Stacking Functions Garden

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Book review: Building Green

Building Green: A complete how-to guide to alternative building methods
Authors: Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan

building_green_cover_largeI checked this beautiful book out of the library because Adam and I are talking about building a shed/playhouse next spring and I wanted to do a little green building research.

The whole book is basically a complete and well-photographed documentation of a little cottage that the authors built using several different alternative building methods: cob, cordwood, straw bale, and earth plaster with a living plant roof.  The entire process is covered in exhaustive detail, from initial dreams to site plans, laying a foundation, building each wall, the roof, etc.

As interesting as it was, and as beautiful as the photography was, this book really does not apply to my situation at all.  I’m not bloody likely to be building a house anytime soon, as much as I like to fantasize about it.  I need to get a “how to green up your 50-year-old, completely improperly situated (from a passive solar perspective), and possibly poorly-sited house (our house sits on a former wetland, which we didn’t know until after we bought it) without breaking the bank” book.  Does this book exist?

One of the cooler things about Building Green is that there is a ton of related content on the authors’ website.  Since the book came out, Snell and Callahan have started a business, The Nau Haus: they’ve created their own natural building system.  There are some very cool home plan ideas on their website.

If you are building a house or cabin anytime soon, I would definitely give this a read and see whether you want to incorporate some of the ideas found here.  Even if the idea of using cob or straw bales sounds horrifying to you, there are other things you can consider, such as siting your house to maximize its passive solar potential and thereby reducing your long-term heating and cooling costs.

As for our little playhouse/shed, well, we’ll see what we can come up with.

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How green? How sustainable?

This article is several months old, but I just came across it.  I was apprehensive when I saw the headline, but I actually found myself saying “RIGHT ON” more than one time.  Here’s one quote (emphasis mine):

“But the risks of pragmatism must be weighed against the risk of perfectionism. We can’t wait for the perfect solution to emerge; we need to start transforming the food system today—most probably with hybrid models, like Fleming’s or Liebman’s, that take the best of both alternative and mainstream technologies and acknowledge not only the complexity of true sustainability but the practical reality that the perfect is often the enemy of the good.

I think the title of the article, “Organic and Local is so 2008” is mis-leading, because organic and local are not going away.  They are part of the solution.  They are a step in the right direction, just like hybrid cars.

And the author is also right that educating consumers is only one step; government will need to step up or a system-wide overhaul is just never going to happen.  Read this excellent article here and let me know what you think.  Here’s one more quote (emphasis mine):

“Given that we’re not seeing spontaneous consumer demand (even after decades of consumer education by advocacy groups), we must create it via government procurement programs. Federal agencies and food programs are among the biggest purchasers of food in the world. If they didn’t buy solely from the lowest-cost bidder, as they’re now required to, but could instead source from local or organic producers, or farmers practicing polyculture, this massive new customer would remake American agriculture in a heartbeat.

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Today we went “up north” to my husband’s parents’ house.  My mother-in-law is an avid gardener and she had a rather large patch of strawberries that she wanted to thin out.  Yay!  I was hoping to get some strawberry plants in this year yet.  It doesn’t get much better than free:

gradientgardenergirlHere I am digging them up. (And seriously look how big her onions are.  I am totally jealous, though I got to take some of those home, too.)

strawberryflatWe packed up a flat and brought them home and planted them in my failed-rhubarb spot from earlier this spring.  I like strawberries better than rhubarb anyway.

strawberriesplantedI am always doing this work in half-light which really impedes my photography, but oh well you get the point.  This is the east side of the garden, at the front of the house (SE corner).  My plan for this spot is asparagus along the back, then a little walking path (yet to be installed) and then strawberries in front.  As you can see I have an unplanned hollyhock.  A HUGE unplanned hollyhock.  I planted it from seed last year and it never really did anything so I had counted it as a loss.

I love hollyhocks but this is a little bit too big; I don’t want it interfering with my asparagus.  Next year I will divide it and keep a smaller version here and move the rest…. somewhere else.

I leave you with a sweet picture of my son Rowan picking (and eating) strawberries from his grandma’s strawberry patch:

rowanstrawberrypickerComing later this week: homemade kimchi!

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CSA Week 3

csaweek3Our CSA box from Food 4 Thought arrived again today.  Suddenly my grocery shopping trips have gotten faster and cheaper.  Today’s box included:

2 heads Romaine lettuce
2 bunches collard greens
12 heads baby Bok Choi
1 bunch green kale
1 bunch purple kale
1 pint box strawberries
1 bunch dill
1 bunch French breakfast radishes

A good haul this week!  We kept both bunches of kale because we’re making this massaged kale salad for our (new) weekly CSA dinner that we’re starting with our neighbors.  We gave them all the radishes because I’ve eaten myself silly on those things.  We also gave them all the dill because we have plenty of our own.  Everything else we split in half.  Here’s our half after splitting:

csaweek3ourshareOK, I’m off to bed now.  If you want to follow our CSA progress week by week, click here.  If you’re still new to the concept of CSA, here’s a wikipedia entry on it.  I really think this will save us money as well as just being an overall cool concept.  Adam would like to add that it also helps us expand our veggie palettes.  Well said, man.

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HELP (Updated 9:30 p.m.)

Help me!  This bug is eating my pepper plants!  Anyone know what it is or how to get rid of it, short of pesticides?


UPDATE, 9:30 p.m.
Thanks to my very savvy and smart Facebook friends (I posted this on there too) I found out that this is a Four-Lined Plant Bug (Poecilocapus lineatus).  It preys on all sorts of garden vegetables.  Apparently it is not fatal to the plants it eats, but it sure did a number on my poor peppers:

pepperdamageThe recommended way of getting rid of it is simply picking it off the plant and squishing it.  This was harder than I thought it would be, since these suckers can fly!  I was a pretty comical sight, swatting around my garden tonight.  I killed 4 or 5 of them, and Adam killed 4 or 5 of them this afternoon.  Does 10 bugs make an infestation?  I’m not sure.   I’m going to keep checking several times a day for the next few days and see if I can get some more.

I am really relieved that these did not turn out to be cucumber beetles.  There is a very subtle difference.  Look at the picture above, then look at this one:


The four-lined bug has a little black triangle on its butt and the cucumber beetle does not, and that’s about it for easily distinguishable differences.  The cucumber beetle does much worse damage, transmitting the bacterial wilt organism (here’s a pdf about cucumber beetles from the U of WI extension service).  The picture above I grabbed from the University of Connecticut pest management site.

I can’t believe what an awesome gardening resource we have in university extension services/horticulture departments.  Today while hunting around for information about this bug I found The Veg Edge, a website by the University of Minnesota extension service.  It is awesome!  You can search vegetable insect profiles by plant name or insect name, and there is some really useful info on there that is specific to our region, with pictures.  Highly recommended.

Update 24 July 2009:  These bugs seemed to just go away after just a day or two of vigilant squishing.  My pepper plants survived, and thrived, and now we are eating peppers.  I’m really glad I resisted the urge to go out and buy some pesticides.


Garden update: solstice edition

Happy Summer Solstice!  Gardening in my narrow spot between two two-story buildings has really made me keenly aware of the sun’s angle.  Sad but true: in only a month part of my garden will be shaded by the neighbor’s house for part of the day.  So I hope these guys are soaking up the sun while they can.

beans62009These beans are really confusing me.  It said “bush habit” on the package, and they’re sorta bushy.  But they’re sorta vine-y too.  So vine-y that they started wrapping around themselves and the garlic over on the right of them.  So today I constructed some little teepees to give them a little bit of support.  These are “Black Valentine” beans, an heirloom variety.  Anyone else grown this type before?

peas062009Adam also added more support to our pea/pole bean structure this week.  The whole thing was on the verge of collapse, then clutsy Jennifer fell onto it and collapsed it for good.  I think my head has been elsewhere lately because I didn’t notice until today that WE HAVE PEAS:

peasLike, ready-to-pick peas!  Going to try to hold out another day or two so there’s enough for an actual meal.

brussels62009Brussels sprouts guild: It looks like my guild plan here might not work out after all.  The brussels sprouts have gotten so huge that the lettuce, green onions, and dill that I interplanted with them are now completely shaded.  I will probably still eat that lettuce as “micro lettuce” when all my other lettuce is done, but I don’t expect to get much dill or green onions.  But that’s OK because the main point was that those plants benefit the brussels by repelling insects that eat brussels sprouts (supposedly).

lettucepeppers62009Lettuce/peppers: My lettuce is ready to be picked.  NOW.  It will bolt soon.  But I have two heads of lettuce from my CSA in the fridge.  I am overwhelmed with lettuce right now.  It’s even kinda crowding my peppers right now, poor things.  If you live in or near Minneapolis and want some lettuce, send me an e-mail at jrensenbrink [at] hotmail [.] com and you can totally come and pick some up.  In return would you have coffee and talk about sustainability with me for 1/2 hour?

radishesparsnipsRadishes/Parsnips: Once again not much to see here, except the fact that the radishes are completely gone, and now the parsnips are really starting to take off.  I had a parsnip anxiety moment last week when I was afraid that only 2 or 3 of them had sprouted in the left-hand row.  Without mercy, I pulled every single remaining radish.  Shortly thereafter we got a nice rain, and a bunch of parsnips suddenly popped up.  Thank goodness.  Parsnips are my favorite garden vegetable so I’d be very sad to get a less-than-optimum harvest.  Note to self for next year: when doing companion planting of radishes/parsnips, plant the parsnip seeds rather thickly to make sure you get enough of them to germinate in the shade of the radish leaves.

tomaters062009Tomatoes: OK, this is the lamest animation of the bunch.  I cannot seem to get two pictures from exactly the same angle.  Hopefully you get the idea.  My tomatoes are freakin’ huge!  And covered with blossoms!  Yippeee!

Another thing to note about the garden:  last weekend I put down some mulch that I concocted out of:

A pile of leaves that didn’t fit into the compost pile last fall
Two bags of manure compost
A couple shovel-fuls of semi-composted compost from my bin

I put this around all the plants in my garden, to help hold in the precious little moisture we’ve been getting (we’re in a drought here in central MN) and to give them a little nutritional boost from the manure.  Here’s a picture of the entire garden, about a week ago, with the mulch just added (little to no bare ground showing anymore; that was my goal):


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CSA: week 2


Today’s CSA box was full of some gourmet goodies that I’ve always wanted to try yet somehow never gotten around to, including:

1 bunch of garlic scapes (at right in picture)
1 bunch dandelion greens (much bigger than the ones that grow in my yard)
5 huge black radishes

It also included:
1 head red leaf lettuce
2 heads green leaf lettuce
1 bunch spinach
1 bunch cilantro

These numbers are before splitting with our neighbors.  The picture just shows the dandelion greens, black radishes, and scapes that we kept after splitting because I wasn’t home yet when the box arrived and Adam was kinda busy with two overtired toddlers.  More about CSAs here.  See our week one bounty here.

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Lettuce strategy

We are drowning in lettuce right now (pictures soon I promise).  I picked some of our garden lettuce tonight.  Could have picked A LOT more, and our CSA box arrives tomorrow and that will surely also have lettuce in it.

So here’s a little note to myself for 2009: if you’re going to do CSA + garden, perhaps you should not plant quite so much lettuce.  Maybe next year I can strategize and plant more things that, if I have them in bounty, can be preserved.

Anyway I’ll do my CSA post Thursday night so check back then for this week’s installment of delicious-looking vegetables.


Milling your own flour

wheatberriesEven typing that post title, it still sounds completely crazy.  One year ago, I never would have imagined that this was where I was headed.  I wasn’t even baking my own bread yet!  Yet here I was 3 weeks ago, searching Craigslist for secondhand grain mills, and found one for $50.  I brought it home, unsure of what to expect.

grainmill1I was actually really scared to use it because Adam had read some Amazon reviews where it burned out Kitchenaid motors.  I waited a few days, then I tried milling some wheat berries.  Turns out my fears were unfounded; the Kitchenaid didn’t even heat up.  (That is one product I would heartily endorse as worth the extra money.)

We milled about four and a half cups of whole wheat flour.  We used 3.5 of those to make a loaf of whole wheat bread, and the rest we soaked in buttermilk overnight and made waffles the next morning.  Soaking whole grains (especially soaking them in something fermented or cultured like buttermilk or yogurt) makes them more nutritionally available.  It also has the added benefit of making them A LOT more palatable.

Those were the best danged waffles I’ve ever had, and they were 100% whole grain.  Light, fluffy, absolutely wonderful:


The bread turned out great too:


I got into this whole “milling my own flour” thing mainly for health/nutrition purposes.  Once again, I was inspired in part by Nourishing Traditions.  The “eat whole grains” thing is pretty much a no-brainer at this point, but I was unaware of the fact that whole wheat flour goes rancid, very quickly.  So preservatives are added to it to keep it from going rancid.  Is this what makes whole wheat products so danged heavy?  I don’t know.  But the flour that we milled produced bread and waffles that were as light or lighter than even stuff made with white flour.

I like to think there’s an eco-component to this as well.  I’ve cut out several middle men and therefore several trips on trucks for my little kernels of wheat.  And wow is it cheap to buy this stuff in bulk.  Check out these rock-bottom prices on organic grains at my Co-op this week:

Buckwheat: $1.39/lb
Rye: $.79/lb
Wheat: $1.29/lb
Spelt: $1.49/lb

So far, I am really liking this, and keep thinking of new breakfast foods to try.  This morning we made old-fashioned rice porridge, with brown rice that we had milled at the “coarse” setting and soaked overnight in yogurt.  We’ve also tried buckwheat pancakes, and have a couple loaves of bread under our belt (literally).

What do you think?  Is this about food snobbery and nutrition, or can I claim newfound eco-credentials with this new development?