Monday, December 28, 2009

Some Garden Economics

Today I made rosemary focaccia using the recipe from the blog Stephen Cooks. I heard about the recipe first, though, through Farmgirl Fare.

The rosemary I used was from my yard, and it’s a good thing that my plant is large, because the recipe calls for 4 tablespoons of chopped rosemary. Until I saw the growing pile of stems on the counter, I didn’t realize how many little leaves it was going to take to get to 4 tablespoons of chopped herb. However, chopping the leaves was more fun than I expected.

Since rosemary from the grocery store costs $1.99/oz, for the kind that isn’t grown following organic farming practices, this is one of those times when growing my own saves money in addition to tasting great.

The Cheap Vegetable Gardener reported in his blog last winter about some research he did into the economic value of garden crops, and his study showed that herbs and salad greens in general give a good dollar return on the space they take up.

To calculate economic values, he used someone else’s list of production values per square foot for the different crops and then went to his grocery store (Safeway) to find prices for the organically grown versions of the crops to use in calculating monetary production per square foot of garden space.

Of course, rosemary isn’t on the list of garden crops that were evaluated, probably because it is a perennial shrub that isn’t usually included in food gardens, but plenty of other herbs are on his list.

While his method of determining values may not be the way Arizona Extension conducted their research into the economic value of garden crops, and the list likely isn’t perfect for every gardener since the data for production per square foot are from Seattle (P-Patch garden) and prices per unit of veggie/herb vary somewhat across the country, The Cheap Vegetable Gardener’s list is fairly extensive and provides information that can be used by ordinary gardeners in making decisions about what to grow when dollar value of the food produced is an important factor in choosing what to grow.

The Cheap Vegetable Gardener’s list (note that prices in some cases are for ounces rather than pounds):

“Vegetable USD Value/SF
Cilantro $ 21.20
Arugula-Roquette $ 20.92
Green Salad Mix $ 17.55
Chives $ 16.40
Dill $ 16.40
Lettuce $ 16.20
Tomato, Cherry, small & medium $ 15.57
Turnip $ 9.90
Tomato, large $ 9.50
Squash, Winter $ 8.40
Tomatillo $ 8.00
Cucumber $ 7.74
Basil $ 6.63
Radish, Red $ 6.22
Pumpkin $ 6.20
Chard, Swiss $ 6.14
Celery $ 6.00
Squash, Summer $ 5.96
Choi $ 5.70
Peas, Snow $ 4.50
Pepper, JalapeƱo $ 4.50
Squash, Summer, Zucchini $ 4.17
Onion, Bunching $ 4.14
Pepper, Bell $ 3.60
Brussels Sprouts $ 3.59
Carrots $ 3.56
Rhubarb $ 3.25
Squash, Winter, Butternut $ 3.20
Kale $ 3.07
Grass, Lemon $ 3.00
Peas, English $ 3.00
Onion, Bulb $ 2.63
Radish, White $ 2.60
Bean, Bush $ 2.51
Peas, Edible Pod $ 2.50
Artichoke, Globe $ 2.40
Cabbage, Chinese Napa $ 2.24
Squash, Winter, Delicata $ 2.10
Spinach, Spring/Fall $ 1.80
Leeks $ 1.75
Potatoes $ 1.50
Parsnips $ 1.50
Garlic $ 1.37
Squash, Summer, Yellow $ 1.34
Parsley $ 1.31
Corn $ 1.25
Squash, Winter, Acorn $ 1.20
Squash, Winter, Hubbard $ 1.20
Eggplant $ 1.10
Greens, Mustard $ 1.10
Rutabaga $ 1.00
Beet $ 0.89
Cabbage, Savoy $ 0.80
Broccoli $ 0.80
Kohlrabi $ 0.75
Cauliflower $ 0.60
Broccoli, Chinese $ 0.60
Cabbage $ 0.50

Now, most of us are not going to live on, say, cilantro alone, so some common sense will have to be used along with the list in making decisions, but I am glad to have confirmation that the bits of space in my garden given over to herbs like parsley and cilantro are space well-used in economic terms.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Great Gift

My youngest son wrote a garden-related haiku for part of my Christmas present, and, when I asked, he said I could post it here:

Everyday we eat
Tomatoes, carrots, parsnips
That once was horse poop

Hope everyone else has had a happy holiday!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Our Rainy Year

A 14 December article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that this has been the 7th rainiest year on record for Atlanta, with a current total of close to 64 inches of rain. Atlanta's annual average is 50.2 inches, substantially less than has been reported for this year so far, and the rain we've had has fallen in great gushes rather than as an inch or so a week evenly spread through the year, which would have made gardening a lot easier.

The heavy rains in spring set back planting by at least three weeks for most of us, and September's flooding drowned a lot of the seedlings that would have filled our fall gardens. In between, though, July and August were dry enough that I needed to water my garden!

The NOAA Rainfall Scorecard site for Atlanta (the Peachtree City weather station) shows that Atlanta had 8.94 inches of rain in September, but my yard had more that month, so I am thinking that my yard might have passed the Atlanta total.

According to my blog posts for September, I had measured close to 10 inches of rain in September BEFORE the Big Rain, which brought at least another 10, and then it rained again after that.

The official NOAA records are from Peachtree City, south of Atlanta, and that may account for the difference. However, next year, I may have to keep better track of my yard's rainfall, using an additional rain gauge to check against, so I will know for sure.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

In the Oven

Last night was vegetable supper night. Even though the youngest boy's becoming vegetarian has influenced our cooking over the past year or so, this is a meal we have prepared many nights over many years, and everyone seems to like it.

The meal usually includes baked potatoes, some kind of beans, and a green vegetable. Last night, the vegetable was cole slaw, made by me since, when Joe makes it, he doesn't use any sugar when making the dressing and I like to put in about a half teaspoon. The beans were the Pigott Family Heirloom cowpeas from our garden (have I said this yet?: Best Crowder Peas Ever!).

After washing the potatoes, I poked them all with a fork a couple of times, because I have always heard that this keeps them from exploding in the oven.

While the potatoes were baking, I was standing at the stove working on the cheese sauce for the potatoes, and suddenly there was a POP from the oven. I opened the door and looked inside, and I saw potato innards splattered all over. A potato had exploded!

In all the years that I have been baking potatoes, I've never before experienced an exploding potato, but I've never tested the theory, either. Apparently, some potatoes explode even after being poked with a fork.

I am baking bread today, and even though I wiped the oven out beforehand, I can smell burning potato.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Year-End Varieties Report

As the seed catalogs begin to roll in, many gardeners start to think about next year’s garden. A good place to begin is with what did well last year (even though the 2009 gardening year had some pretty freakish weather). Another good place is with what did well in gardens nearby. In the spirit of sharing, here is my 2009 garden report:

Tomatoes: Cherokee Purple beat my “emergency back-up” hybrid Better Boy plants by a mile in both productivity and flavor. For canning, Rutgers was best, but Wuhib (a paste type) was surprisingly early and productive, so I will probably grow it again. The Mortgage Lifters succumbed to one of the wilts early in the season, which hasn’t happened before. I am guessing that the Incredibly Wet Spring allowed the verticillium wilt to be extra prolific. The best cherry type for me was Matt’s Wild Cherry. The Yellow Marble cherry tomato that I had growing in a container was productive and early, but its little tomatoes were more tart than I prefer.

Peppers: Spanish Spice, which turned out to be excellent for grilling, was plenty productive, and so were the Jimmy Nardello and a yellow banana pepper I bought at a garden-supply store. I will be growing these again. California Wonder tasted good but was not especially productive this year. I haven’t yet decided whether to try a different bell pepper this year, or to just stick with this variety even though its production is so variable from year to year. Our jalepenos were almost too hot to eat. No idea what happened there, because they are from the seed packet I used the year before. I am going to grow a different pickling-type pepper as a replacement this year. I also grew some MiniBelles, and they were extremely cute, but they didn't have much flavor and I won't grow them again.

Eggplants: Rosa Bianca was beautiful but not especially productive for me; Casper White did great. I grew these in containers.

Okra: Louisianna Short did just fine; it gave lots of okra that tasted great, but the plants got hilariously tall before finally falling over into the road. I will probably go back to Cajun Jewel this year, since it stays short.

Melons: I am still looking for the perfect open-pollinated melon for my yard. So far, the hybrid Sugar Nut is reliably sweet and productive, but any babies springing from its seed will vary from its parents. Schoon's Hardshell was pretty good---not as sweet as Sugar Nut, but flavorful. Sakata's Sweet was a bust. I am going to grow Sugar Nut again, along with the Schoon’s Hardshell, and add yet another melon to the mix this year.

Corn: I grew Dakota Black popcorn this year. I like to think that seeing corn in my front yard makes the neighbors laugh, but I could be wrong about that. The good news is that this variety isn’t very tall, but it still gave me a quart of shelled popcorn from a 15 square foot space, even after a rabbit ate a couple of my plants.

Beans: I keep trying different varieties of beans, hoping that my family will like them, but I keep coming back to Burpee's Tenderpod bush bean. It isn't as productive as a pole bean would be, but we still had plenty of green beans this summer from the patches that I planted. I will not be growing the Roma-type or the wax beans again, since they got a family veto.

Southern Peas: I grew Pigott Family Heirloom Cowpeas (crowder peas) in a small space and ended up with a little more than a quart of dried, shelled peas. These are the best tasting crowder peas I have ever eaten, so they will definitely be growing in my garden again next summer.

Greens: I keep growing the chard variety called Perpetual Spinach, because it’s the one we like to eat. It really does work pretty well as a spinach substitute in a large range of recipes. The Italiko Rosso chicory was just as good this year as last, so I will be growing that again, too. For collards, I grow the variety called Georgia, and haven’t ever seen a need to switch. I grew two spinach varieties, Space and Bloomsdale Longstanding, with about equal results. Both did horribly in the Very Wet Spring and again in the Very Wet Fall. My favorite lettuce is still Tom Thumb, but the oak-leaf types (both a green and a red) have done better in the weird weather.

Beets: I grew Early Wonder Tall Top, and we have enjoyed eating the leafy tops, but I am going to try a golden beet this year alongside the old standard Detroit Dark Red. I finally learned how to cook the actual beet roots this year, and I want more roots than Early Wonder Tall Top is likely to provide.

Squash: The Raven zucchini (a hybrid) did just as well as usual, and we enjoyed eating every single squash that we got until the borers felled the plants. The winter squash wasn’t very productive this year, but I will grow zucchetta (the zucchini substitute) and Seminole Pumpkin squash again this next year, since these usually do better. I think they just didn’t like this year’s weather.

Carrots: I grew a tiny carrot called Little Finger that matured well in the spring. It is still trying to make mature roots from the fall planting, but it is almost ready to harvest. These are sweet little carrots. I also grew a yellow carrot called Jeune Du Doubs that has performed almost exactly like the Little Finger: fine in the spring, but struggling a bit this Fall. I finally pulled a couple to eat last week, and they were very carroty and sweet. I am going to add back the Nantes type that I have grown before, though, in hopes of getting a more reliable crop next fall.

English peas: I grew the last of a packet of Miragreen peas in the spring. They were very good, but I am going to go back to shorter vines that I won’t have to set out stakes and strings for this coming spring. I will probably just grow Wando, since I have grown those before and know that they work in my yard.

Sweet Potatoes: Beauregard is amazing. It makes more roots than seems possible under the soil, and they taste just fine. I also grew the heirloom variety Puerto Rican, a strain that has been in a friend’s family for more than 100 years. These were less productive than Beauregard, but I think they are sweeter. The texture is different, too (drier), but I will be growing both varieties from now on.

White Potatoes: I grew the Red Pontiac that was available at the local feed store. It did better in the ground than in containers. Since this was my second less-than-spectacular attempt to grow potatoes in containers, I am going to just plant them in the ground in the future. The year before, I grew a variety called White Cobbler that I got at my Mom’s grocery store (the store was selling certified seed potatoes!) in Oklahoma, and it did just as well as the Red Pontiac. One year, I grew a variety called Garnet Chili that out-produced and out-tasted any other potato I’ve ever grown, but it cost a small fortune and it didn’t keep to the next spring. I will likely just get whatever is available locally again this year, unless I decide to use the seeds that I saved from a trial patch of potatoes 3 years ago.

I grew more, but that seems like a long enough report. If anyone else has a great variety to recommend, I would love to hear about it!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Just-in-Time Harvest of Early Wonder Tall Top Beets

The National Weather Service claims that we are going to have another cold night, down to 24 degrees F. Since the beets looked pathetic after that last somewhat-hard freeze, I went ahead and pulled up the rest of the Early Wonder Tall Top Beets this afternoon.

I grew these mostly for the greens. We have been cutting leaves off (for eating!) a few at a time from each plant as it has gotten big enough, and I think that the continuous harvest may have kept the roots from getting very big. They are mostly just an inch or two across.

Of course, one year a friend grew these beets without the continuous harvest thing going on, and she still didn't get much in the way of roots from hers. The small roots may just be a quirk of the variety.

The leaves are pretty tasty, so I can't really complain about the tiny roots. I plan to chop the leaves, then saute the pieces in olive oil, with garlic. I would add some chicory to the pan, but those plants are under cover, and getting to them would be a bit of a pain.

After tonight, the temperatures should moderate some. Nighttime temperature are expected to stay above thirty for the rest of the week, so I can uncover the currently protected beds tomorrow.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Caffeinated Compost

The Starbucks website includes a page about using coffee grounds in making compost, and it includes the information that the grounds have a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 20 to 1. This puts coffee grounds in the "greens" category for layering greens (usually fresh, high nitrogen stuff) and browns (more carbon-rich, and usually actually brown, like old leaves) when making compost.

Since this time of year provides plenty of "browns" (fallen leaves) and fewer greens (no mowed lawns, fewer pulled weeds and end-of-production garden crops), coffee grounds can be especially useful. They do tend to acidify both the compost and the soil the compost is used on, so some care is needed in using them in many instances, but some plants need a lower pH (more acid conditions) than other plants.

I usually spread grounds around my blueberries and azaleas, but I also plan to acidify (somewhat) the soil where I intend to plant potatoes. Since this will require more grounds than my household is likely to produce, Joe and I stopped by a Starbucks when we were out running errands yesterday so we could split a cup of coffee and ask about picking up some grounds for the garden.

The staff at the store nearest us (about 3 miles away) had just taken a load of grounds out to the dumpster, so none were available right then, but the manager gave me her card and said to call any morning I expect to be out that way later in the day, and she would save grounds for me.

I called a little before noon today, to let her know I would be in that area in a couple of hours, and the staff had a nice big bag of grounds for me when I got there.

This is my first bag of Starbucks grounds:

Behind the flowerpot is some chard still under cover (actually, an old flannel sheet), and in front of the bag is a volunteer dill that survived Saturday night's deep-freeze. The thermometer on the front porch was showing 27 degrees F on Sunday morning.

Everything under cover came through just fine, as did, amazingly that little bit of dill, but the Brugmansia (Angel Trumpet) looks terrible, and so do the flowers on my Camellia. However, that's what happens in winter, and everything will be fine again in time.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Soil pH and Garden Success

When a garden hasn’t been doing well, one of the first conditions to check is the soil’s pH---its acid-alkaline balance. The pH scale goes from 0 to 14, with 7 being a neutral pH, measurements below 7 being acid, and above 7 being alkaline. Most garden veggies need a soil pH of between 6 and 7. Around here, the soil is naturally acidic, but many people routinely lime their lawns and gardens, without checking the soil pH first, and end up with a soil pH that is too high.

This might seem like an odd topic for a winter blog post, but correcting a pH that is either too high or too low takes time, so it should be considered now, or soon.

My friend who decided to plant blueberries in the space where she has had several years of a failed vegetable garden sent a soil sample in to the Extension Office for evaluation at the testing lab at UGA. The lab found that the pH of her soil is 7, which isn’t a huge surprise because she had been spreading ashes from her fireplace on the garden, which raises the pH. Even if she hoped to plant veggies there again, the lab would have recommended that she bring the soil pH down a little, but the blueberries she intends to plant prefer a pH closer to 5. That soil needs some work before it will be a good place for blueberries.

The lab sent information about how much sulfur to add in order to bring the pH down to a better level for blueberries, but it also recommended that the bushes shouldn’t be planted until 6 months after applying the sulfur. If she added the sulfur in October, that means blueberry-planting should wait until April. That is pushing the boundary for good planting time in other ways; as spring progresses and the weather warms, newly planted bushes are less likely to do well. They need time in the soil for their root systems to become established before being stressed by the heat of a Georgia summer.

What this means is that any soil that is very far off the optimal range for the plants that will be planted in spring needs to be tested now, so adjustments to pH can be made soon enough to benefit the plants.

For a pH that is only slightly too high, my county’s old (newly retired!) extension agent used to recommend mixing some peat moss into the soil as a quick fix. Coffee grounds can also help bring down a too-high soil pH, and I dump mine routinely around my azaleas and blueberries to help keep the soil around those acid-preferring plants in a good pH range for them.

An article by Lewis Hill, published in Robert Rodale’s The Best Gardening Ideas I Know (1983) includes a list of some garden plants and the pH ranges they prefer, and I’ve pulled some of the food plants from his list to post here:

pH 4 to 5: blueberry
pH 5 to 5.75: blackberry, grape, parsnip, plum, potato, pumpkin
pH 5.75 to 6.5: bean, citrus fruits, cowpeas, currants, gooseberry, oats, pepper, rutabaga, rye, squash, strawberry, tomato, turnip
pH 6.5 to 7: apple, beet, broccoli, buckwheat, butternut, chicory, chives, cucumber, eggplant, endive, kale, leek, muskmelon, onion, pea, peach, radish, raspberry, rhubarb, spinach, watermelon, wheat
pH 7 to 7.5: alfalfa, asparagus, barley, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, lettuce, nasturtium, parsley

This list may help other gardeners in planning what to plant where, but it is useful to remember that plants will still grow and produce in soil that is slightly outside their preferred pH range. This is lucky, since most of us grow many of these plants mixed all together in our gardens. However, for peak production, planting in soil that is actually the preferred pH works best.

When I plant potatoes in the spring, I will have added quite a lot of coffee grounds to their soil to bring the pH down a bit, but not all the way down to 5. Knowing the pH preferences of other crops helps me know what to plant after the potatoes in that space. For example, cabbages in that space would likely be a total bust, because their pH preference is so much higher (7 to 7.5!). When the potatoes are harvested, I will either let the nearby melons sprawl across that space, or I will plant a crop that prefers the 5.75-6.5 range, like beans or cowpeas.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Ready for Some Cold Weather

One of my brothers has reported today that it is snowing in Houston, Tx; my sister in Louisiana will be snowed upon soon, if it isn't snowing there already, and here, NW of Atlanta, we will be getting snow and sleet tonight (90% chance according to the National Weather Service). These are exciting times for Southerners. I hope no one plans to actually drive anywhere, because there will be mayhem on the roads.

Saturday night the temperature is expected to drop to as low as 24 degrees F, which could cause trouble in the garden. Even though it has been cool here, with nights in the thirties and forties, cool isn't the same as COLD and 24 is going to be a shock for the more tender Fall/Winter crops.

The bed with my spinach in it, the spinach that I had to replant fairly late because it all drowned in The Big Rain, is already covered. Chicory, cilantro, and a few lettuces are under cover in the same bed. This particular covering has a frame that Joe constructed for me early this year, and it is covered with thin plastic sheeting.

In addition, I have rigged a cover for my broccoli, even though, in theory, it should be fine, because it is FINALLY making tiny heads, and I don't want to lose any of it.

However, this covering is not as attractive as the other. It has a tall stick in the center to hold the plastic up off the plants, and the plastic is held down with rocks where it comes down on the outside of some of that wire, folding fencing.

I use that fold-able wire fencing a lot, either to keep the dogs from running through the vegetables or to hold netting up over some vegetables, to protect them from insects. The result isn't usually beautiful, but it works, and it is easy for me to move it around and to wrap differently sized and shaped patches of plants.

My sister in Louisiana is also expecting some cold weather, and she is planning to cover her entire garden, since it is small enough to all fit under one big tarp. Her problem is that she still has some tall summer vegetables, notably the tomatoes. We talked awhile yesterday about her options, and she is going to try to lay a couple of those tomato plants over onto the ground, then cover them. If they survive, she can then stand them backup. Where she lives, it doesn't generally stay cold enough this early in the winter that the tomatoes can't still ripen/grow some more fruits if she can just get them past this one cold snap.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Joe's Mom's Salt Pork Dressing Recipe

Every year at holiday-time my husband makes his mother’s Salt Pork Dressing, which uses fresh marjoram. We have, in the past, had no trouble getting a little bunch of fresh marjoram at the stores, but last year we couldn’t find any fresh marjoram, so he used dried, but he said the flavor just wasn’t right.

As a result, when I was ordering seeds for last year, I included marjoram seeds in the order. Since we wouldn’t need much, I grew only two plants, and one didn’t survive the wet Spring. The other never got exactly robust, but there would have been enough of the herb for a batch of Joe’s mom’s dressing if the poor plant hadn’t drowned in The Big Rain. I will try growing it again in the Spring, being sure to put the plant(s) in a place that will drain as well and quickly as possible, but if we have another soggy year, I am guessing that the result will be similar---drowned marjoram.

This year, we were lucky enough to find fresh marjoram at the Whole Foods store in the next town south of here (my town doesn’t have one), so Joe was able to make dressing that tasted right.

One of Joe’s sisters is assembling the family recipes into a book, and when she emailed Joe for confirmation on the instructions for their mother's mother-in-law's dumplings, Joe asked whether she had the Salt Pork Dressing recipe. This is what he said:

Yes, that is how I make them, according to Mom's instructions. By the way, do you have her mother's recipe for salt pork dressing? I make it every Thanksgiving and when I tell Mom about it, she gets very excited. Perhaps, if someone is not already doing it, you could make it for her on Christmas. It's easy assuming you can find fresh marjoram (marjoram was known to the Greeks and Romans as a symbol of happiness.

Boil salt pork in a little water for at least an hour (while your getting the turkey ready). Dice the salt pork when cool (lot's of fat so pick the meatiest piece you can find at the store). Mix with chopped marjoram (fresh, but dried will do in a pinch) and diced potatoes that have been boiled but not to the point of mushiness. Season to taste with black pepper and with the water the salt pork has been boiled in.

Notice that measurements are totally not mentioned, but I don’t think Joe’s Mom typically used exact measures except in some kinds of baking. As an experienced cook, she just used amounts that looked right. That's what Joe does, too. It may be part of the tradition!

Joe's parents both grew up in the German section of Buffalo, NY, so Joe's food heritage is very German, which probably accounts for the dumplings and the Salt Pork Dressing.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Tools Inventory: I (heart) My Compost & Mulch Fork

Some years, I ask my husband for a new garden tool for my birthday or Christmas; sometimes, I don’t even specify the kind of tool I want. My compost & mulch fork was the result of just such a tools request for my birthday one year, and it turned out to be a wonderful surprise.

This particular fork has 10 fairly closely spaced tines that are not especially pointed at the ends. Using the compost & mulch fork to turn the compost pile a couple of days ago reminded me that it’s a tool that really works!

Anyone who has tried to shift compost using a spading/digging fork will have had the experience of watching the littler bits fall right through the spaces between the tines. A shovel, though, sometimes can’t even be shoved very far into a compost pile because it jams up against a tough piece of plant that hasn’t yet decomposed.

My compost & mulch fork avoids both of those problems. The tines are spaced closely enough to hold the crumbly, dark compost, but the spacing is wide enough that the fork doesn’t get hung up on the un-decomposed bits. The fork goes right into the pile and comes away with a full load.

Even better, the fork works for more than just compost. It works for chipped wood that we get a load of each year to spread on paths through the backyard, and it works for manure, grass, and old, soggy leaves.

I have seen similar forks online at Lee Valley ($65) and at Lowes Online ($36), but I have also seen them at the old Cobb Hardware store (price similar to Lowes) on Roswell Street in Marietta.

It is hard for me to admit that my compost & mulch fork is not really a necessity, but that is true. I could get by with my spading fork and a regular shovel, which are both ESSENTIAL tools. The compost & mulch fork does make some tasks a lot easier, though.

A couple of my sisters have birthdays in the same month as mine, and the year I was given the compost & mulch fork I remember a conversation with one of those sisters, that I told her about my great gift, and that there was a moment of silence on the phone. Then she said something like “I got a diamond bracelet.” Now, I am sure that the bracelet still brings her plenty of pleasure, but it is hard to imagine that she gets as much enjoyment out of that bracelet as I get from my compost & mulch fork.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Planting Some Spring Flowers

I planted some bulbs today---paperwhites (var. Inbal) and anemones (Blanda mixed colors).

One great feature of the Spring-blooming bulbs is that they reach their peak when many of my other plants are seedlings, or still just seeds. Seeing the flowers provides an inspirational boost, helping me stick with my seed-starting and planting schedule. Another great feature is that the bulbs get planted now, when the outdoor work-load in the garden is fairly minimal.

I have several kinds of daffodils out there already, along with crocus and some other small bulbs, but I hadn't planted paperwhites before today. I put them pretty far from the house, because they are a Very Fragrant Flower. I want to enjoy seeing them without being overpowered by the smell.

The anemones are planted in front of one of the planting beds installed last year. I've planted these before, maybe 10 years ago, in the blueberry bed, but very few of them are left. I am thinking that the higher pH of the side-yard lawn (which mostly is not grass) will be helpful to their survival. We will see.

Something I didn't remember was how puzzling anemone bulbs are to plant. The instructions on the package say to "plant the bulb with the pointed side up." The problem is that no pointed side exists. The little bulbs are shaped about like flattened gravel, with oddly angled bumps in seemingly random locations. The bumps don't really show up in the picture below, but they are there.

I tried to find the scar on each little bulb that looked as though it could be where the roots grow, and planted that facing downward. I hope my little bulbs aren't actually upside-down!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Saving Seeds: Southern Seed Legacy Project

As next year’s seed catalogues begin to arrive (I’ve received two already!), it may be useful to note one great seed resource for Southern gardeners that doesn’t blanket the South with catalogues: the Southern Seed Legacy Project, based in UGA’s Anthropology Department, whose “ objective is to keep southern agrobiodiversity alive, not in gene banks, but in the fields and gardens of people. . .” A link to the homepage for this project is located on the sidebar of this blog, in the section titled Georgia Gardening and Food.

The Project keeps Southern agrobiodiversity alive through locating and saving heirloom Southern seeds, then growing them out both at UGA’s Agrarian Connections farm and through the Pass Along Southern Seed program, which gives seeds to member-gardeners to grow out. Member-gardeners then return a portion of seed from the grown-out crop to the program, so more is available to other gardeners, and they also share a portion with another gardener.

Many of the seeds available through the program are different varieties of Southern Peas, which are great for beginners to try as an introduction to seed saving. Southern peas (crowder peas, black-eye peas, cowpeas) grow and produce really well in the South, the flowers self-pollinate and are not subject to a lot of cross-pollination, and the seed is also the plant-part that is eaten, so saving the seeds is easy!

Saving your own seeds from the garden is a way to make sure that a particular variety endures, but it also is a great way to save money on gardening; fewer seeds need to be purchased each year! Anyone who has never tried might want to check a local library for Suzanne Ashworth’s book Seed to Seed, or, for a quick introduction, check the website of the International Seed Saving Institute for basic information on saving seeds from garden plants.

Reading up on seed saving now could lead to some great ideas for next year’s garden.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Celebration of Orange Vegetables, and Especially Pumpkin Pie

One year at Thanksgiving dinner I sat down, looked at my plate (food was set out buffet style), and realized I would be eating four orange vegetables at that meal. Seminole pumpkin squash and spiced sweet potatoes were piled on the plate, the stuffing included bits of carrot, and a pumpkin pie was waiting for dessert. No wonder I liked that meal so much!

I love pumpkin pie, and I eat wedges of leftover pie for breakfast, days in a row, until it is finally all gone, so this particular pie is an important part, to me, of any Autumn celebration.

For years and years I made a standard recipe pumpkin pie, but last year I made the Cook's Illustrated Pumpkin Pie recipe, and my youngest son said it was the best pumpkin pie he'd ever eaten. This means, of course, that I will be making it again this year, even though it is a bit of a pain (many more steps than the old recipe).

The Cook's Illustrated recipe uses both pumpkin and sweet potatoes. It actually calls for canned candied sweet potatoes, but I used roasted ones that had grown in my garden last year, and will again this year. It also, like most pumpkin pie recipes, calls for canned pumpkin puree. I will be using a Tahitian squash from my garden and letting it sit in a strainer for a while after roasting to let excess moisture drain away before mixing it into the other filling ingredients.

The pie crust recipe that accompanies the filling recipe on the linked page above is excellent. I will be making several batches of the dough tomorrow (I went to a liquor store for the vodka this morning), for use on Wednesday when I put together and bake the pies.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Tools Inventory: Tool Care

This weekend's weather forecast is for yet more rain. Even though I should start working on getting ready for company on Thursday, I will probably also work on tidying up my tools. I do clean and sharpen my shovels, hoes, trowels, pruners, etc. during the busier gardening seasons, and my husband helps (he is better at sharpening than I am), but a good Fall cleaning, sharpening, and oiling should help prolong the useful life of each tool.

The youtube video below, from Central Texas Gardener, presents the basics of garden-tool care.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

A Winter Weed

Last Saturday I was a guest on the America's Home Grown Veggies hour, on Radio Sandy Springs. When the host, Kate Copsey, asked about winter weeds, purple dead nettle is one I mentioned. She asked when it would flower, and I said something like, "oh, maybe February."

Well, I was pulling a few weeds in the garden a couple of days ago and saw that the purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum), which is in the same genus as henbit (Lamium amplexicaule) and looks a bit like it, is already flowering! This is annoying for a couple of reasons.

The first is that I thought it wouldn't flower until later in the season, which explains why there is so much of it around right now. In years past, I must have let it go to seed before pulling it up.

If I thought plants could purposely bloom to show how I'm not such a know-it-all after all, I would say that this is an example of just that behavior. Obviously, however, I need to pay more attention to what is going on in the yard before opening my mouth.

The other reason its blooming now is annoying is that it means I need to get busy pulling up all the rest of the purple dead nettle before it can flower and go to seed yet again, so maybe NEXT year there won't be quite so much of it.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


I am so surprised that my Camelia is flowering already that I wanted to tell about it. If my bush were a Camelia sasanqua, November blooming wouldn't be any kind of surprise. Those have been blooming beautifully for several weeks all over town, but mine is a Camelia japonica. It usually opens its first bloom in December.

I brought the first flower inside to enjoy in my kitchen window. The bush has several more buds in the process of opening, so when this first flower turns brown, I will be able to bring in another one, then another one, and so on until the first very hard freeze.

Making New Garden Beds

Over the last week, we have added two new garden beds to the front yard, over on the other side of the driveway. We are making them following, approximately, the Lasagna Garden method (the linked article, by Patricia Lanza who originated the method, is very detailed!). The boards that define the beds are cedar, the ground inside is covered with cardboard and newspapers, and the middles are filled with layers of organic matter.

Right now, the layers are horse manure that I picked up at a stable in the next town north of here, in our little truck, and leaves from the yard across the street from us. We will be adding more layers over the next few weeks, so that in Spring there will be enough composted organic matter in the beds for planting.

To locate a source for the horse manure, I looked in the little local phone book, in the yellow pages under "stables." There were two, and I called the first one. The person who answered said they would LOVE for someone to come get some of their manure, and that for $5 a guy would fill my truck for me, using a backhoe. This worked great.

My truck (a Ford Ranger xlt) was very full when I left the stable, and clods of horse dung fell off here and there along the way home, but I had fun seeing all the horses at the farm and then watching in my rear-view mirror on the way home to see how drivers reacted to following such a fully loaded truck. Not too surprisingly, there was no tail-gating.

The original Lasagna Garden method uses quite a lot of peat moss, which I would rather not use. I will, instead, be using a lot more leaves.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Green Things Update

We had another 5.5 inches of rain this week, so it may be miraculous that ANY plant in the garden is actually in good enough shape to eat, but the last head of bok choy (there were 6, originally) is heading for the dinner table.

I am still waiting for the 10 broccoli plants to head up, but their stems are thickening, which is a good sign.

Many of the lettuces, and all of the spinach plants, drowned in last month's Big Rain. The one kind of lettuce that has survived, though not exactly thrived, is the oak leaf lettuce. One is in the picture below. Oak leaf lettuce is also, typically, the last to wilt in a hard freeze and slow to turn bitter as the Spring heats up. It isn't my favorite lettuce in terms of flavor and ease of use, but it is reliable!

One short row of chicory is doing well in spite of all the rain. It is in the same bed as the drowned spinach and lettuces, and I am thinking that its tap root may have contributed to its survival. Chicory is too bitter for making a whole salad of just itself, but it is good added to other greens both in salads and in cooking. I like it snipped onto a pizza.

Other veggies doing well enough include cilantro, chard, the few beets I managed to save from the bunnies, carrots (2 kinds!), and winter radishes.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Space Management

The bed that the garlic and onions are planted in this Fall held my Southern peas in the late summer and the zucchini before that. When this batch of garlic and onions comes out near the end of June, a late planting of tomatoes will go in that space. Being able to use the same space over and over throughout the year for different crops makes a small garden more productive than at first seems possible. This particular method of wringing more food out of one patch of ground is usually called succession planting.

In my yard, the garden beds that are closer to the road are more intensively managed than those farther from it because they get the most sunlight. The planting beds closer to the house become completely shaded in winter and don’t really emerge from that shade until March.

Because my year-round sunlight is so limited, careful planning is necessary to maintaining this level of production. I record on a little map (not fancy, since I am not at all artistic) every year what has been grown where, so I can avoid planting same-family plants in the same place too soon, and so I can avoid planting root vegetables, even those from different families, in the same space too soon.

When I need a new copy for next year's planning, I either photocopy a clean copy of the map or I lay a clean sheet of white paper over an old copy and trace the lines to make a new copy of the map. The text in the photo above isn't 100% clear, I know, and the top of it is missing, but the outlines of the beds are clear.

Having the 2009 map on hand will make planning the next season's plantings much easier than if I relied on memory, which, by February will have developed some blanks. Also, since I have several clean copies in reserve, it is easy to pull one out for planning, change my mind, and start over on a fresh copy.

The very first drawing of the front yard planting beds was made (years ago!) on graph paper, after carefully measuring every planting area. As a result, the beds are "to scale" and it is easy for me to figure out how much planting area is available for each crop, even though the beds aren't even close to square.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Statewide Emergency Pest Alert

This pest alert came to my email today:

By Sharon Dowdy
University of Georgia
Researchers from the University of Georgia and Dow AgroSciences have identified a kudzu-eating pest in northeast Georgia that has never been found in the Western Hemisphere. Unfortunately, the bug also eats legume crops, especially soybeans.

The bug has tentatively been identified as the bean plataspid (Megacopta cribraria), a native to India and China. It is pea-sized and brownish in color with a wide posterior, said Dan Suiter, an entomologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences....

"We have no idea what the long-term impact on kudzu will be, but we also have to consider the fact that it feeds on crops, too," he said. "It´s kind of a double-edged sword. It eats kudzu, which is good, but it also stinks and gets on homes. And the ominous threat is that it eats soybeans and other legume crops."...

Homeowners who find the pest should call their local Extension office at 1-800- ASK-UGA1.

"We´re still trying to get a handle on what its distribution is in the state," Suiter said. How to control the pest in Georgia is a mystery that scientists will have to solve, Eger said. In India and China, manually removing them is the most common way.

"Kudzu is its preferred host. So, it might be helpful by controlling kudzu," Eger said. "It is a significant pest of soybeans and other types of beans in its native countries. My guess is that it has the potential to be an important pest of all types of beans."

The complete article, which includes photos of the pest, is available through the link up top. Although the pest seems to be limited to the northeastern part of the state, I am going to check the kudzu patch at the local park tomorrow to see if it is infested.

I would be very sad if these insects become abundant in this area, because green beans are one of my most reliable crops. The only real pest on my beans so far is the Mexican bean beetle, and when it does become a problem (not even every summer!), it is usually after I've already harvested plenty of beans.

This new pest, which eats all kinds of bean plants, could change my beans' status as one of the most pest-free crops in the yard (okra wins the "most pest free" title).

Finally Dry Enough to Plant Garlic

I finished preparing the planting bed on Thursday after work, and planted 34 cloves of garlic, 2 shallots, and 7 multiplier onions yesterday. I would have planted more garlic, but a friend and I have decided to split an order of Inchelium Red and a “starter pack” of other garlics from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. That company sent out their Fall e-Newsletter, advertising what was still available, and it worked. We both wanted some.

This particular friend and I often go in together when ordering our seeds for the year to reduce postage and handling charges. Splitting a garlic order works because we both have small gardens.

I left some space in the planting bed for the garlics that are on their way, and a broad strip across the front for the onion sets that will be planted in early March. Since it is so late in the Fall, I did not plant out those red onion seeds that I have saved, but I am planning to start those in the house, to use as part of my March planting.

When planting the garlic, I laid the cloves out in my planned spacing before actually planting them. They should be 3 to 4 inches apart, and I used my 13.5 inch long trowel to help estimate that distance. When ready to plant, I poked that narrow trowel into the ground under a clove as I picked the clove up, opened up a space under where the clove was, and dropped the clove in, pointy end up. Since the cloves were all laid out in advance, this went quickly.

In a few weeks, when the green tips of the garlics emerge from the ground, we will see how well (or not well!) the method worked in terms of spacing the cloves.

Most of the garlic that I planted is just grocery-store garlic, the fattest cloves I could find. One, though, was a bulb consisting of one extremely fat clove plus a tiny hitch-hiker clove that I decided to just plant together. This one was a gift from a friend who had been given some garlic from a garden in Rabun county, where this garlic has been "in the family" for a very long time. I have marked this clove with craft-stick markers so I can be sure not to lose it.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Caring for Creation--A Conference Report

I arrived in Macon for the Caring for Creation Conference early enough on Friday to spend a little time walking around the Mercer University campus and to locate a blogging friend, Owlfan, who was also planning to attend. It was great to meet my online friend in person! I also met Sharon Astyk, the person I had gone expressly to hear, and she signed my copy of her book, A Nation of Farmers.

This post is a report of what I heard at the conference, for anyone who might be interested. I made only very sketchy notes, so my report may have some inaccuracies, but the gist of it, I think, is right. (Warning, the report is long!)

The first two talks were given in a Plenary Session for all the conference participants.

The first talk of the morning was by Judith Curry, who does research at Georgia Tech. Her talk was about the science of climate change, and it focused on the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. There have been four, the first one published in 2000 and the last in 2007. The 2000 report showed that, based on available research at the time, no conclusive statement could be made about whether human activity was causing climate change. However, the reports have become successively more sure about the role of human activity in causing climate change. The 2007 report says, with 90% confidence, that human activity IS causing climate change.

Dr. Curry spent a few minutes explaining the authority behind the IPCC reports, that hundreds of scientists from around the world worked together on these reports, that the reports were based on the results of thousands of studies, and that thousands of scientists had reviewed the reports before publication.

Additionally, Dr. Curry talked about (and showed graphs concerning) our planet’s natural heating and cooling cycles, and showed that what we are experiencing now and can expect to experience in the future in terms of climate change goes WAY beyond the natural cycles. The three major greenhouse gases were discussed (methane, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide), and so was the cooling effect of particulate matter, but the upshot is that there is no more room for waffling on the human influence on climate change.

Dr. Curry talked some about how much carbon dioxide is now in the atmosphere compared to other times in geologic history (more!), how much warming we can expect, and what that all means for us and for life on our planet. Globally, droughts will be more frequent and more severe; so will floods. Storms will be more powerful. As the oceans rise (both from increasing temperature and from freshwater inflows from melting land-ice), we will lose agricultural land, cities, forests, coral reefs, and more.

Dr. Curry did point out toward the end of her talk that scientists can only say what is happening, and that doing something about it is up to communities like those in churches that can influence people to alter their lifestyles in ways that will reduce greenhouse gases.

Dr, Jeremy Hess, a physician and professor at Emory University and consultant to the CDC, spoke next, about health effects of climate change. He mentioned hurricane Katrina as an example of a weather event NOT resulting from climate change, as being within the range of expected storms, but said that the heat wave in Europe (2003?) that killed thousands of people, especially in France, was definitely a result of climate change. Deaths from heat are considered by the CDC to be preventable, but these are expected to increase as climate change progresses.

Many of the expected health effects will result from lack of food, caused at least in part by droughts and floods, and increased disease. The disease effects will result partly from increased spread of zoonotic (animal, insect) vectors, like the spread of the mosquito that carries malaria as warm weather and flooded conditions allow it to thrive in more parts of the world. The migration of displaced people will also cause negative health effects.

The migration and resettlement of New Orleans residents was brought up as an example of how such displacement can affect mental health, as people lose their homes, their communities, and their families in extreme conditions. These people will be at risk for depression and suicide. Additionally, as people are displaced, they may not have access to their usual medications, for both physical and mental problems, exacerbating any pre-existing conditions they may have.

This part reminded me of a news report I had seen during the Katrina mess, before buses finally came to move the newly homeless people out of the city. A reporter was interviewing children; one little boy was worried about his diabetic grandma, and he was saying very loudly something like “and what’s she supposed to do without her insulin? What’s going to happen to her?” I worried about her, too.

Dr. Hess also talked about the situation in developing countries being even worse than in developed nations, because they had fewer resources for responding to climate-change-induced emergencies. He seemed to think that, here in the U.S., we would be able to handle the problems.

To be honest, I do not share his confidence. Everything I’ve read recently about the climate situation indicates that change is progressing more rapidly than the models projected, and that we are in for some serious trouble. Also, the government (at many levels) response to Katrina was not exactly a confidence builder. When crises develop in several locations at the same time, citizens could be on their own for quite a while before “help” comes.

The first breakout session I attended was with Sharon Astyk, the person I drove to Macon to hear, but she also gave the very next Plenary Session talk, and I have probably mixed up in this report exactly what information was given in which talk. However, in the breakout session (for sure), after a general introduction, she spent considerable time discussing the effectiveness of motivational propaganda from WWI and WWII in getting people to make changes in their lives that helped save resources like food, oil, and rubber for the war effort. This conservation, the reduction in use of resources, is almost exactly what needs to happen again in order to reduce the additions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Sharon pointed out that the activities represented in many of the posters of those times, gardening, canning, and mending, are all activities we can do again. The changes that people made in other areas of their lives, like carpooling, not taking vacations to far away places (or taking fewer of these), enjoying lower-energy entertainments, and choosing productive hobbies instead of consumptive ones, can be made again.

It was made clear that all of our actions are deeply political, even if they don’t seem that way on the surface. Who we give our money to determines to a large extent who will have power in our lives. In the World Wars, U.S. citizens understood that their individual actions, multiplied across the nation, made a difference in the war effort. Back then, the results of our actions, what we wore, what we ate, whether we walked or rode a bicycle, were definitely seen as political. Sharon extended that to say that our choices, our actions, still are political, even though we are no longer reminded of that connection, and that our actions and choices are important in creating cultural change now to help stop climate change.

Sharon also said that, even after this massive conservation effort ended, people in the 1950s had comfortable, happy lives, using 18 times fewer resources than we do now. Essentially, Sharon emphasized two points: 1. we did it before, we can do it again, and 2. it won’t be awful.

At one point she showed the poster with Roosevelt’s words “We are now in this war We are all in it all the way Every Single Man Woman and Child is a partner in the most tremendous undertaking of our American history We must share together the bad news and the good news , the defeats and the victories—the changing fortunes of war.” I remember thinking that it would be great if our current president could make such a strong commitment to fighting climate change that he could issue this poster again, in this new context.

Sharon’s Plenary Session talk had a different end-message, even though it covered some of the same points along the way. For me, this is the talk that really tied the two themes of the conference, the scientific and the theological, together. For part of the “scientific” component, Sharon talked about the “Four Degrees & Beyond—International Climate Conference.” Essentially, a very high percentage of climate researchers do not believe that a global rise of as much as 4 degrees Celsius is out of the question. This is a somewhat different view from the morning session with Dr. Curry, who was discussing a lesser rise of perhaps 2 degrees over the next 100 years.

Sharon showed a map that had been created to show expected effects of such a temperature increase, and the result was that much of the world would be a desert. The best places to live, because it would be possible to grow food there, were parts of the Antarctic, very far North America (the U.S. was toast), and Siberia. If I could find a link to the map online, I would post it, but I haven’t found it yet. Hilariously, it showed solar panels all across the U.S. making power to send up to the inhabitants of the farther north. For anyone who cares, we would still be a center of energy production, and finally independent of oil from the Middle East!

As Sharon talked about the science of global warming and what some expected consequences are, she showed, interspersed among the graphs, pictures of people who already are having a hard time surviving, and she pointed out that today, we could feed the world and reduce a lot of suffering with our current resources, but that there is a problem with distribution that is a justice issue.

If anyone reading this has been also reading Sharon’s blog, the link to the story of Noah will not be a huge surprise. Noah had a big role in this talk, as a way to link actions to the idea of doing what is right. Not being Jewish, I haven’t read the Midrash, the commentary by numerous rabbis on the Jewish scriptures (which have huge overlap with the Old Testament Bible), so I heard some things I hadn’t heard before. According to the Midrash, in making the ark, the first thing Noah did was to plant the trees. As a result, building the ark took more than 100 years.

Part of the reason for growing the trees first was so other people would have a chance to change their ways, to allow for the possibility that a flood wouldn’t be needed. Also, it isn’t certain that Noah was an especially great man, only that he was a good man “for his time.” He didn’t plead for his people to ask that their lives be spared, for example. Considering how things are in the world today, that gives the rest of us some room for hope!

It is thought that Noah became a truly good man in his service to the animals over the long period of time that it was afloat. One story is that he didn’t sleep the whole time, because when one animal’s needs were met, another needed tending. All had to be fed, and their wastes shoveled out.

Sharon told another story involving the planting of trees, and that is the story of Jacob, whose family was required to move into Egypt, even though he knew in advance that they were in for a long period of suffering. What convinced him to go was that G-d said he would go with him. But before crossing into Egypt, Jacob stopped his family and made them plant trees. When they asked why, Jacob told them that they were planting the seeds of their own deliverance (the trees would be used later to build the Temple).

Now, there are details in these versions of the stories that are not in my old RSV Bible (I re-read Genesis to check), but they are interesting and instructive. Essentially, for Noah, we can see that going ahead with a task you know to be right, even when most people don’t seem to believe that the task is a good one, is important. Also, you don’t have to be an especially important person in society to be useful/helpful. For Jacob, going into a difficult situation with faith, knowing that your G-d is with you, really helps. Apparently, so does planting trees ;-)

I cannot exactly remember how she got back to climate change, but Sharon re-emphasized that we, as individuals, need to work on reducing our own connection to the production of greenhouse gases. Already there is a lot of suffering in the developing world. That suffering is going to get a whole lot worse as climate change progresses. Much of the cause of climate change is the use of resources here in the U.S. We don’t see the results of our action s right in front of our faces, so it is easy to ignore the problems, but our wastefulness hurts other people.

The take-home message was that, regardless of what we would prefer to do, changing the way we live, reducing our wastefulness, is the right thing to do.

When Sharon was done, someone behind me said something like “best talk of the day,” so I am pretty sure that people paid attention. Also, at the next breakout session, I went to hear Farmer D, and the questions people asked at the end made it clear that more than just a few people had heard and understood.

Farmer D has a company that composts veggie and fruit leftovers (not what he called them, but I don’t remember the exact words) from 14 Whole Foods stores in the Southeast. He has his own retail store that sells the compost, but it also sells everything else a person might need for gardening. In addition, he sells “Gardens to go,” which are kits for raised bed gardens, complete with thick cedar boards and soil, that his gardeners set up for customers. His store also carries worm bins, chickens, and chicken tractors.

What was most compelling, though, for his audience of mostly Mercer University students, was that he had started farming when he was college age. He told about going to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a big agricultural school, and taking a summer internship on an organic farm. When he came back to campus, he wanted to study sustainable and organic farming, but those options were not available.

As a result, he quit college and did more work at organic farms before starting his own little farm using a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model. Basically, he contracted with local residents to provide boxes of produce for them weekly in exchange for a subscription to the farm. They paid in advance; he delivered food as it became ready. Over time, he shifted to what he is doing now, in Georgia.

The students who came to the talk wanted to know what they could do. Farmer D did talk a bit about students at UW-Madison starting a 2-acre organic garden on campus. At Mercer, a much smaller college, 2 acres might be a bit much for a start, but it seems likely that those students will find more than one way to make their own reductions in resource use.

I also attended the closing session, which included readings from a couple of my favorite poets: Wendell Berry and Pattiann Rogers. I had been kind of hoping for a reading of Berry's "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front," but I settled for reading it later, when I got home.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Time for a Change (used to be Food Gardening NW of Atlanta)

I started this blog in July of 2008, when my family was gathered in Tulsa after Nana died. I had been thinking for a while about starting a food-gardening blog, but as a “technology challenged” person, I had no clue how to get started. My older brother, though, already had a blog for his bicycling activities in Washington state, and in one of the breaks from working to empty out Nana’s apartment he helped me get started.

I hadn’t thought as far as a title for the blog, so, as we sat together filling in the blanks (it really was easy!), I just created one that seemed reasonably descriptive of what I had in mind. The title “Food Gardening NW of Atlanta” is okay as a place-holder, but I’ve done enough writing here to know that it doesn’t fully reflect my goals for the blog.

My primary hope is that more people who are interested in growing some (or more!) of their own food will be encouraged to try, and the new title, “Grow Your Own (Food),” should help communicate that idea better. I keep meeting people who are new to gardening, or who have had a frustrating gardening year, so I know that the need for timely information exists, especially in the Atlanta area which has become home to many people from places with very different growing conditions.

The blog will continue to track what I do in my own yard, for people who are following as a way to become familiar with the planting schedule and learn about reliably productive plants for the Atlanta area, and it will continue to be a place for more general gardening information that would be useful almost anywhere (like the compost posts). It is likely to branch out a bit, too, but I will try to keep from straying too far off the topic of providing some of your own very good, very local, food.

On the Road

Tomorrow I am heading to Macon for a conference called "Caring for Creation: A Scientific and Theological Response." I am really looking forward to this because Sharon Astyk, author of the Casaubon's Book blog I have been reading for YEARS is giving two of the talks. I can't wait!

In addition, a guy named Farmer D is giving a talk. His name comes up a lot in the local gardening community, and I have never seen him in action, so I am very interested in hearing what he has to say. (Seeing pictures of him on his website left me shaking my head. What does it say about my age when the experts look young enough to be my children? Don't answer! I know...)

Of course, I will be hearing more people than just these two, which makes the trip south, through Atlanta during the morning rush hour, even more worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Many herbs are useful enough to deserve some dedicated space out in the yard, and this pretty purple flower is one of the herbs I give space to; it is a saffron crocus. The saffron crocus in the picture has come up in a space other than the one I planted it in, the way bulbs do around here. It is under a blueberry bush, along with a whole lot of sheep-sorrel that I need to pull up!

One great feature of the saffron crocus is that, in my yard anyway, it appears around Halloween, reliably, when other plants are shutting down and turning into masses of dead foliage. The flowers are a welcome sight.

The parts used in cooking are the stigmas, the three, bright red, thread-like bits that are the female parts inside each flower. To harvest, I just pick the stigmas out by hand and dry them on a paper towel for a few days before storing.

The plant itself really is a type of crocus, growing from similar corms, with similar planting depth and spacing, and it does best in zones 6-8 here in the Southeast. In colder areas, the corms might not survive the winter. The White Flower Farms website shows that, in the Western U.S., the best growing zones are 6-9.

I tend to think of saffron as a Mediterranean, near-Eastern, and Asian spice, but this article from the Kitchen Gardener magazine archive made available through the Vegetable Gardener website explains that saffron has been used in Lancaster County, PA, for a very long time as an important ingredient in many foods—one familiar example is chicken potpie.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Composting Convenience

Official instructions for “How to Build a Compost Pile” (see links on this Cornell Univ. page) are readily available, but many people do not follow them exactly, including me. The problems with the official instructions usually reside in the minimum recommended size combined with the idea of having all the ingredients on hand to build the completed pile in one session.

The recommended minimum size is 3 feet x 3 feet x 3 feet, but getting enough organic matter together all at once to create this size of pile, which should be built of alternating layers of green and brown organic matter, requires advance planning, and it may require that Autumn leaf-fall has already begun. If the pile is to be started in the Spring, having enough “brown” matter on hand could be a problem.

For many of us, the brown matter, which could include dried leaves or straw, is going to be leaves because there is no straw around unless we buy it, which is unlikely to happen. The green can be grass clippings and/or kitchen scraps, but so many people use mulching mowers these days that lawn clippings are getting harder to come by, and some lawns may be contaminated by herbicides and pesticides. In addition, saving huge amounts of kitchen scraps for weeks on end to use in a big compost building session is just too stinky a proposition to seriously contemplate. When I have a milk jug full of kitchen scraps that is becoming slimier and smellier by the day, I just want to move it out of the house any way I can.

The lists of acceptable ingredients are longer than just leaves, straw, grass clippings, and kitchen veggie/fruit scraps, but these are the primary bulk ingredients that many people (the lazy ones, like me), especially town and suburban dwellers, are going to have easy access to. As a result, I build my compost pile a little at a time, day by day, and it only exceeds 3 x 3 x 3 ft. in the Autumn, when I have picked up bags of my neighbors’ leaves off the side of the road before the city trash-truck can get to them.

Other people have created other work-arounds for their composting activities, with varying levels of success. Someone asked Saturday, at the Extension office open house, whether a compost pile could be smaller than 3 x 3 x 3 ft. and still work. The answer, of course, is yes; however, it won’t work the same way as a larger pile. A pile built gradually, the way mine is, never heats up to the weed-seed-killing, pathogen-killing temperatures a properly built pile does, so what goes in it should be modified. No weed seeds and no sick plants should be included. Also, a smaller pile is unlikely to work as fast.

One of my friends has been composting her kitchen scraps in five gallon buckets. These freeze at various times in the winter, so it is a safe bet that not much decomposition is going on at those times, and even in other cold-but-non-freezing times, the decomposition is going to be at a lower rate. A bigger problem with the buckets is that they are plastic and therefore not rodent-proof. One day my friend opened one of her buckets and discovered a very large Norway rat enjoying her apple cores and carrot tops! This was not a pleasant discovery. As a result, she is switching to rodent-resistant metal buckets, even though she has to pay actual money for these (plastic buckets can be had for free).

Someone else mentioned at Saturday’s open house that she had been sheet-composting by spreading her kitchen scraps on top of the garden. In the best of all possible worlds, this would work, eventually, but we live in a world inhabited by, as we now know, rodents, and possums, and coons, all of which really like those scraps. At some point, her neighbors are likely to wonder where all the wildlife is coming from.

One way to avoid pile-building while still getting some nutrients into the garden would be to dig little trenches right in the garden to dump those scraps into, then cover them up with dirt so that the scraps don’t make such a tempting salad bar for all the critters in the neighborhood. The scraps would decompose underground.

Another possibility for someone who is only composting as a way to transform kitchen scraps into fertilizer is to make a worm-composting bin to keep indoors. The City Farmer organization in Vancouver has posted online step-by-step, illustrated instructions for worm composting. I have kept a worm bin before, and it isn’t at all complicated.

Now, I have two compost systems. One is a regular, two-compartment pile that is bounded by chicken wire except across the front. We pile stuff in one side, then turn it every now and then by forking it all over to the other side. This moves the fresher organic matter from the top of the old pile to the bottom of the new pile. This wire bin system is at least 15 years old and mostly works just fine. One problem with this system is that, in winter, when decomposition is slower and the scraps remain intact longer, critters are attracted to the pile.

We have (so far!) overcome this problem by creating a “winter composter” out of a large metal garbage can that has holes knocked in it for air flow. We put a layer of leaves and dirt on the bottom, dump our kitchen scraps into the can, cover with more leaves and dirt, then repeat when we have more scraps, taking care to keep the can’s contents damp. The lid keeps the critters from crawling in through the top, and the metal can seems to be resistant to chewing.

When the metal can is full, we haul it (it is heavy!) to the wire compost bins and dump it out. Again, the fresher bits end up on bottom, and the oldest bits, which are usually pretty well composted so they are not especially attractive to critters, end up on top of the pile. We usually need to dump the full can two or three times before warmer weather comes back around and we go back to using the wire bins.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Saving Lettuces

I will be participating in a seed swap in November, and, since today is rainy (surprise!) and I can't be outside planting the garlic, I decided to finally try to separate seeds from the Tom Thumb lettuce flowers I saved this summer.

According to Suzanne Ashworth's book Seed to Seed, it is possible to "use a fine mesh screen that will allow the seeds to pass through and restrict the feathers." Now, we all know that flowers do not contain feathers, but that is the word used in the book to describe the downy fluff that lettuce seeds are attached to. Lettuce is in the same plant family as asters and dandelions, the Asteraceae, and anyone familiar with the feathery fluff that those flowers turn into as they mature will have a pretty good idea what the word "feathers" implies: 1. the seeds will drift away on any slight breeze that happens along, and 2. getting the fluff off the seeds might not be as easy as described in Ashworth's book.

Anyone to whom either of those implications had occurred would be correct. On poking around in the garage, I have been unable to locate any bit of screen that meets the criterion of allowing seeds to pass through while restricting the feathers, so I have been separating the seeds from the fluff by hand, one flower-puff at a time.

The good news/bad news is that I didn't save so many flowers that this has been an impossible task, but looking at the little pile of seeds makes me think that I might not have enough to share. Luckily, I have saved plenty of other seeds...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Climate Change Day of Action

This Saturday, 24 Oct., is an international Climate Change Day of Action. I didn't realize this when I signed up as a volunteer, but I will be helping out at a greener living Open House at the Cobb County Extension office (to view the page for the open house, select "news and events" in the left-hand sidebar, then select "click here" under Extensions Open House).

It does seem a bit ironic to be driving clear across the county in an effort to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change, but I love to talk about garden-related activities like composting, which is the topic of one of the displays, so I am happy to be involved!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

In from the Cold

I brought peppers inside today, pretty much all that I could find out in the yard, since they don't like cold weather. In the basket, one bell pepper is off to the left. The large oblong peppers are the variety Spanish Spice. Those plants produced really well this year, and the peppers were delicious stuffed with cheese and then grilled. The longer, skinny peppers are Jimmy Nardellos that haven't fully matured. They aren't especially wonderful when green, but they turn astonishingly sweet when they ripen fully to what is, essentially, fire-engine red. However, even green they are plenty good enough to eat. The yellow peppers are banana peppers. I only planted one of these plants, but it was a prolific producer, and the peppers are great on sandwiches and pizza. The rest of the peppers in the basket are jalepenos. We are going to rig our little grill to act like a smoker, and put these in it for a day or two to give them a smokey flavor and to dry them for later use.

The other peppers that I grew this year are Minibelles. I grew two of these plants in pots, and quite a lot of little peppers are still on the plants, so I brought those into the house with the hope that the remaining peppers would ripen.

I have never before brought pepper plants into the house for the winter, but a few weeks ago I talked with someone who does routinely. Really, I started out talking with someone else, because I had been given a huge stack of 3-gallon pots that a friend had picked up off the side of the road where a major landscaping project had just been completed. I was offering to share this treasure trove of pots (since the person I was talking with is also a gardener), when I heard someone nearby say, "I could use some 3-gallon pots!"

It turns out that she digs up a couple of pepper plants every Fall to bring inside so she can have fresh peppers all winter, and she was out of big pots. We finally worked out a way to meet up and share the pots, and I am assuming that her pepper plants are now safely indoors. Because of this conversation, however, I brought the two Minibelles inside. I don't know whether my window will provide enough light for more growth, but I am hoping that the peppers that are on the plants now will have a chance to ripen.

I don't plan to grow Minibelles next year, because the other peppers I grew are so much tastier, but I am interested in finding out how the indoor peppers will do.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Sweet Potato Weather Alert!

This message came to my email this morning:

Issued by The National Weather Service
Atlanta, GA
5:42 am EDT, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009




I know, I hate the all-caps presentation, too, but in this case the alarm might be justified. Sweet potatoes need to stay at well-above freezing temperatures, and what is coming this weekend misses that ideal by a huge margin.

Anyone whose sweet potatoes are poking above the ground, the way they do as harvest time approaches, should either dig those sweet potatoes up today or tomorrow, or mulch them heavily to protect them until a warmer day comes again. The picture below illustrates what I mean:

Around here, Fall temperatures can swing pretty wildly, so I don't expect the cold weather to last until April. Warmer days will be here in a week or so, but I am not going to wait, even though the ground is still very wet. Cold is even worse than wet, where sweet potatoes are concerned.

I had been hoping for great weather for harvesting the sweets, especially since this year I am growing two kinds. I wanted a bit of leisure so it would be easier to compare. However, this weather is what I have.

In the picture below, the differences in the leaves of the two kinds of sweet potatoes are easy to see. The heart shaped leaves are on the Beauregard plants and the deeply lobed leaves are on the Puerto Rican plants that were given to me by a friend.

When I have all the sweet potatoes safely out of the ground and in the house, I will spread them out in a single layer on newspapers to dry, with a small space-heater aimed at them to keep them warm. They need to dry and cure in a warm place for at least a week before being gathered back up for longer term storage.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

When It Rains, It Pours

Actually, this morning it was only drizzling, but it is definitely pouring now. The garden gets more and more neglected as the rain continues, but yesterday I squished my way across the yard to get basil and cilantro to go in last night's supper (Joe made vegetarian Pho, a kind of Asian noodle soup). The day before, I brought in some chard and a couple of peppers.

In addition, I finally went out to collect the green tomatoes that looked as though they had a chance of ripening in the house. I have been concerned that the remaining tomatoes would be ruined in the recent, copious rain, and I just couldn't leave them out in the garden one more day.

When these are gone, there will be, essentially, no more fresh tomatoes for us until next summer. We did manage to put some up in jars, and some have been sliced and dehydrated, but, as good as those are, they are not the same as fresh tomatoes.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

When a Gardener Can't Manage the Veggies

Someone asked me today about growing blueberries. She plants a veggie garden every Spring, enjoys it for a while, and then leaves for a summer vacation. By the time she gets back, the garden is a mass of weeds and dead veggies. Her new plan is to skip the veggies and just grow some fruit. This is a great idea for her situation.

The good news is that the garden sections of places like Lowe's and Home Depot have pots of blueberries for sale right now, and this is a good time to plant (after the ground is less soggy, of course). UGA recommends that home gardeners choose the rabbiteye types of blueberries, and several varieties are listed, along with planting and other growing information, in the UGA publication Home Garden Blueberries.

Blueberries are among the lowest maintenance fruits available for the home gardener in this area, so anyone who can't manage a vegetable garden but still wants food from the yard should consider growing them. They have few pests, and of those birds are the worst. Most people aren't squeamish about birds the way they might be about some insects, so this problem isn't too horrible. People who don't want birds to eat the berries can use netting to cover the plants.

Another low-maintenance, high-reward fruit for this area is figs. UGA's publication Home Garden Figs includes recommended varieties along with planting and growing information.

Figs are supposed to be much easier to propagate than blueberries, and I am hoping to make new plants from my brown turkey fig this year. Cuttings are supposed to be made after the leaves have dropped in early Fall. My fig bush still has all of its leaves, so the time is not yet right. I have noticed though, around town, that trees are beginning to turn yellow and red, so fig leaf drop should be soon, maybe just a couple of weeks away.

Monday, October 12, 2009

More Rain! (And the Schedule)

My yard has had nearly four inches of rain since The Big Rain, and it is raining now. In addition, the National Weather Service is forecasting rain for this area for pretty much the entire week. After the years of drought, I know I shouldn't complain, but all this water is messing with my garden schedule.

I didn't plant the garlic and Fall onions over the weekend because the garden is still soggy. I didn't work much on garden clean-up, either. Same reason. The asparagus plants are turning brown, so it is time to chop those up for the compost, and the melon vines need to be removed (they will go in the garbage, though). The tomato plants are dripping with brown leaves that need to be pulled off for the trash, but working among wet plants is not a good idea---many diseases are much more likely to be spread in wet conditions than in dry. One of the pepper plants is all wilted (I don't know why, yet), and it needs to be pulled out. The eggplants are done, too. All of this activity needs to wait for a drier time.

Another activity that needs to wait for a drier time is digging up the sweet potatoes. If the coming week was drier, those could be dug up next weekend.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Garlic and Fall-Planted Onions

I plan to get my garlic and multiplier onions into the ground in the next week or so, but other people may want to plant sooner. That would be fine. Here in my yard, I would feel comfortable planting garlic and multiplier onions anytime from early October to mid-November.

A UGA publication called “Garlic Production for the Gardener” points out that garlic prefers, like every other garden plant, a soil that is “well-drained … with organic matter worked into it.” Of course, we all know how close my yard’s soil comes to that well-drained ideal….not even close!

Luckily I have been adding organic matter to the garden for years, but even with those additions, before planting the little cloves, I will add more organic matter in the form of compost from the pile out back and a purchased bag of soil conditioner (the brand I picked up at the local Home Depot is called Nature’s Helper). I will also add a little fertilizer, but more will be put on in Spring when the plants really begin to grow.

To get started with the planting, I will need to pull apart some heads of garlic. The cloves get planted individually, still in their papery wrappers, three to four inches apart. They go in the ground pointy end up, the tip about one inch below the surface. Only the fat cloves from the outer layers get planted, since they seem to result in the biggest bulbs. The littler ones go into a dish on the kitchen counter, to be used in cooking.

The soil requirements of multiplier onions are basically the same as those for garlic, so getting the garden ready for them is essentially the same task. This saves the gardener a load of trouble.

The multiplier onions are much easier to separate than the garlic, so pulling the clumps apart doesn’t seem like such a chore. The individual onions get planted just below the soil surface and ten to twelve inches apart, because they will make big (if all goes well) clumps of onions as they grow.

I also bought, at a grocery store, a couple of organically grown shallots to plant. I chose “organic” so I could be sure that they hadn’t been treated with any anti-sprouting chemicals. Their requirements are similar to those for garlic and multiplier onions, so they should be fine in the same bed. Since they make clumps the way multiplier onions do, they get planted the same way.

In addition, I saved seed from some red onions this summer. The only UGA publication specifically on growing onions that I found is one called “Organic Vidalia Onion Production.” Even though my seeds are not for Vidalia onions, the growing requirements should be the same. The publication mentions that seed for Vidalia onions should be planted in September. The Vidalia area is enough south of here that I know I am very late with my onion seeds, but I am going to put some of these into the ground with the other onion-family plants, anyway. I am hopeful that I will get, at least, some little onions. If I am lucky and we have a warmish Fall, the plants might get far enough along that I get some medium sized onions. That would be great!
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