Thursday, March 29, 2012

Sustainable Aphid Control

I love the fact that my sunroom allows me to keep a number of plants growing in the winter, including a large bed of lettuce and a couple of dwarf apple trees.  What I do not love is the infestation of aphids that I believe came inside on a tomato plant and hopped over to the trees.

Since we garden organically, spraying to get rid of the aphids is out of the question.  Luckily, Mr. FC&G did a little research, and he found that aphids are a favorite snack of the yellow-ish bugs that look like ladybugs that have infested many of the areas in the Midwest.  (I believe they are technically Asian Lady Beetles.)  In any event, we certainly have our share that pop up occasionally flying around our bathroom, and rather than eradicate them, we've put them to work!

Mr. FC&G routinely catches the beetles and gently carries them on a piece of tissue out to the apple tree, where he releases them onto the branches.  They crawl quickly to the fuzzy home of the wooly aphids and start to eat.  Surprisingly, they can clear out a fairly large batch of aphids in quick order.  And, we have turned a problem bug into a solution to our aphid situation with no chemicals involved.  I love it!
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Monday, March 26, 2012

An Onion Tale

Since I read a lot of DIY blogs, I can't help but notice that my little corner of the blogosphere is full of bloggers reporting on Pinterest-inspired projects.  I'm not immune to the lure of the pinning community, and one of the most recent ones that caught my eye was the idea of regrowing green onions from roots placed in water.

It seemed like a reasonable idea to me, but I tend to not like the idea of growing plants in water.  First, if you forget to change the water often, you quickly wind up with a funky spoiled smell that is far too reminiscent of my elementary school experience growing potato vines.  But more important, I believe that much of the nutrition of a vegetable plant comes from the quality of the soil, and onions regrown in water will not have the benefit of all that good dirt.

So, when I was cleaning out the vegetable crisper and found some very weary-looking green onions I had purchased for a recipe (and used two of -- ugh!), I decided to cut off the tops and stick the roots in a pot of good, fresh humus.  As you can see, they have rooted and started growing at an amazing rate -- what you see in the photo is about a week's worth of growth, as compared to the little stumps you can see on the side that show where each plant started out.

I love that I was able to salvage these onions and turn them into a plant that I will use many more times in some of my favorite dishes.  Now, where did I put that pierogi lasagna recipe?

The Analysis

Fast:  Just trim off the wilted tops and put the roots of the onions in some freshly-sifted humus with just a bit of the green tips sticking out.  Water regularly but not excessively, and they will quickly grow tall enough to cut again.

Cheap:  Salvaging a wasted vegetable and turning it into a plant that will generate more food is very satisfying to me.

Good:  This is sustainability at its best.
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Thursday, March 22, 2012

We've Stopped Freezing Our Buns!

See that?  Oh, sure, doesn't look like much from here, but trust me:  This is fabulous.  This is the door to my sunroom thrown wide open, letting cool breezes and positively summery air come flowing into my house.  Bliss!

As you know, every year we participate in The Crunchy Chicken's Freeze Yer Buns Challenge, in which participants are challenged to keep their heat as low as possible during the winter months.  We keep our day temp set at 65, and our night temp at 57.  This works well for us, especially because our bedroom collects all the heat in the house and is warmer than 57 degrees all night for all but the very coldest winter days.  (It is also a good 10 degrees warmer than the rest of the house in summer, too.)

This year, the winter was so mild that we had no problem with the temperature in the house (although I was always cold, no matter where I went, whether I was paying for the heat or not -- that's just how I'm built).  Then, the Midwest has been blessed with some unseasonably warm days, and we turned the heat off all together.  The heat wave actually caught me by surprise; although I intellectually knew it was warm, it didn't occur to me to shift to spring mode until one night when I discovered that my usual nighttime arsenal of flannel sheets, two blankets, one bedspread, and two quilts might be overkill.

We are now enjoying a few days of 80 degree weather, and our bedroom is warm enough that we have taken to sleeping downstairs on the couches, because I'll be darned if we are going to turn on AC in March in Ohio!  It will cool off again, and we will probably get at least one more short period in which we have to turn on the heat.  But that will be sporadic and kept to a minimum, and we will see how many days we can go without turning on heat or AC and pocketing the savings!

The Analysis:  Special "Freezing Buns" Edition

Fast:  Keeping the heat turned low is not an issue of time; it is a mindset and a thermostat-set.

Cheap:  This is the benefit for me!  If I think about it, I realize that we cumulatively rack up about 90-120 days each year without using the heat or AC, which means lower bills for us!

Good:  Save money, save gas/electric, save your sanity with the peace and quiet in your house.  This challenge has something for everyone.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Planting Potatoes

As you may remember, last year's potato crop was a disaster.  Ten pounds of potatoes from $56 worth of seed potatoes.  I was distraught.  Even worse, I had to give up my fantasy of presenting Mr. FC&G with a bushel of my homegrown potatoes as a tangible demonstration of my ability to feed our family.

This year, I'm trying a number of different approaches.  For one, my potatoes are starting in a trench.  Apparently, the little guys don't put out potatoes any lower in the ground than the seed potato, so you can either trench them or hill them or both to give them maximum under-ground space.  I am starting mine in a trench as you see here:  This trench goes about 12 inches down and is filled with my seed potatoes.  I covered them with a layer of sifted compost, a layer of the trench dirt, and some ground leaves for mulch, for a depth of about four inches.  As they show their little vines, I will add more dirt and more mulch and hopefully build a respectable hill.

Second, the Yukon Golds this year come from organic potatoes I bought at Trader Joe's for $3.69.  As you can see in this blurry iPhone photo, they were sprouting pretty well before I planted them.  All I did was purchase a bag of organic potatoes about three weeks ago, throw them in an Amazon box in a single layer, and put them in a sunny window in the dining room.  They quickly turned green and stared to sprout.  I feel pretty confident they will produce, based on the fact that last year's vines that came from store potatoes were my heaviest producers, but even if each one of these seed potatoes only gives me one potato, I'll break even.

I do have some blue potatoes on the way to supplement some blue potatoes from last year that started to sprout and went in another trench.  But at least I've succeeded in controlling my seed potato costs, and that is the first step to profitability.

Now, to get a bushel basket.....

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Crock Pot Mac-n-Cheese

First of all, my apologies for not having a "beauty shot" of this recipe.  I tried it out this weekend, and by the time we ate, we were so tired from our first real day of gardening that we just jumped in and started eating.  And leftovers rarely make pretty pictures -- and these didn't last long enough for multiple attempts.  So, you are left with a picture that is more of a suggestion.

Anyway, I have been looking for a custard-style mac-n-cheese recipe to try, and I found this one by A Whisk and a Prayer, which I found through Pinterest.  I made a few alterations to the recipe to better suit our tastes:

Crock Pot Mac-n-Cheese
1 1/2 cups milk
12 oz. evaporated milk (this is the large can; I used 2 of the little 5 oz. cans and was fine)
3 eggs
1/2 t. salt
3 cups shredded cheese (I used a mild Mexican blend and some sharp cheddar in about a half and half ratio)
12 oz. pasta (I used rigatoni) par cooked for 5 minutes
1/2 t. paprika
1/2 t. ground mustard
fresh ground black pepper
1/2 cup shredded parmesan

Grease/spray inside of crock pot with olive oil.  Add milk, evaporated milk, eggs, salt,  and the other spices.  Whisk until blended.  (Put your crock pot on low while you do this.)

Add the 3 cups cheese and the pasta and stir gently until the pasta is coated.  Top with parmesan and some more fresh ground black pepper.

Cook on high for 30 minutes and then low for 2 1/2 hours until custard is set in center and pasta is tender.  The original notes say that it can be kept on a warm setting for 30 minutes after.

I was initially concerned that parcooking the pasta would make it mushy, but that didn't turn out to be the case, especially since I used a robust pasta like rigatoni; I was able to increase the amount of pasta from the original recipe and increase the yield.  I also changed the cheeses from the original recipe to be a bit more traditional in flavor and added paprika and mustard powder.  Finally, I eliminated some butter from the original recipe that my version didn't seem to need.

The finished product was delicious, and it was just the right vegetarian main dish for our dinner with some fresh garden greens.  I think this dish will really shine as a covered dish for the holidays; just cook it slightly less time and then take the entire crock pot along and plug it in to finish at your destination.  That eliminates the usual stress about who gets to borrow the oven, and it reduces the chances the final product will be dry from sitting too long.

The Analysis

Fast:  Crock pot recipes, by definition, are not fast.  This one sort of straddles the middle, timewise.  It is not as quick as a stove-and-oven recipe, but it doesn't require enough uninterrupted cook time for you to be able to put it in the crock pot and leave for work, even for less than an 8 hour shift.  That's a bit problematic, but I think it is well suited to weekends of garden work, when you can put this together and then leave it more or less unattended (with only one temperature change) while you dig in the dirt.

Cheap:  Milk, eggs, and cheese make this a fairly expensive dish, especially if you are as picky about your dairy as we are.  However, you can cut the cost a little by making it the vegetarian centerpiece of your meal and adding vegetables on the side; you will also get 4-6 servings out of the batch since it is so filling.

Good:  Overall, I think this is an excellent addition to my mac-n-cheese repertoire.  It is dense and creamy and very much of a main dish kind of mac!

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Sustainable Bookshelf: Survival Mom

Those of us in the blogosphere know Lisa Bedford as The Survival Mom, thanks to her successful and well-written blog of the same name.  That's why I'm happy to be part of her blog ring, and I am especially happy to be able to review her book, which debuted this week.

The prepper community is, paradoxically, getting more attention and becoming harder to access than ever before.  Prepping has become the new reality show fascination, but this focus on the extremes for ratings' sake creates the impression that one would have to be partially insane to take an interest in how one would handle a disaster of any scale.  Those of us who do get started with prepping find some of the role models out there to be helpful but intimidating:  some of the more popular prepper blogs will give you tons of good ideas, but you will also lose a few nights' sleep worrying about how you will keep your family alive and thriving if civilization permanently collapses.

Bedford's book certainly gets you started preparing for the very worst, but along the way, you will also get your act in gear to better handle what I think are the most likely prepping scenarios:  extreme weather events, temporary grid problems (that is, power outages), and economic problems like job loss or inflation.

The book is organized in chapters that address some of the most common preparedness needs, like water, food storage, living off the grid, safety and security, and finances.  It includes a number of checklists, family assignments (most of which look to be more fun than scary for the young ones, even if they have a serious purpose), definitions, and Survival Mom Profiles.  I sat down and read through the book at one go, and I already picked up a number of ideas that I want to pursue further.  (Who knew that you could buy a drywall substitute that makes your walls more storm and fire resistant?  Oh, Mr. FC&G:  I have a project for you!)

Although I read the book quickly and enjoyed its conversational tone, I will be revisiting it in short order, starting to work my way through chapter-by-chapter and taking the tips that best suit my family's need to prepare.  Having an expert mind like Bedford lead me through the prepping process will help me feel better about not forgetting anything important and being sure that we are ready for the potential problems most likely to occur.

Bedford's book is a highly-readable, highly-accessible, and highly-valuable addition to any home library, whether you are preparing for an EMP grid collapse or the next snow storm.  After all, when it comes to the health and safety of your family, survival is a mom's/woman's job!

Note:  I was not compensated for this review other than receiving a copy of the book.  My opinions on this book are my own, as are the opinions expressed throughout this blog.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Greenhouse is Back!

Last year was our first year putting our greenhouse up over garden soil to get a jump on the season.  And with the absolutely pathetic gardening year that followed, I have to say that the greenhouse portion of things was the most successful.  I finally got a good crop of peas for the first time ever, and I was pretty thrilled with having a few weeks of peas to nibble fresh and to start putting in our meals.  Unfortunately, the carrots did wonderfully until we took the greenhouse down, and then their tops were mowed down by rabbits.  I really think that had a lot to do with the suddenly-hot season, which made the rabbits seek moisture anywhere they could.

In any event, we just put up the greenhouse for this year, and I can't wait to plant.  As you can see, we have the cucumber trellis deployed to catch the little pea vines, and we have our first layer of sifted compost (humus) down as well.  I have dedicated this week to allowing soil and humus to warm up, and then I will plant my peas and carrots this weekend.

The interior of that greenhouse smells absolutely heavenly with the freshly-turned soil and the fresh humus.  If ever there were a sign of spring, it must be the smell of the ground preparing to receive the first garden seedlings of the season.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Recipe Review: Strawberry Oatmeal Bars from The Pioneer Woman

I typically stick to posting recipes that I have developed or adapted, but today I have to give mad props to The Pioneer Woman, who shared this amazing recipe for Strawberry Oatmeal Bars on her Food Network show.  (I am linking out to the original site for the recipe, as I didn't alter the recipe at all and cannot claim any ownership.)

I have made this recipe twice over the past week, and I am in love with it!  It is an excellent substitute for store-bought granola bars, and it comes together quickly.  It is also filling enough that just a small square will satisfy.

A few notes:

  • The recipe calls for 10 to 12 ounces of preserves, which is an odd number to pick if you opt for 10 ounces.  Canning jars come in 8, 12, and 16 ounces, so I am using a pint and a half jar or three quarters of a standard pint to make the recipe.
  • Depending on the difference between your jam and your preserves, your final product will be more or less sweet.  I tend to fish the whole fruit out for the filling when I use my preserves (which are just fruit and sugar); if I use my jam, the bars turn out sweeter.
  • Obviously, you don't have to restrict yourself to strawberry on these.  I plan to work through my backlog of cherry jam and preserves as well, and I certainly can hit my stash of blackberry, blueberry, and raspberry.
  • This is a very prep-friendly recipe because the butter is the only item that is not shelf stable at room temperature.
  • Speaking of butter, be aware that the bars will be very jiggly when you take them out of the oven.  Give the butter and the jam/preserves time to set back up before you eat them.

The Analysis
Fast:  The recipe truly comes together in 10 minutes, with 30 minutes of baking time, which is ideal for my morning baking sessions.

Cheap:  The ingredients are few and inexpensive, especially if you can your own preserves.  Spend some of your savings on local, hormone-free pasture butter.

Good:  Although a bit more crumbly than the name "bars" would suggest, this is an excellent breakfast, snack, or dessert.

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Monday, March 5, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow? February

February has come and gone, and with it, the first stirrings of gardening to add to our yearly tally.  First, the harvest!  Just like last month, I harvested lettuce once.  With enough for two small salads, I call this about an ounce of greens for 50 cents, based on prices for chard and specialty lettuces at my local grocery.  Not much to report, eh?

Expenditures, of course, are outpacing harvest this time of year.  I spent $3.99 on potting mix, $31.00 on seeds, and $3.49 on seed potatoes.  These potatoes are just organic potatoes from the grocery that I now have sitting in a box in a sunny part of my dining room, and I'm pleased to say that they are developing little roots and have turned a nice shade of green, so I think they will be ready to plant on St. Patrick's Day, as is the tradition.

My seedling peppers are not doing wonderfully, so I think I'll put in some more seed to see how many peppers I can get started.  That said, I usually plant way too many peppers for our needs, so this might be an excuse to use one or two of my large containers for another plant.  I had some luck last year with container tomatoes, so that is a possibility, as is the idea of a container potato.

Meanwhile, we have been fighting a mite infestation on the dwarf apple trees, but I think we have it in hand.  Mr. FC&G has started broadforking the garden in preparation for putting up the greenhouse this week.  Gardening has begun in earnest.

2012 Tally to Date
0.125 lbs. harvested
$1.00 value of harvest
-$116.31 loss to date
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