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Thursday, June 26, 2014

An Experiment: Garden Boxes

 It wouldn't be a gardening season without experiments!  This year, I am regrowing ginger root from the fragments left when I buy it at the store, and I am trying a new kind of slow bolt cilantro.  In addition, our good friends gave us some garden boxes that they were no longer using, so I'm trying a little experiment.

You can see the garden boxes on sale at Gardener's Supply Company here.  Basically, these are containers with a reservoir bottom that you can fill with water, allowing the tomatoes or other veggies to continually be able to access the water they need.  The company claims a 30% larger harvest than what you can attain in the garden.

I've planted these garden boxes with two volunteer tomatoes (transplanted from my pepper bins, where they were taking over) and three cucumbers, which I removed while I was thinning a row.  My theory is that the ability to put the boxes in the sunniest spot will help the production of veggies.  I also think the reservoir bottom of the containers will be helpful in this extra-rainy summer we are having, as they water will drain right through the soil, preventing water logging, but still be available for the plants to access.  Already, these plants are twice as big as when I transplanted them, and they got a late start.

So, I'll be updating this project with a full analysis when the garden box season is done.  I hope to find out exactly how much one can grow with a couple of these handy boxes, because this could demonstrate the power of vegetable gardening for those who have only a deck, a patio, a front stoop, or a fire escape that gets sun and will remain unmolested by critters and neighbors (whichever is more annoying in your area).  I have a personal interest in this experiment, too, because if Mr. FC&G and I get to retire to Key West one year, we are very likely to have a much smaller yard that is made out of coral reef, so all of our gardening will have to be done in containers.

Have you tried garden boxes?  What were your results like?

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Welcome Grit Readers!

Exciting news!

If you've been following this blog for a little or a long while, I've been keeping a secret from you since last fall: I have an article in the July/August issue of Grit!  Entitled "How Much Does a Garden Really Grow?," it details my efforts to save money by gardening during the 2013 season.  My copy just came in the mail, so it should be hitting the newsstand soon.  I'll post a link when one is available, but those of you who buy or subscribe can see it now.

My bio in that issue includes the blog address, so I hope that some of our newest readers have found their way here from the magazine's pages.  If so, welcome!

If you are interested in following my exploits in gardening for savings, the "How Much Does a Garden Grow" series continues.  As of the end of May, we were seriously in the red, but June is bringing the first harvests of baby carrots and blueberries, so things are starting to take shape.

Also, please explore the whole site and learn more about my approach to sustainability.  I believe sustainable living is a way to be more independent and to take control of our lives.  Every time we learn to do something for ourselves, it is one less thing that others have to do for us.  Sustainable living helps us respect the environment while respecting ourselves, others, and our pocketbooks -- and that's what I call Fast, Cheap, and Good!
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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

5 Things I Learned About Life from Gardening

You know how they always say that you don't have to teach farm kids the facts of life, because they've already seen enough by adolescence to at least grasp the broad outlines?  Well, I was hardly a farm kid, but it strikes me that there are some very important lessons about how life works that one can learn in the garden.  Just looking around my little plot, beds, and containers each year, I'm reminded of the following:

1.  Not everything you wish for is born.
Oh, sure, in the garden, you get to hide this concept a little by talking about "germination rates," but every gardener knows that there will be at least one packet of seeds every year that fails to sprout or that gets washed out in a spring rain or that finally sprouts, miserably, sometime late in summer for some random reason.  Counting on everything always working as you expect is a recipe for disappointment.

2.  Some things fail to thrive.
I have a couple of tomatoes this year that I call the runts.  They sprouted just fine, grew an inch, and that is basically where they have stood since March.  Maybe they're an inch taller, but they clearly aren't the two-foot vines they should be this time of year.  In spite of my best care, they just aren't thriving.  They aren't dying, but they aren't moving forward.  Again, some of the best-made plans in life just don't thrive, regardless what you do.

3.  Your planning is a guideline, not a certainty.
When I first started gardening, I assumed I could grow a salad:  lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, and tomatoes all ripening at once.  In reality, it is more like lettuce ripening in March, radishes in June (or whenever I remembered to plant them), cucumbers and tomatoes in July, and something in the whole mess will fail or will produce spectacularly.  Plans are guidelines and best-case scenarios, not certainties.

4.  Something will surprise you with its success.
Last year, I was disappointed in my tomatoes, but I had so many cucumbers I ate them at every meal and kept the entire family awash in bread and butter pickles for the year.  Maybe I would have preferred a better balance, but I enjoyed the heck out of picking a basket full of cucumbers every day for a few weeks.  You have to embrace your successes where they come.

5.  There's always next season.
As long as you plan to plant again, you have hope for the future.  Gardening is a great lesson in maintaining hope, because you are making a tangible statement that you believe in something that will happen in the future.  No matter how bad things seem, putting a seed in a pot and letting it (hopefully) start is a message to the universe that you plan to be around for a while.
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Friday, June 13, 2014

Strawberry Jam with Balsamic and Black Pepper

As I mentioned Monday, last Friday was our you-pick strawberry day. This year, in addition to "plain" strawberry jam, I decided it was time to try something a little more "grown-up."

Strawberry jam with balsamic and black pepper fits the bill.  The balsamic and pepper cut the sweetness of the jam a bit and give it just a bit of heat.  I plan to serve this on the weekend with some local, GMO-feed-free bacon and some buttermilk biscuits.  Yum.

Disclosure:  "Grown-up" or not, I still think this stuff is wonderful in a PB&J.

Strawberry Jam with Balsamic and Black Pepper
4 cups crushed strawberries
7 cups sugar
2 T. balsamic vinegar
2-3 t. whole black peppercorns, crushed
1 package Certo pectin

Crush hulled and trimmed strawberries with a potato masher and place 4 cups in a large pot.  Add sugar, and place over low heat until sugar is melted. Add about half of the crushed peppercorns  Raise heat and bring to a boil.

Add pectin and return to boil. (If you wish to skim the foam off, this is a good point to do so.)  Add balsamic vinegar and remainder of peppercorns to taste.  You really will want to taste the mixture as you add, because you don't want the heat of the peppercorns to overcome the sweetness of the fruit.  I wound up using slightly less than a tablespoon of whole peppercorns for my batch.

Can in half pint or pint jars, leaving 1/4 to 1/2 inch headspace.  Process in boiling water canner for 10 minutes, then remove and cool.

The Analysis
Fast:  The entire batch of jam probably takes me 90 minutes, counting washing and hulling the strawberries.

Cheap:  Making a specialty jam like this doesn't cost much more than the "plain" version, but it will be cheaper than buying a specialty jam in the store -- if you even can find flavors like this!

Good:  I really enjoy this jam, and I think you will too!
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Monday, June 9, 2014

Four Things to Do with Strawberries

Friday was strawberry picking day, one of my favorite days of the year.  We head out to the local you-pick farm and come home weighed down by strawberries, the first foods of the season that need preserving to last all year.

Tradition holds that I celebrate my morning in the field by taking a nap, then hitting the kitchen to preserve the berries.  And who am I to go against tradition?

Even though it is pleasant work, it is a lot of it.  So, it makes sense to streamline your workflow, or about four hours into it you'll start to wish you'd never seen a strawberry, let alone the hundreds you are trimming and hulling.  Efficiency and continual production are key. To that end, here is how I managed the onslaught of berries:

Step One:  Hull and Make Jam
Wash and start hulling strawberries.  It helps that Friday was Netflix's release of the second season of Orange is the New Black, so I had something good to watch on my iPad propped up on my recipe stand.  I hulled my strawberries into an 8-cup batter bowl and then crushed them with a potato masher.  When I had enough crushed strawberries, I was ready to make and can jam.

I use the Certo Strawberry Jam recipe to make my basic strawberry jam.  This year, I packed the strawberry pieces very tightly into the jars, filling spaces with the liquid.  This left me with a pot full of strawberry liquid, ready for step two.

Step Two:  Can Strawberry Syrup
By straining the remaining syrup into pint jars and processing those alongside the jars of jam, I had two pints of strawberry syrup, plus some leftovers for the fridge.  My fridge batch had cooked long enough that it set up into jelly (expected with the addition of pectin), but the canned jars did not set entirely.  Therefore, this is ice cream topping and the base for strawberry soda made with carbonated water from our Soda Stream.

Step Three:  Finish Additional Batches and Freeze Berries
I also made a batch of "grown-up strawberry jam" this year, which is Strawberry with Balsamic and Black Pepper.  I'll share that recipe in a coming post.  But once that was done, my jam cabinet was full of strawberry jams for the year, so I hulled and froze the remaining berries.  I use my grandmother's method of dusting the berries with sugar and packing them into quart freezer containers.  Although they soften a bit over time, they retain a lot of great flavor and bright red color that way.

Step Four: Make Strawberry Iced Tea
Finally, what to do with those strawberry hulls and tops that are piling up?  They make great strawberry iced tea!  Take a half-gallon Mason jar and fill it halfway with strawberry tops.  Fill with warm water and iced tea bags (the number will depend on the size of the bags and of the container you use -- figure on about 6 individual serving bags for a half gallon container).  Let the tea steep on the counter while you make jam, clean up the mess, and get distracted by your TV show.  When the tea is as dark and strong as you like, strain out the hulls and store the finished product in the fridge.  The tea will have a nice strawberry tang to it.

The Analysis
Fast:  Any preserving activity takes some time, but I think I got a lot of product for a day's investment in work.

Cheap: We paid just over $21 at the you-pick for our berries, and about that much again for organic sugar and pectin.  Our final haul of product compares pretty favorably to any store-bought option of comparable quality.

Good:  Strawberries are some of my favorite berries, so this was a yummy project to complete!
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Thursday, June 5, 2014

How Much Does a Garden Grow: May 2014

One step forward, two steps back, it seems.

May, as expected, was a month of increased expenditures and no harvests.  As promised, I bought additional seeds, organic fertilizer, and plants for the garden, while nothing growing was ready to harvest.  So, we are more than $70 more in the red this month than we were at the end of April.

There's a lesson here, though, and one that I wish business leaders would be forced to learn:  If you insist on continual profits posting at the end of arbitrary periods, you never will be poised for truly big growth. 

What I mean is this:  We posted income in the form of harvests through the first four months of the year, but those harvests were really the result of the previous gardening season.  I run my "fiscal year" January to December, in no small part due to the fact that I have time to fuss with spreadsheet set-up in the dark of winter.  But those harvests of citrus fruit came from blossoms that set fruit last summer, maturing over the winter.  The harvests of greens came from throwing some of last year's seeds into our indoor planter box in January and slowly harvesting the result.

The real gardening season begins in April or May, and plants and seeds put into the ground in May will not bear fruit by the end of the month.  But these are some of our biggest crops:  squash, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, and basil.  Depending on the year, any one or two of these crops can vault us into profitability in the garden, but we just have to be patient enough to wait for it.

Maybe I should start a gardening camp for CEOs where they can come learn this.  I can charge thousands of dollars to have them weed my garden and flip my compost pile, all while we discuss the futility of insisting on "increased shareholder value" at the end of every arbitrary fiscal quarter.  Call me, corporations of America!

So, I'm waiting.  I'm weeding.  I'm thinning and transplanting; mulching and fertilizing; and tressing and training.  And I'm hoping that by the end of June I'm enjoying the fruits of my labors again.

Cumulative Totals
Total Ounces Harvest: 20
Pounds: 1.25

Total Value of Harvest: $13.04
Expenditures: -284.24

Total: $-271.20
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Monday, June 2, 2014

The Power of Consumer Feedback

I was visiting the farmer's market this past Friday, and I was struck by the number of local meat providers who had signs explaining that they don't feed their livestock GMO feed.  The GMO issue has really gained some traction in the past six to nine months, so clearly no one had time to change their farming practices.  But those who already avoid GMOs listened to their market, and they used their packaging and advertising to provide the information their consumers want.  I made sure to load up on meat from our favorite farms, none of which use GMO feed in raising their livestock.

A similar thing has happened with my favorite yogurt. The yogurt market is a very competitive one right now, with Greek yogurts taking over where other traditional styles once held sway.  I don't personally care for Greek yogurt; in fact, the only kind I really like is the Yoplait Whips, which is a mousse-style yogurt.

I want to include some yogurt in my diet as a light lunch or to make sure I'm getting some of the valuable probiotics, but I wasn't willing to eat the Yoplait Whips because they were sweetened with HFCS.  But recently I picked up a container, and there it was: a notation that there is no HFCS in the Yoplait Whips.  I immediately added two or three containers to my cart.  I think the power of consumer concern is at work there.

I'm not claiming that this is a perfect product -- I would prefer it be made with organic milk (to avoid growth hormone) and perhaps contain a little less sugar.  But the elimination of HFCS has allowed this product to move from a "definitely not" to an "occasionally, sure" part of my diet.

It's all about the power of the consumer's voice.  We have to tell our food providers what concerns us about food production, and then we need to reward them for taking the right steps with our food dollars.  I'll keep buying the yummy meat raised with non-GMO feed, and I'll enjoy a Yoplait yogurt on occasion.  Maybe, if they make the move to use milk that comes from cows that haven't been given growth hormone, I'll make it a daily indulgence rather than an occasional treat.

Have any of your favorite food providers "cleaned up their act?"  Tell us who is doing it right in the comments below!

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