato on my mid-November birthday, I will be a happy girl indeed.  Just to up the odds, I'm going to keep singing Barry White.

What tricks are you using to keep your garden producing?
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pumpkin "Gnocchi" with Rosemary and Leek Butter Sauce

Last year, I bought half a dozen pie pumpkins with the intention to freeze the flesh and roast the seeds.  This was my first foray into having some winter squash around, and I was really glad I did.

I saved a few of the seeds for growing this year, and I got a couple of plants started.  Unfortunately, the bed I planned to put them in is still a work in progress, as Mr. FC&G has to chop stumps out of it, and he ran out of steam when the weather started getting unusually hot.  So, I put two or three seedlings in the side he had finished, and I hoped for the best.

Well, chalk it up to a new bed, new location, etc., but I got only one pumpkin from the plants.  I really didn't care:  this was a new bed, so I wasn't losing any space that could have gone to other crops, and the seeds were a freebie from buying the pumpkins.

To use my "bounty," I just made the following:

Pumpkin "Gnocchi" with Rosemary and Leek Butter Sauce

3 c. flour
1 t. salt
3 eggs
Flesh of one small pie pumpkin, baked until soft and removed from skin
Water as needed

Combine all ingredients and roll into "snakes" on floured cutting board.  Cut off small slices to make a small dumpling shape, and boil.  (Mine were a bit big -- stick with penny or dime sized slices.)  The pasta is ready when the dumplings float.  You will have to do this in multiple batches unless you have a really huge, wide pan to boil in.  The pasta stays nicely warm in a pan on the back of the stove.

While the pasta cooks, combine:

1/2 c. butter
1 leek, chopped
1 sprig of rosemary, finely chopped

Saute the leek and rosemary in the butter. 

When you have your pasta ready, dress it with the butter sauce, and serve with sea salt and fresh cracked pepper.

This is a great way to get some Vitamin A in your diet with the pumpkin, along with all the benefits of fresh, free-range eggs and healthy leeks.  It is also a great vegetarian option, because I guarantee you won't want meat with this -- the dumpling "gnocchi" is quite meaty in texture.

How Much Does a Garden Grow?  Pumpkins

So my lone pumpkin was 10 ounces, and I paid nothing in seed costs.  Last year, I was able to get pie pumpkins for 50 cents each, but this year, everywhere I went I found exorbitant prices.  The best I found was $2.49 each, for non-organic pie pumpkins.  I'll use that price.

2011 Tally to Date: 122.31 lbs of crops; $189.37 saved
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Friday, October 7, 2011

Flavored iced tea

An unseasonably warm day, and a glass of iced tea, waiting for me to escape my office and go out in the sun.  Ah!
With the garden slowing down, I have a number of other sustainable living projects to share with you.  However, today I thought I'd keep it quick and simple and give you this idea:  flavored iced tea.

Adding flavor to iced tea is nothing new, but I had the desire to to find some flavor without adding sweeteners of any kind.  Because we are less active in the fall and winter, I need to cut a few calories from my diet, and my daily Pepsi Throwback habit isn't cutting it from a weight or budget standpoint.

So, I made sun tea, but in the half gallon jar I also put one bag of vanilla chai tea.  The vanilla imparts a sweet flavor and the chai gives some spice, so I don't really crave the sugar at all.  This will be a nice change!
The Analysis

Fast:  If you are already making sun tea or refridgerator tea, it is no trick to pop a bag of flavored tea in there.

Cheap:  The cost of the extra tea bag is only a few cents; if I can eliminate 3-4 Pepsis a week, I will save over $1 and as much as 600 calories.  I am also not paying for the transportation of water.

Good:  I'm enjoying this as a beverage, and it is much more responsible too. 
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Tomatoes

Tomatoes are one of the first crops the home gardener attempts, or at least they should.  If you have read Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, you know that the conditions under which commercial tomatoes are grown is pretty unacceptable, and having your own for two months out of the year beats insisting on "imports" for 12.

In spite of a pretty bad tomato year, I still got a profitable tomato harvest.  I brought in 28.5 pounds of ripened tomatoes, and 10 pounds of green tomatoes to ripen in the house.  At two places in town, organic tomatoes were $2.99 a pound, and I am sure that they were picked before they turned red and allowed to ripen in transit.  Therefore, I'm counting the entire 38.5 pounds at full price.  This gives me a tomato value of $115.12.

I spent about $15 on seeds this year.  I always get so many volunteers that I have switched to starting just a few seeds to try new varieties or introduce some new genetics into the mix that produces the interesting crosses suited for our microclimate.  In this case, relying on seed and volunteers kept me profitable, because buying 10-12 plants at $3 each could have wiped out a good chunk of my relatively anemic little profit.

I think this was a bad tomato year for most of our area, yet we did eat a good number of tomatoes and canned a couple of pints.  I'm not excited about the result, but like all good gardeners, I immediately think, "wait til next year!"

2011 Tally to Date: 121.68 lbs of crops; $186.88 saved
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Monday, October 3, 2011

How Much Does a Garden Grow: Onions

(Note:  I know the photo quality of the above isn't great, but I also thought it was kind of a pretty shot as-is, with all of the smeariness.)

So, as we start to wind down on the garden tallies, it is time to talk onions.

I know nothing about onions.  I know that root crops have a difficult time in the clay soil of Ohio, even the patch of the garden that has been worked and improved and mulched and generally loved since the day we broke sod on this garden.  But I love onions and love a good storage crop.  So I ordered onion sets this spring and put them in the ground.

At first, they seemed to be going gang-busters.  I had beautiful onion greens above ground, and I even carefully snipped just a few to use in my spring cooking.  With 300 sets in the ground, I anticipated a failure rate of one-third and looked forward to 200 onions to eat from our cellar all winter.

Well, not quite.  The heat came all at once, and the little buggers bolted on me!  All at once, I had all of these onion flowers in the garden, and everything I read told me not to let them do that, else they would put all their energy into seed formation rather than bulb formation.  I was out every day snipping off flowers and throwing them to the ground in the hopes of getting some volunteers next year (we'll see). 

When the onions finally stopped blooming and their tops yellowed and bent over, it was theoretically time to harvest.  What I got was 6 pounds of the tiniest onions you can imagine; I have to use three of them to equal one medium onion.  Even worse, a number of the sets didn't sprout at all.

Well, I was (and am) pretty ticked off.  Who takes a loss on onions, after all?  I shoved the unsprouted sets back in the ground, and they are all growing even as we speak.  There may be a 2011 garden wrap up sometime early in 2012 if I mulch these and they actually deign to give me full size onions.

All in all, I don't know if I'll grow onions again.  I usually give any crop three tries before I give up, but organic onions are readily available in the grocery for $1 a pound.  Using that as a base price, it cost me $12.95 in sets to get $6.00 worth of onions. 


2011 Tally to Date: 83.18 lbs of crops; $86.76 saved

(Next up:  tomatoes, peppers, leeks, and herbs)
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