Time to think about gardening!

It’s snowing furiously outside at the moment. It probably seems crazy to think about gardening this time of year, but this is when we start to plan for the upcoming season. Where we live, the growing season us typically from the end of May til the end of September. Gardening, like most things worth doing, takes preparation and advanced planning. There are seeds and stock to buy, beds to build, repair, and manage, plants to start, and much much more.

We’ve recently bought nearly 100 types of seeds not counting seed potatoes and sweet potato slips that we’ll start ourselves this weekend likely (see prior post on growing sweet potatoes). This year we aim to grow several thousand pounds of produce. Yes, you read that right several thousand pounds. Why so much? We aim to grow as much of our own foods as possible. This includes food for immediate consumption throughout the growing season as well as food to store for the winter. We also like to share with others and this gives us the means to do that.

Here’s some of what we’re growing (multiple varieties of each):  Amaranth, Beans, Beats, Broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, Burdock Root, Butternut Squash, Cabbage, Cantaloupe, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumbers, Eggplants, Jerusalem Artichokes, Kale, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Lettuce, Melons, Onions, Peas, Peppers, Potatoes, Pumpkins, Rutabaga, Salad Greens, Salsify, Scorzonera, Shallots, Spinach, Squash, Tomatoes, Turnip, Watermelons, and Zucchini.

As you can see, that’s not your average salad garden! We’re not sure we’re finished procuring all we’ll plant either 😉 We enjoy variety, color, and diversity in our diet. Many of these items can be consumed this summer and fall and many will be canned, frozen, or sent the root cellar for keeping through next winter.

While we are big believers in organic and open-pollinated seeds, we do not exclusively use them. Why? Because we want to strike a balance between open-pollinated seeds and a good yield. If we grew only open pollinated varieties, we’d likely have less yield. That’s because hybrid plants have been selectively bred to resist pathogens and disease. If we could devote ourselves full-time to this effort, we could get good yields with open pollinated varieties, but it would take time that we cannot commit at this time. A combination of organic, heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrids is the best combination for our needs. We purchased nearly all our seeds from Johnny’s and Baker’s Creek. Both companies offer great selection of beautiful seeds with good germination rates.

We’re having a local nursery business start much of our seeds for us this year. This benefits the local economy and spares us the space and expense of starting seeds. It’s not as easy as many might think. Hopefully, we’ll move to a suitable property where we can expand and setup a small greenhouse to start plants. Until then, having a professional start them for us is a cheaper alternative.

We have several large garden plots on our property as well as several raised beds. To accommodate all we want to plant this year, we’re going to add about 10 4’x8′ raised beds and some additional plot space. There are many benefits to raised beds;  they make managing the soil easier, weeding easier and less frequent, erosion control, they can help control the delicate air/water mixture needed for good yield and a host of other benefits. Additionally, they don’t require digging and can be filled with a growing medium works for our environment. We’ll likely be building ours out of engineered decking planks. These offer rot resistance without chemicals leaching into the soil that could be harmful and should be easier to acquire than cedar.

How bout you? What steps do you take this time of year to prepare for gardening season?

Kefir: The dairy “swiss army knife”

One if the things we’re interested in doing is maintaining a good variety of healthy foods, but in a way that is affordable and sustainable. At this time, due to where we live, we cannot  get a cow or goats for milk. Despite this, we still want to be able to produce simple dairy products on our own without having to depend on the market for every dairy product. We still have to purchase milk, which we get raw from a local farmer.

Enter Kefir – an ancient fermented milk drink that has been around for eons. We think that kefir is the swiss army knife of dairy for those looking to be able to use one item to produce a variety of other items. Kefir on it’s own is much like yogurt and offers all the same benefits, but in bigger doses and with less work. If kefir grains are added to fresh milk, they will ferment the milk within 24 hours. Once fermented, the resulting kefir can be left to sit for another 1-3 days during which time it will separate into curds and whey. The curds can be eaten, or further refined into “laban” which can be used as cottage and cream cheese right away. Or, salt can be added to this laban and becomes the basis for harder cheeses like cheddar and Parmesan cheese. Also, kefir can be fermented to different lengths and strengths producing different tastes and usefulness.

This whole process does not require refrigeration and is a good way of getting usefulness from milk without energy use. Further, the kefir grains are constantly growing and multiplying, thus keeping the owner in a constant supply of kefir grains to eat, use, or share with others.

This is all in addition to many health benefits known to accompany kefir!

If you’re looking to add a “tool” to your simple life arsenal – particularly if you have access to a fresh supply of milk – consider kefir! You won’t be disappointed!

Harvesting Broccoli

Today we pulled our first head of broccoli out of the garden for our dinner. We thought it would be a good topic to cover.

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Broccoli Ready To Harvest

Knowing when the broccoli is ready
There are a few ways to determine when broccoli is ready to harvest. First, it must have a head of broccoli of course! Second, the florets (the smallest part of the broccoli that you eat) should be about the size of a match head. Lastly, the color of the florets should be a dark green. If the florets are mostly yellow, your broccoli is either not ready to eat, or it has a nutrient deficiency or disease. If the rest of the plant looks healthy, assume that it’s just not mature yet. The picture below shows what a “ready to eat” head of broccoli looks like. We had hoped for larger heads of broccoli, but we’ve had a weird growing season and our soil was not in prime shape.

Cutting the head of the broccoli

Cutting the head of the broccoli

How to harvest
Harvesting broccoli is very easy. With a sharp knife, make a quick clean cut 5-6 inches below the florets where the stems gather into the main stem of the plant. We like to have an inch or so of the main stem  on the cut piece. This makes it easier to handle and store until used. Once the head of the broccoli has been removed, you’ll likely notice that the remaining stem is hollow. This is normal.

The remaining broccoli plant

The remaining broccoli plant

What do to with the remaining plant
Some might assume that the remaining plant has no further use. Others might assume that the remaining plant will re-sprout a new head of broccoli. Neither is exactly accurate. Assuming favorable conditions (sun, water, temperature), the remaining plant will sprout additional smaller heads of broccoli from the side of where the main head was removed. These are perfectly edible and make a fine addition to salads, or cooked as a side item. These generally will not be very large.

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Cabbage Worm hidden among the florets

Things to watch for
In our neck of the woods, we have to deal with Cabbage Worms, which are actually not a worm at all, but a caterpillar. These are the larvae from cabbage moths which are actually not a moth but a butterfly. Confused yet? Anyway, we could spray for those I suppose, but they’re just as easy to pick off the plants (this is referred to as “mechanical” pest control). We take the worms and feed them to the chickens who despite not liking broccoli, enjoy these pests! We like this because we use the worms to our advantage to keep the chickens happy and healthy.

After you harvest your broccoli, check for cabbage worms. They’re easy to spot. They’re dark green and contrast well with the stalk of the broccoli. Just pluck them off. You could also try filling a bowl or pot with water (a little at a time) and inserting the head of broccoli upside down into the water. This should make the worms climb up the stalk where they’ll be easier to remove. If you do this too fast, you’ll just drown the worms and then they’re harder to get off. Of course, you can also look for them after cooking, depending on how you cook. That’s admittedly not such a nice experience ;-).

Finishing the Root Cellar

When we moved into our house years ago, we had no idea that we had a root cellar. From our point of view, we had a wet, nasty closet area off our foundation that needed to be cleaned up and made to stop leaking. Needless to say, as we came to understand the value of root cellars and what they were, we were glad that we had not been able to make a significant change to our root cellar since moving in.

We were able to put an insulated door on the root cellar, paint it, run electricity to it, and build shelves turning it into a great place to store our potatoes, sweet potatoes, homemade wine, canned goods, etc.

Vented Root Cellar

A good root cellar has a few components – good insulation, high humidity, and good ventilation. We had plenty of humidity, plenty of insulation (the ground) but no ventilation. We fixed that by adding vents. This was easily done by drilling holes in the foundation (through the cement block) and running 1 1/2″ PVC pipe through the side, then up through the flower beds outside. We used a bend at the top to keep out rain and a screen on each one to keep the critters out.

Root Cellar

The way this works, the supply vent should bring cold air (when it sinks) down the pipe and into the root cellar. The source pipe goes nearly to the floor and the vent pipe on the adjacent wall has a vent at the top, to let the rising hot air escape. We decided to give it a little assistance by adding a powered fan to the vent. This was done using a few PVC fittings from Lowes and carving out a spot for an old computer exhaust fan wired to a 12v DC cordless phone power cord. We then plugged it into a timer like this to have it come on at the cooler parts of the day to cool off the root cellar and keep the fresh air moving through.

Root Cellar with Shelves

Lastly, we added shelves made from furring strips. This was a cheap alternative to purchasing shelves and allowed us to make custom-fit shelves for the root cellar. It took just under four bundles of furring strips (10 to a bundle) to finish – so for about $40, we were able to build simple shelves that would allow the air to circulate through the shelved items.

We plan on covering the nasty floor that is currently there with some small gravel. This will allow us to spray water on the floor that will then evaporate to maintain the humidity at or around the 95% humidity that root cellars need.

If you don’t have a root cellar, they’re easy to make in many homes. Just find a non-heated section of your basement (preferably with no window), wall it off with well-insulated walls and a door and vent it. Most people tend to aim for an ideal temperature in the mid 50’s. This keeps things like apples, potatoes, onions and garlic, sweet potatoes, etc. good for just about the entire winter.

In our case, this allows us an energy-free (mostly – when the fan isn’t running) means of preserving the freshness of our summer harvest. If you don’t yet have a root cellar but enjoy growing your own produce – consider a root cellar as your next DIY project!

Adding kitchen waste to your garden without composting – should you do it?

We’ve seen many people skip the compost process and place their kitchen waste directly into their garden. While this won’t kill your plants, there’s some things to consider when taking this approach.

Among other things, one of composts’ benefits is providing nitrogen (N) to the plants in your garden. The process of composting is actually one of micro-organisms breaking down the decaying material. Here’s the thing – these micro-organisms require nitrogen for this process. Until the process is finished, the composting process will TAKE nitrogen. If this is happening in your garden rather than a properly constructed compost pile, your plants will suffer from a lack of nitrogen to the decaying waste in the soil rather than receive from it. This must be overcome with additional nitrogen. What value then is there in doing this? Personally, we think it’s best not to put non-composted material onto your garden unless it’s mulch which will not have this same effect. Unless you generate a LOT of kitchen waste, it’s not likely that it’s really acting as mulch.

That doesn’t mean you cannot add this waste to the garden before it’s composted, but one would wonder what is the benefit since you’ll need additional nitrogen to compensate for what’s used in the break down process? Until it’s composted, the waste will not provide many benefits. Rather, it will take longer to decompose into valuable nutrients than if it were in a compost pile and could also attract all manner of undesirable pests and critters to your garden – not to mention it will likely smell. Not to mention, who knows if things like Salmonella would easily transfer from kitchen waste onto your otherwise fresh veggies 😉

Save yourself the trouble and build a compost heap or pile. You’ll be able to receive benefits faster this way and with far less hassle.

Growing and Harvesting Sweet Potatoes

Today we had the fun experience of harvesting sweet potatoes. Here in PA, we aim to harvest them before the first fall frost which is still nearly a month away. We could have waited a few weeks to let the potatoes get a bit bigger, but sometimes we just harvest when you get the itch!

Getting started growing sweet potatoes
Growing sweet potatoes is very easy, but it requires some patience and forethought. We started back in Feb/March during the winter by visiting our local grocery store and selecting a few small sweet potatoes. Next, we place them in mason jars that with water covering about 1/3 of the tuber. To keep the tuber still, we placed large skewers (broken into smaller lengths) like one would use for grilling into the top of the tuber so that the tuber’s weight rested on these skewers keeping the bottom of the tuber off the bottom of the jar. This is because some of the slips that begin to grow do so from the bottom. It’s just a preference of ours.

How long will they take to sprout!?
After several months (like 2-3), we had healthy slips growing from the submersed tubers. It will seem like forever before they start to grow. They might not grow, but give it a chance! About 1-2 weeks before you intend to plant the slips, remove them from the submersed tuber and place them in their own jar of water. They will re-sprout “water roots”. These will be important for getting the plant established.

When to plant outdoors
When the soil is good and warm (sometime in May for us) , mound up some well cultivated soil into a pretty large furrow. You want the mound to be deep enough to allow for some good tuber growth. Make sure the soil is well cultivated. We added a little bit of composted horse manure and also some peet moss as well. Next, cover the mound with black plastic or landscape fabric, then punch 1″ or so holes about every 18″. We only ended up with 6 usable “slips” from the above process, so we spaced ours out a bit more. Use a stick or something similar to drive through the holes in the black plastic/fabric down into the soil a good 12″ or so. Place a slip in each one, then lightly pack the soil back around the slip and water each slip well. Over the growing season, be sure to occasionally side-dress the tubers with some fertilizer (we use fish emulsion). In several weeks, the slips will start to expand and voraciously cover the surrounding area. It will be somewhat invasive at times, so bear this in mind when choosing a location to plant!

How long do they take to grow and how do you harvest?
Most varieties take from 95-110 days to mature. When that much time has elapsed, or just before the first fall frost, pull back some of the black ground cover and paw around the base of one of the plants. You should find some nice-sized tubers!

This is what a cluster of tubers will look like when you start to paw around

This is what a cluster of tubers will look like when you start to paw around

To harvest, remove the top ground cover of the plant, pull back the black ground cover and gently start to paw around where the base of each slip had been planted. You should find collections of 6-10 tubers where each slip had been with occasional tubers in between or at the edges. We use our hands to harvest and it’s something nearly the whole family enjoys. Harvesting tubers is a very kid-friendly thing to do. You’ll want to encourage your children not to pull on the tubers too hard, and not to use tools that will pierce the potatoes. Aside from that, it’s kind of like digging for treasure.

Once harvested, allow to sit for 6-8 hours in the sun, then move indoors to a warm (70-80℉) room for another week or so before placing in storage. Sweet potatoes should hold up well in a cool dry place for the winter (root cellar, garage, basement, etc).

Gotchas!
We found that deer really like to eat the sweet potato greens. See our previous post about deer repellent to read how we prevented this. Also, it’s important to regularly inspect the area surrounding your black ground cover. It’s quite common for burrowing rodents to sneak under their and harvest your tubers for you! Perhaps a cat could help with this task 😉

How about yield?
Only 5 out of our 6 slips survived because one snapped while planting. For each slip planted, we grew approximately 6-10 tubers averaging about 3-4 lbs. of tubers per slip. Next year we’re planning on planting quite a few more slips and planting them closer together which would have given us a higher yield. For our family of five, we grew just about the number of potatoes we’d eat over the winter months. We might use 3-4 tubers in one meal and eat them every other week or so at most, so this is sufficient yield for us. We would prefer to grow about 20-30% more than we require to share with others, account for spoilage, and also to set aside some for next year’s seed.

Our harvest of Sweet Potatoes from 5 slips

Our harvest of Sweet Potatoes from 5 slips

What about the greens?
We’ve read that some people harvest and eat the sweet potato greens as well. Apparently in Japan, their quite common. We’ve never done so. Today, we fed our greens to the chickens to give them some nutritious snacks.

Keeping the deer out of the garden – and people too!

Several weeks ago, we noticed that despite our efforts up til that point (ie. a four foot fence), that deer were still gaining access to one of our gardens. They were unfortunately helping themselves to the green leaves of our beets which ended up making the yield lower. When they tired of beets, they moved on to the sweet potato greens next.

Frustrated, having spent hard earned resources on the now impotent fence, I looked for other options. Do a google search and you’ll find some pretty strange solutions from CD’s to human hair, etc. I had recently been given some deer and rabbit repellent in a small spray bottle but there was no way that would cover the entire garden area. Further, we didn’t know if we really wanted to spray that stuff on something we were going to eat. After some research, we discovered that the Deer and Rabbit repellent version of Liquid Fence was just natural ingredients like eggs, garlic, pepper, etc. More on that in a second.

Liquid Fence Deer and Rabbit Repellent

Earlier in the summer, we ventured into using Fish Emulsion as a natural, organic fertilizer. This was the recommended product of the producers of much of our seed stocl. It’s good stuff as fertilizer, but boy does it stink! See where we’re going with this? 😉

Alaska Fish Emulsion

So because we apply the fish emulsion every other week or so, we decided to add some of the liquid fence into the mix and put it all in a sprayer to make it easier to mist the leaves of the plants that the deer were becoming fond of, and also side dress the other crops. The combination of these two ingredients would likely raise the dead to life  it’s that potent! If you value your neighborly relationships – use wisely! We found that after letting it sit in the sprayer for two weeks, it’s even MORE potent. We hope we’ve not ruined hunting season for our area hunters by sending all the deer away.

The benefits of this are two fold 1) critter repellent and 2) fertilization. Adding the two together assures that we keep the smelly stuff coming as often as the fertilizer and provides compelling reasons to go out every two weeks to do both. Drop the ball on the fertilizing, and you not only make the plants suffer, but weaken their defenses against critters. It’s proven to be a valuable symbiotic relationships thus far.

As a side note – we also picked up some bath soap from a surplus-sort of store for $.40/bar or so. We cut these in half, drilled holes in them, then hung them on every fence post. The combination of these two things has given our garden a welcome break from deer, rabbits, even children ;-). If they continue to work so well, we may try going fenceless next year!

If you’ve got your own recipe for some world-class anti-critter stink, post it in the comments so we can try it!