Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Protecting the Seedlings

As I might have mentioned, my critters are crazy.  Rabbits cozy up in the shade of the carrot fronds, squirrels bounce with great enthusiasm off the fence and into the garden, and chipmunks burrow under anything they can't climb over or squeeze through in order to get at my tender plants.  It makes gardening a challenge when, as happened this year, one day I have a beautiful row of peas sprouting in a greenhouse, and the next day I have a row of weeping little seedling stumps.

We have tried everything we can think of to fence the critters out, which was making the garden messy-looking and was doing more to keep the gardeners out of the garden than the critters.  So this year, we are trying a new approach, and so far I am happy.

What you see above is a little tunnel of hardware cloth (that metal mesh stuff you can use to make fences or screens) with openings about a half inch square.  Mr. FC&G bent these pieces of metal into a half tube for me, and then I shoved them in the ground over my newly-planted seeds and put bricks over the open ends.  So far, it is protecting the seedlings while they have those yummy first cotyledon "leaves" that the critters so like to munch.  I plan to take them off when the seedlings have a set or two of real leaves, because by that point the critters seem to not like the taste quite so much.  Vertical gardening then allows me to at least attempt to keep my tomatoes and cucumbers with the fruit hanging high enough that most critters can't reach it.  (Although rabbits will go to great lengths for Black Krim tomatoes!)

The Analysis

Fast:  Much faster than fencing, we just bent some half-tubes of hardware cloth and shoved them in the ground over the seed rows.

Cheap:  Also much cheaper than fencing, because you protect just what you are growing with just enough "fencing."

Good:  So far, so good, anyway.  I'll keep you posted about whether this continues to work, but I think I may have succeeded in protecting my seedlings.

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Lessons from Living on a Food Stamp-Sized Budget

If you read extensively in the food and sustainability media (which I assume you do if you are here), you can't have escaped the news that celebri-chef Mario Batali has just spent a week living on a food stamp-sized budget.  He is doing this in protest of proposed cuts to the program, and I have no doubt that he experienced a real change in the way he eats. I will therefore resist making too many cracks about him potentially missing his white truffle oil.

Many bloggers run a "food stamp challenge" for themselves in an attempt to better understand the food situation of those in poverty, and some conclude that it is government subsidies that are critical to the good health of these citizens.  This may or may not be your conclusion, but I thought it would be interesting to compare my own food experience with that of the food stamp budget to see what complexities emerge that might make this problem more than just a simple problem of governmental transfer payments.

I generally keep track of the money Mr. FC&G and I spend at grocery stores and farmers' markets.  I make no effort to restrict us to items that would be allowed under the food stamp program, so along with our pasta and potatoes, these figures tend to include the odd bottle of injector cleaner, an area rug, or a grinder of Himalayan sea salt.  For the first four full months of 2012, we had the following totals:

  • January:  $557.87
  • February:  $354.82
  • March:  $308.55
  • April:  $466.68
  • Overall Average:  $421.98
The SNAP budget for a family of two is $367 per month, so you will note that for two of our four months, we actually spent less on groceries than the SNAP program would have allowed.  The average expenditure puts us just $55 over the SNAP budget, so we are not eating at the poverty level, but we are certainly not overspending for a DINK household with two healthy incomes.

So what are the complicating factors?

  • Our list here doesn't include restaurant meals, which probably average one per week.  On the other hand, these were four pretty good months to choose, because Mr. FC&G was not travelling for business and doing a lot of eating out on per diem reimbursements.  These totals are more or less what it took to feed us.
  • We were not eating badly.  We eat hormone-free cheese; local, free-range eggs; local, grass-fed beef, and free range chicken.  I suspect the SNAP program administrators would blanch at the $6.50 I just paid for a pound of grass-fed stew meat.  We make extremely healthy choices.
  • On the other hand, we have the ability to make those choices.  Looking back on my grocery tallies, there were days that we went to three different grocery stores and a farmers' market to get our food.  We can drive anywhere we wish to source our food, and we can (and do) choose to spend up when we are at a farmers' market, because we want to keep our local providers in business.
  • We have the money to stock up.  Part of this tally includes a stock-up spree on organic vanilla that Mr. FC&G undertook when reading of threats to global vanilla supply.  We regularly stock up on pantry items like flour, honey, olive oil, and other things when we see a good price, whether that throws us over the SNAP budget each month or not.
  • We have a garden.  Although these four months were certainly the most garden-free of the year, we still were eating canned and dried foods from last summer, and I expect our monthly outlay will drop very shortly as I start bringing in fresh produce.  We have the land and the tools and the knowledge to produce our own food.
So what does this mean?  Well, for me it indicates that we must do a better job using space, particularly urban spaces like rooftops, to allow more people to grow and produce food to live within a budget.  One of the differences between the experience of the poor historically versus now is that it used to be common for residents of tenement buildings to keep chickens for meat and eggs.  Although I can't imagine how that must have smelled in apartments with too many people and too few windows that opened onto air shafts, it points out that we have required the poorest members of our communities to be divorced from the sources of their food.  Changing the SNAP budget one way or the other won't make anyone's life more sustainable.

As always, I don't want to turn this into a political blog, not least because I believe that caring people across the spectrum look at the problem and propose a variety of ways to solve it.  However, my take-away from my analysis is that it is not just a question of budget, it is a question of time, knowledge, and ability to pursue procurement of the kinds of foods we want to eat to stay healthy.  When we have those tools, we can even throw the occasional choice from the automotive section in there.
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Monday, May 21, 2012

A Husband with Camo Netting

Mr. FC&G and I worked very hard on the garden last week.  ("Yeah, too hard to blog about it," you grumble.  Fair enough.)  But probably the highlight of project was his innovative use of camo netting, which you see at the right.

As always, we are in the process of claiming more of the backyard for garden space, and Mr. FC&G was busting sod to connect the main garden with the blueberry "patch."
I used this area to put in my zucchini seedlings, and I bemoaned the fact that, even though they were hardened off, it is hard on them to be transplanted when we have such sunny days coming up.

"What if I shield them with camo netting?" he asked.

Now, how many husbands will build your seedlings a little tent, and how many of those actually own camo netting?

You can see the results to your right, along with some cages to protect the beans until they are old enough to fend for themselves against the critters.

In other garden news, I put in 64 tomato plants, and I have to say I am more nervous than ever.  Last year was such a bad tomato year that I am terrified I have lost my tomato mojo.  I desperately need a more typical year of bringing in tomatoes in baskets and bowls and having an August in which I can tomatoes every other day.  We will have to see, but I have done my best.

What is growing in your garden?
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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Bounty of Volunteer Dill

See that?  That's 12 oz. of dill.  Three-quarters of a pound.  And I did absolutely nothing to produce it except walk outside this morning and snip it off and put it in the herb drier.  (My house smells heavenly right now, by the way.)

Dill is a miracle of re-seeding itself, and I do nothing to stop it.  Although I harvest as many seeds as I can each fall for use as an herb and to purposely sew the next year's crop, I know I am always taking many seed heads with perfectly good seeds right back to the compost pile, where they wait all winter and come back up where I spread the fresh humus in the spring.  This year, it was in my containers for my peppers.

I always grow my peppers in my large outdoor containers, which means I don't transplant my seedlings until it gets reliably warm.  That means that even though I might prepare the containers as early as March, I don't really do anything with them until late May.  And this year, they sprouted a bumper crop of dill.

I cheerfully ignored it.  It was doing fine without me, and we had a garden to broadfork and seedlings to start and seedlings to set out and compost to sift and sod to bust.  The dill could take care of itself.

But this weekend I will be setting out my pepper seedlings, so I need my containers.  So this morning I walked out with my herb snips and came in with an armful of dill weed, just waiting for me to dry it, bottle it, and use it all winter in my cheesy potato soup.  It will lend a fresh, gourmet taste to whatever it is cooked in, and I didn't have to pay a dime for it.  Imagine if you tried to buy that much dried organic dill in the spice section of the grocery?  Imagine if you tried to buy three-quarters of a pound of fresh dill in those little plastic clam shells in the produce section!

I feel like I just got a windfall.  And I didn't have to do a thing.

The Analysis

Fast:  Total time invested thus far in my spring dill crop: 5 minutes for snipping.

Cheap:  I never count weight of my herbs in my "How Much Does a Garden Grow" tally, because generally weighing your herbs as they are harvested is a pain.  I will, however, count this in retail value when I tally up herb and spice savings at the end of the season.

Good:  Freshly grown, organic dill.  What can I say?
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Friday, May 11, 2012

Sustainable Tool: The Warren Hoe

Headed out for some gardening paraphernalia this weekend?  If so, I highly recommend you treat yourself to one of these:  a warren hoe.

The warren hoe has a head that is shaped like an arrowhead, with a point at the end and flattened sides.  I find that this makes it the perfect tool for precision breaking of dirt clumps, which are so prevalent with our clay soil, and then scraping the newly pulverized dirt where ever you want it.  Therefore, this is my favorite tool for working in the potatoes, burying the new stems under a cascade of soil.

I also find that the warren hoe allows me to weed much more effectively than does a traditional straight-head hoe.  I realized that one of the preferred techniques for the traditional hoe is to "scrape" the weeds away, but I am much more of a hacker when I weed.  I want to really chop those suckers out of there, and the warren hoe allows me to do so with much less risk of hitting a vulnerable tomato stem.  Of course, I can always scrape as needed with the sides.

With gardening, it is really true that working with a quality tool can increase your enjoyment and therefore increase your work time.  I love my warren hoe.  What is your favorite garden tool?

The Analysis

Fast:  I get my weeding done faster and with more precision with this tool.

Cheap:  Cost will depend on quality.  Get something well-made enough to withstand some "hacking" if that is your preferred technique; you don't want that head flying off at an inopportune moment.  On the other hand, you really don't need to invest in those expensive "decorative" tools with the copper heads.  You are going to get it dirty anyway.

Good:  A tool for tomatoes and potatoes and summer happiness.  I'll take it!
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Monday, May 7, 2012

Random Acres

Lest you think that my garden is always a triumph of proper planning (ha!), let me introduce you to the area that I fondly call "random acres."

Last year, as you might remember, I had a horrid onion harvest.  Most of my seed onions were still hard little balls at the end of the season, and I was so mad when we forked up the patch that I took most of them and just shoved them down into the ground again.  Maybe they'd sprout, maybe they'd rot.  I didn't care.

Well, sprout they did, both in the fall and now the spring.  Several of them are sporting thick, oniony stems that look like they would make respectable leek substitutes if I pulled them right now, but I won't be doing that.  Instead, I plan to give them a chance to see if they finally give me an onion bulb or two.

And see those little guys in front?  Those are volunteer potatoes.  I have no idea where they came from.  Perhaps I missed a few potatoes when harvesting last year; perhaps the blossoms dropped seeds.  Maybe I started putting semi-rotted potatoes from the bin into the ground to see what would happen; I don't have any memory.  What I do know is that I have seven random potatoes growing in a straight line in the middle of my patch.  I can't wait to see how they do and what they are!

Combine this with my usual crop of volunteer dill, volunteer tomatoes, and a pretty paltry showing of volunteer cilantro, and this is starting to shape up to be the season of random veggies!

What is surprising you in your garden this year?
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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

How Much Does a Garden Grow: April 2012

"The waiting is the hardest part...."

April is such a difficult month as a gardener, at least for this one.  On the one hand, it is glorious to be back outside with the dirt between my toes and a hoe in my hands, getting the soil worked, the seedlings started, and the early crops planted.  On the other hand, it feels like all of that hard work should be celebrated with a meal of fresh vegetables, but that is still some weeks away.

This month, I had zero in the way of perishable garden expenditures, like plants and seeds.  I anticipate a little more spending in May as I replace a few plants that I either killed over the winter (darn rosemary!) or that don't seem to be starting well from seed (darn Genovese basil!).  I also will probably be tempted by a variety or two of plant that I hadn't considered growing before; they always seem to find their way into my cart.  However, I do note that keeping a record of my spending this way has already eliminated my temptation to buy a random plant at the grocery just because it would put me in a better mood to do so.  This is all (or mostly, or somewhat...) about the profit!

I also only harvested 3oz. of produce, in the form of my usual Swiss chard and green onions.  Grand total of my retail value of the April harvest was $1.08.

However, I suspect we are very close to getting some real harvest started, as the frisee lettuce is nearly big enough to start snipping, and I have some over-wintered carrots that I suspect will soon be big enough to start pulling.  (Let's call that "thinning" instead of "harvesting out of impatience."  It sounds better.)

I will also note that I was wildly excited to see my total harvest for the year has finally grown over half a pound.  Pretty soon, that will be more like a daily harvest total, and then pretty soon it will be a few pounds a day.  I look forward to those late July/early August days when I can pick the garden both morning and afternoon.

2012 Tally to Date
0.5625 lbs. total harvested
$1.08 value of harvest for April
$160.25 expenditures for 2012
-$156.59 loss to date
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