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.
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