Stacking Functions Garden


Recipe: pickled cucumbers or banana peppers

Here it is, our Nourishing Traditions-inspired pickle recipe (by request from several people).

This isn’t a recipe so much as a method — because really it could be varied quite a bit and it would still turn out great.  I like to use smallish whole, unsliced cucumbers for pickles — they stay crisper that way.  These are dill pickles, but with a more nuanced, subtle flavor than store-bought dills — imagine a dill pickle without that strong vinegar taste.

Here are your ingredients, per quart:

6-8 smallish cucumbers or banana peppers (seed and slice the peppers)
1 T. mustard seeds
1 T. whole peppercorns
1 T. whole cloves
3-4 sprigs fresh dill (the more the merrier)
2-4 cloves garlic, sliced or roughly chopped
Approx. 2 c. brine (2 T. sea salt + 2 c. water)
2-3 T. whey (optional, but highly recommended)

Sprinkle some mustard seeds, garlic, dill, and cloves at the bottom of a quart-size jar.  Fill the jar half full with cucumbers or sliced peppers.  Layer in more of the spices, dill, garlic.  Fill the jar the rest of the way with the cukes or peppers, leaving about 2 inches room at the top.  Throw in whatever’s left of spices.  Pour in the whey then top off the jar with brine until the pickles/peppers are covered.  Cover tightly and leave on the counter for 2-3 days.  Taste a pickle or pepper.  Does it taste really great?  It’s done.  Is it a bit salty?  Leave it for another day then try it again.  When they’re done, transfer to the fridge.  They will keep several months, at least.

How to easily obtain some whey

Variation: when you hit the height of pickle season, and you’ve made a few batches of these already, you will have a half-full jar or two in your refrigerator.  Instead of messing around with making more whey every time, we use a good cup or so of the liquid from the half-eaten pickle jar as an “innoculant” to get the new batch started.  Sorta like a sourdough mother, except with pickles.

Lazy woman’s variation: OK, to be perfectly honest, I leave out a lot of the spices when I make these.  And they still turn out great.  For banana peppers in particular, I like to keep it very simple and just add garlic and peppercorns to the mix.

Adam made some pints of the peppers, as well, because we have several requests for samples.

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Ever wondered what an okra plant looks like?  We’re growing it in our Hennepin County Master Gardener demo plot at Sabathani community garden this year.  I love the leaf shape.  Check it out (click to enlarge):

4-5 okra plants, from above.

Lots of baby okras coming in.

Another view.  The plants are about 2.5 feet tall right now.  The seed packet said that they would be 4 feet tall, but I don’t know if that’s possible in Minnesota (okra is a tropical plant).  We direct-sowed seed and also put in a couple of plants that we had started inside, and there is very little difference between the two right now.  The seed packet also said to stake the plants, but I haven’t found that to be necessary yet.  I love to eat okra, so I might try it in my own garden next year.  My recommendation would be to find room for at least 6-7 plants, if you’re going to grow it.  The production has been a little uneven so far, and some pickings have only resulted in 2-3 pods.  Not really enough for a meal. That looks like it’s going to change soon, though.

If you’re ever near 38th St. and 35W in Minneapolis, I highly recommend visiting the Sabathani garden (behind the community center).  It is a really cool place right now; lots of innovative gardening going on there.

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Natura Farms

Our CSA share includes two “farm day” events where we can visit one of the farms that we get our produce from, have a potluck picnic and take a tour of the farm (including picking some produce for ourselves).  Saturday’s event was at Natura Farms in Scandia, Minnesota.  I have never been so excited to be on a farm.  It’s small: only 57 acres.  This is TINY by today’s standards.  Even my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s dairy farm in the 1950s was over 100 acres.  But to see organic vegetable production at this scale totally blew me away, and humbled me (click pictures to enlarge).

All the kids in the group got really excited about picking and eating black and red currants — they have A LOT of currant bushes.

Look at all the kohlrabi!

And here’s some kale that could use a bit of weeding.  I was a little surprised at how weedy some of the rows were, but honestly, weeds are a fact of organic agriculture — when you’re weeding by hand, and you have this much to do, you’re just not going to hit up every row every day.  And weeds can often grow a foot in 2 days.

Onions.  Some of their crops have plastic mulches for weed control.  Paul, the farm manager, explained how some high-quality plastic mulches can be re-used for several years.  Makes sense.  My personal methods for weed control, including organic mulches like woodchips and straw, are really a lot harder at a large scale.

Lots and lots of pepper plants (more than 15 varieties), with apple orchard behind.

They have several windbreaks such as this one.  These are one way of preventing erosion and protecting plants from wind damage.  From the Natura website:

We’ve doubled the organic matter in the soil and more than doubled the depth of our topsoil. Earthworms love our rich soil – you can literary smell the life in it instead of petrochemical toxins. We’ve practically eliminated soil erosion by wind or water. Elevated organic matter, a multitude of windbreaks and grass middles between rows of berries, grapes and apple trees all help us achieve healthy soil.

My favorite part was when Paul mentioned that one of his favorite fertilizers is diluted molasses.  He mixes molasses, fish emulsion, and other minerals into water to feed his plants.  I don’t use liquid fertilizer in my garden, but once again on this scale I can see where it’s necessary.  Sounds good to me.  I loved this place.

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Recipe: homemade laundry detergent

As promised, here’s the recipe for homemade laundry detergent.  We’ve been using this for a few weeks now and absolutely love it.  It’s cheap to make, works great, and is non-toxic.  We do a lot of laundry, and this recipe seems to be lasting a long time.  The only ingredient I wasn’t sure about was soda ash, but I’ve done some looking around and it doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about.  Please, correct me in the comments if I’m wrong.

Homemade Laundry Powder (via McBlog)
(Makes approximately 5 cups)
2 cups (finely) grated castile soap (2 cups is the whole bar)
1 cup borax
1 cup baking soda
1 cup soda ash (“Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda”)

Use 1 heaping tablespoon for a large load of laundry.  We got a lavendar-scented bar of castile soap and the resulting laundry powder smells heavenly.  Apparently castile soap is not totally necessary for this to work (see this recipe), but it’s really nice to use something biodegradable at least.

I was really fortunate that Christina did all the legwork for me finding a nearby store (Uptown Rainbow Foods) that sells soda ash — it can be hard to find.  It is really cheap, though; I think it was less than $3 for a large box.  Apparently, if you have a hard time finding washing soda you can call this hotline: 1-800-524-1328 and have the UPC code 33200-03020 and give them your ZIP code and they will tell you stores near you that have sold it in the past 90 days.

And with that I’ve eliminated yet another non-recyclable plastic item from our home (Minneapolis doesn’t recycle plastic bottle caps).  Plus, this is cheaper than the 7th Generation laundry detergent we’d been using.

Thanks Christina!

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Recipe: homemade deodorant (with 2 variations)

Is conventional antiperspirant, which contains aluminum, bad for you?  Hard to say for sure.  The government says they can’t definitively link it to breast cancer, but they also admit that the aluminum and parabens are, in fact, absorbed into your bloodstream, albeit in small amounts.  There are rumors of aluminum being linked to Alzheimers.  I haven’t seen anything really definitive, but on the other hand I’d rather not risk it, if safer alternatives exist.  Enter the all-natural deodorant market, with products like this or Tom’s of Maine or Herban Cowboy (lol).  Adam and I have tried some of them, and they work all right.  But they are expensive, and you still have a non-recyclable piece of plastic to deal with when you’re finished.

I tried two different recipes for very inexpensive homemade deodorant.  Which one is best?  That depends.

1. Powder Deodorant
1 part baking soda
5 parts arrowroot powder or cornstarch
3-5 drops essential oil (optional)

I first saw this recipe on the Simple Green Frugal co-op blog.  It didn’t work as well for me as it seemed to for that blogger, but everybody’s different.  You can definitely experiment with the ratio of baking soda to arrowroot powder.  I started with a 6:1 ratio and increased it to approximately a 5:1.  Adam liked this stuff as well; I am going to make him his own with some manly-scented essential oil.  (He’s not really into the grapefruit essential oil that I used.)

I just put the ingredients in a half-pint jar and shook it up.  EASY.  Worked better after I increased the baking soda.  This is the cheaper of the two recipes.

I found the second recipe via my friend Christina:

2. Moisturizing deodorant
1/4 c. baking soda
1/4 c. arrowroot powder
4 tablespoons coconut oil
10 drops essential oil

Mix the ingredients together and store them in a super cute little jar.  If it seems too runny, add a little bit extra baking soda and arrowroot powder in equal measures until it reaches a consistency you like.  You only need to apply a small amount to each arm.

Notes about this recipe:
– Only recommended for people who shave their armpits — otherwise the oil will stick to the hair and soak through your t-shirt and look awful in general (fortunately it did not permanently stain Adam’s favorite t-shirt–he’s a good sport for trying).
– During really warm weather (room temp. above 80 degrees F), it takes on an oily, liquidy form.  It doesn’t gross me out, but nothing grosses me out.
– It smells like coconut.

In general, I liked both of these deodorants.  The coconut one worked a bit better, but the powder was easier to take with me–these are the kind of deodorants you will definitely need to re-apply after exercise. But they work just as well as those plastic-encased co-op ones.  Please, do not expect the performance to match store-bought antiperspirants.  Here’s how antiperspirants work.

One less thing I have to buy at Target?  Check.  One less item for the landfill?  Check.

Update, 9/26/2012: I’ve changed the recipe for #2. I now use 1 T. olive oil and 3 T. coconut oil during the colder months of the year. Otherwise, it can be hard to scrape out (if your house gets anywhere near as cold as mine does).

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Garden update

First ripe tomato of the year.  Too bad I didn’t notice the blossom end rot until I picked it.  I checked the plants carefully and removed every affected tomato, and am now watering the potted tomatoes every day so hopefully that will be the end of it.

I put these small, basic cages around the blueberry bushes.  It won’t completely keep the rabbits out, but hopefully will discourage them.

Our garlic finished curing in the garage, so Adam cleaned it up a bit further, trimming up the tops and roots a bit and brushing the dried dirt off.  Then he hung them with string in the kitchen.  Here in USDA zone 4, we have to grow hardneck garlic, so it’s not possible to create the attractive garlic braids that you often see from softneck garlic.

We have a LOT of flat-leaf parsley right now so I tried the freezer method: loosely pack fresh herbs into an ice cube tray, cover with water and freeze.  Should be really easy to throw one of these cubes in a pot of soup this winter.

Other garden happenings:
– raspberries have another week or two to go yet, but have slowed down considerably
– lots of cucumbers and banana peppers — we are pickling just about every night
– green beans are also probably more than half done
– cabbages are starting to form heads!
– cilantro, curly parsley and dill are totally seeded out
– drying some chamomile flowers and peppermint leaves to attempt making my own “sleepytime” tea
– alpine strawberries are in continuous bloom; I expect to get several handfuls yet this year

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Garlic harvest

We harvested our garlic tonight.  The kids even helped.

It was a little bit of a surgical maneuver to get them out without harming the parsnips which are right next to them.  Adam got underneath them with the fork and I dug through the loosened mud (it rained today) with my fingers and pulled them out.  Then the kids stacked them up on the grass for us.

We got some big ones!  (Rowan’s and my hands)

Here’s our whole haul, drying on a piece of cardboard in the garage.  It will cure there in the garage for two weeks, and then I’ll clean it up a little further and bring it in to the house.  There is absolutely no way this will last us the winter, but we’re probably good for a couple months.  We grew some of it out in our flower beds as an experiment this year.  It looked really  nice and — most importantly — the rabbits had no interest in eating it.  I plan to expand next year.  Well, really, I plan to expand everything every year.

In other news, I lost a good 1/4 of the tomatoes on each of my potted tomato plants to blossom end rot.  My own fault for not remembering to water them daily.  Potted tomato plants dry out so much faster.  We’ve been getting a lot of rain but apparently not enough for the potted plants.

Finally, I tried making raspberry freezer jam today.  Boy howdy was that easy.  Mix some crushed up berries, sugar, and pectin, let it sit for 30 minutes, put it into containers and freeze.  It was a very productive day; we also made yogurt,  butter, and 4 batches of pesto which are also cooling in the freezer now.  Coming later this week: PICKLES!


Growing lots of potatoes in a small space

Well, isn’t this a clever idea?!  Fill a wire frame with layers of dirt, straw, and seed potatoes, water thoroughly, and a “potato medusa” is born.  Come harvest time, simply tip it over and dig them out.  This blogger says you can grow upwards of 25 lbs of tomatoes in one of these clever towers.

Just found this blog today, from an urban farming pioneer right here in Minneapolis.  He’s starting a CSA program on his urban farm, and the whole project looks very promising.  I am definitely trying a potato tower next year.  Here are the instructions.

Update, June 14 2011: the tower experiment has officially begun!

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Knee deep on the 4th of July

I’ve been neglecting the blog a bit lately, so here’s a mega-update (click pictures to enlarge):

The alpine strawberries that I planted this spring are producing some fruit already.  They do taste pretty amazing — a very full, sweet strawberry flavor in a tiny size.  What I’ve read elsewhere is definitely true: they are shade-tolerant, but the more sun they get the more fruit they produce.  So, I wouldn’t bother with them in heavy shade.  Part shade is just fine.

Raspberry season has officially started.  This was our first picking, last week.

This was our picking today.  We are getting a ton of berries & green beans are ready now too.  We’ve frozen five quarts of raspberries so far, and are eating a good quart of them every day too.

I took this picture of the underside of our raspberry hedge to illustrate how raspberries (the old-fashioned cane variety, anyway) work: the darker woody canes are the ones that sprouted last year.  Right now they are fruiting, and then they will die.  The green canes will overwinter and produce fruit next year.  I remove the woody canes shortly after the fruit is gone.

A handful of our raspberry plants are actually black raspberries.  They start out small and red and then get darker as the fruit swells (standard red ones start out light pink).  Wow, these are absolutely delicious, a little bit sweeter than the reds.

My efforts at acidifying the soil around my Endless Summer hydrangea (in order to make the flowers blue) have given me a plant with some pink flowers and some purple.  It’s kinda pretty actually: like a natural gradient.

My new red lake currant bush also has some berries.

Here’s my sad apple tree.  It has so many diseases/infestations at this point that I’m having trouble figuring out which one is afflicting it most.  I don’t think last year’s pruning solved the fire blight problem.  We will most likely have to remove this tree next year, but we want to at least see how it does this year.  It’s got quite a few apples on.

Moving on to the vegetables, 2 inches of rain last week plus lots of sunshine this week made for some very happy veggies.  Everything is around two weeks ahead of schedule.

Garlic will be ready to harvest soon.  I will pull one later this week and see how it looks.

Banana peppers, italian flat-leaf parsley, cauliflower and a small creeping charlie weed (whoops) all co-existing peacefully.

My mistake cilantro looks quite nice next to the cabbages, and it’s attracting a lot of bees to the garden.  I’m leaving it in for now.

Cucumbers!  The plants are full of blossoms and a couple of baby pickles.  I can’t wait to start pickling.

Lots of wee roma tomatoes on the vine.  I planted all romas this year in the hopes of having enough to can some of my own.  I doubt I’ll get that many, but I can add these to the ones I plan to buy (I bought a 20 lb crate of romas last year through our CSA and plan to do so again).

We FINALLY came up with a plan for the backyard garden!  We were going to put one in this spring, but we got overwhelmed with other things, and we just never came up with a solid plan that we both like — we have a tentative plan now which I will post about soon.  We’re getting started on some of the preliminaries now, even though we won’t actually plant it until next spring.  First up: getting rid of the landscape rock next to the foundation.

And a preview of an upcoming post: why am I grating soap?  Inspired by my friend Christina, I tried my hand at making my own laundry detergent and deodorant.  Since they called for a lot of the same ingredients, I made them both at the same time.  I really like the laundry detergent so far, but haven’t made up my mind about the deodorant.  I’ll post both recipes in the near future.  (Oh, and also: HUP HUP HOLLAND!)