Monday, June 27, 2016

It's All About the Greens and the Blues

June has been all about the blueberries and the greens, two crops that are insanely expensive to buy at the grocery and the farmers' market.  Around here, a 5 oz. clamshell of pre-washed organic greens can go for about $4, while a pint of blueberries at the farmers' market this week was $6.  That makes these two early crops some of your best bets for saving money while boosting nutrition and eating more locally, to say nothing of the boost to your self-sufficiency.

We've talked about growing greens already this month, but growing blueberries can be fairly low-effort as well.  Your biggest task will be protecting the fruit from birds, which we will discuss.

Blueberries come in early, mid-season, and late varieties, and many growers like to have a mix to extend their blueberry season.  As it turns out, the only blueberry bushes I have that survived a couple of icy winters are early varieties, so that's what I'm going with.

Often, your bushes will need pollination from another variety, so be sure to check the tag or the catalog description to make sure you are buying enough varieties to secure a good crop.  I like Stark Brothers as a source for my fruit trees and bushes, because they are so good about telling you what varieties to buy together.

Blueberries famously love an acidic soil, so they can be challenging in lower parts of the Midwest like where I live.  I mulch them once or twice a year with pine needles, which will acidify the soil a bit over time.  Currently, I have one really large, mature bush and two that are just a bit smaller. From just these three bushes, I've been bringing in somewhere between three and six ounces of blueberries a day for a couple of weeks, which is enough for me to have a cereal bowl full of blueberries every night and Mr. FC&G to have some on his ice cream.  It may not sound  like a large harvest, but if I bought this amount at the farmers' market, I'd be spending around $1.50 a day on blueberries.  It adds up, especially when you are a writer with a variable income and delusions of needing to buy beachfront property.

The one task you will have is protecting your ripe fruit from the birds.  Mr. FC&G has experimented with several netting and cage designs, and I think he really hit on a winner this year: a three-sided structure made out of tall garden stakes and fine-gauge fencing, with netting over the top and front.  I can just push the netting aside to go into the enclosure to harvest.  Right now, that structure is over just one bush with an old pop-up tent over the other two, but I have plans to, ahem, encourage him to expand it.

Blueberries do take a couple of years to get large enough to bear fruit, but once they do, they will be an early-season source of savings, sustainability, and self-sufficiency.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

What You Need to Know about Growing Greens

For this post, I have to give an anonymous shout-out to one of my friends who asked about techniques for growing lettuce, or, more specifically, greens. (I use the term "lettuce" to mean only certain varieties of leafy greens, while "greens" to me also encompasses the tasty, hearty leaves that are sometimes called "potherbs" because they cook up well.)

If you grew up in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, or 80s, your mental picture of lettuce is probably of a head of iceberg lettuce. While this kind of thing is ideal for cutting into wedges and making a "so old it's hip again" lettuce wedge salad, head lettuces of any kind are often not your most efficient use of your gardening time or money, to say nothing of the fact that you are neglecting an entire group of greens that will just grow and grow for an entire season.

Let's talk a little about the basic types of greens, or lettuces.  Most common, as I suggested, is the head lettuce. Iceberg is one such variety, but so is romaine and bibb.  These lettuces grow a head that you then cut off at the soil line. The benefit, obviously, is that you have an entire head to make a large, family salad, and many of these lettuces have highly-desirable flavor profiles that are mild enough to make them great for sandwich wraps and to serve as a background for the traditional tossed salad. The downfall is that, once you cut the plant off at the soil, it is probably done. Romaine will often regrow at least once, and some of the others may send up a few additional leaves, but your primary harvest is done.

The second type of green has the homey name of "cut and come again." These are greens that do not form heads, but instead send up individual leaves for you to harvest. These include some of the heartier, more flavorful greens, like kale (seen in the photo), spinach, and arugula. The downfall of these greens is that you may be standing over your lettuce bed trimming and trimming and trimming to get a decent-sized salad.  The benefits, though, are incredible.

Let's start with the fact that these greens let you really customize how much you harvest. Instead of taking the whole head, you can easily pop outside and get a handful of greens for your sandwich, something I do almost every day. They also really let you decide the stage of development at which you like your greens best. Here's a tip: if you think you don't like kale, grow some and harvest it when it is no bigger than a silver dollar instead of waiting for the big, thick, curly leaves. The flavor is actually sweet, with just a little bit of bit. It has many of the benefits of microgreens, just a little older. These greens are also very container-friendly, so you can easily grow a pot full on a windowsill or a back patio as long as you get a lot of sun. (Note: I do grown greens in the winter, too, since they are very cold tolerant, but they grow much more slowly in our sunroom, even with a grow light over them.)

Which brings me to the primary point: these greens are ultra-sustainable. Cut them (without killing an entire plant, hence the snip-snip-snip technique), and they will regrow and regrow for months at a time. You've done one planting for a good 6-8 months of harvesting. And these greens are really economical: this bed full of kale that you see above comes from a single pack of organic seeds (that I bought at Whole Foods, so I'm hardly low-balling this calculation) that I bought for $1.89. Bags of pre-washed, organic, baby greens sell around here for about $0.88 per ounce, and I've been bringing in a half ounce to an ounce every day.  I only need to harvest three ounces to be in the black with this crop, and I passed that the first week I could harvest.

So, there you have it. Hopefully, most of what you ever wanted to know about growing greens, sustainably!

The Analysis

Fast: These greens grow quickly in the summer, ready for initial harvest in 3-4 weeks; they take longer in the winter.

Cheap: See the calculation above; these are almost instantly profitable.

Good: Not only are these little guys tasty, but they give you a lot of nutrition and will keep doing so for the entire summer and well into fall!

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Random Thoughts on a Wednesday

Today, just some random thoughts about the sustainable lifestyle we try to lead around here:

  • Feverfew (seen at the right) is so pretty, I'm starting to expand my plantings from just the medicinal ones that I have in the back garden to some more decorative ones out front that are allowed to bloom. I have my eye on a spot that has been a pain to deal with for a couple of years; some perennial feverfew ought to do the trick. And it is so pretty to bring into the house for bouquets!
  • What a lovely week it has been for biking! You know (oh, boy, do you know!) that I'm not a big fan of this part of the country, but I am glad that we live within biking distance of the grocery, the post office, and the college where I teach. It is so nice to bike to those places during warm weather.
  • My two-year-old leeks are about ready to bloom, which is either a beautiful addition to my front yard flower bed or an indictment of me not being able to get myself to go harvest them this winter and throw them in a stock pot. At this point, they are far too woody to be used in anything else.
  • If you believe the news reports that the economy is in good shape, just do a financial audit on your non-essential services. I've started reviewing things like video streaming, DVR, gym membership, and the like, and cancelling the things we aren't using. Almost every one of those calls that I have made have included the company offering to "pay my bill" for a number of months if I need a break from it. That tells me that there are a lot of middle and upper middle class people who are looking for places to cut costs.
  • We are starting to bring in blueberries and peas, and the thought occurs that harvesting is so satisfying that it must be hardwired into the human brain. Along with visual, olfactory, and taste cues, there must be a tactile component to food that makes us instinctively focus on keeping ourselves fed.

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