Stacking Functions Garden


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Growing soil sprouts indoors

I heard about Peter Burke’s book for the first time last spring. I had already started lettuce outside, so I figured I’d wait until fall to give it a read. I requested it from the library in late October, and honestly: this one’s a game-changer. I don’t say that lightly!

Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening by Peter Burke

Book: Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening: How to Grow Nutrient-Dense, Soil-Sprouted Greens in Less Than 10 Days, by Peter Burke.

What really excited me about Burke’s process is that is has a low start-up cost. He doesn’t use grow lights, and he grows his sprouts in reusable foil half-loaf pans, wonderful for people short on money, time, and space.

I read the whole book and it seemed silly not to give it a try. My initial investment was around $40—and even if it completely failed, I would be able to use everything I bought in my regular garden next summer.

Soil Sprouts - getting started, via The New Home Economics

It was a gorgeous fall day so I worked outside this first time. The seeds I sprouted, from left to right: radish, sunflower, buckwheat, pea, and broccoli. After soaking the seeds overnight and preparing some seed starting mix (you add compost and liquid kelp to it), spread the seeds out on the surface and cover with soaked, folded up newspaper. Place in a dark, warm cupboard–warmth is important to get them to sprout quickly and without rotting.

Newly sprouted soil sprouts, via The New Home Economics

Here’s what mine looked like after several days. My buckwheat (left) did not germinate very well at all this first round; I think it was because the furnace was not running very much that week, so the cupboard was not at an ideal temperature. At this point, they did not look appetizing at all. The kids said “EW!”

Soil Sprouts, ready to eat

After placing them in a bright window for a few days, they started to look much better!

Soil Sprout Salad, via The New Home Economics

Here they are all cut up and ready to eat. I was still very skeptical at this point. Would the kids even be willing to try them? Happily, the kids tried AND liked them very much. We ate our third sprout harvest last night. Next week, I’m going to increase my production from one to two meals per week. Burke grows enough to eat these every day… will I get to that level some day? Perhaps.

I did have to order more seeds already and soon I will have to order more seed-sprouting mix. But my total cost per meal is less than what I’d pay for California lettuce, and tastes fresher. Also, because these are the “seed leaf” of the plant and not the true leaves, the nutrition levels are higher than normal lettuce. They taste so good that Anneke has been sneaking sprouts before we even harvest them.

Soil Sprouts at Seward Co-op, via The New Home Economics

At the Seward Co-op the other day, I saw that I’m not the only one experimenting with these. The prices don’t seem too terrible, but suffice to say it’s still cheaper to DIY this one.

My favorites are the sunflower and pea shoots. The buckwheat shoots taste delicious but continue to be the poorest in germination rates, though I’ve seen improvement since that first round.

This book is now on my DEFINTELY BUY list. I highly recommend giving this a try.


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This year, let’s plant for bees

It seems like the Save the Bees Movement has really gained traction this winter, doesn’t it? And thank God. I’ve had so many people ask me about what they should plant to attract bees and butterflies to their yard!

So, let’s start with some basics… First, what are bees and what are wasps? This one’s easy. Bees are fuzzy, wasps are shiny. Both are beneficial, but only one is a “pollinator.” Here are some images that should help:

Wasp on milkweed in MinnesotaHere is a wasp on some milkweed in my back yard. Notice that it’s shiny. Wasps may not pollinate our fruit and vegetable plants, but they do eat the insects that eat our fruits and vegetables. I once killed a nest of yellowjackets in my yard, but not until after my kids suffered several stings each. You have to use your best judgement on what you’re willing to tolerate as far as wasps are concerned, and be sure of what you have before you whip out the pesticide. Also, follow the label instructions to the letter. If you don’t, you’re not only breaking the law, but you could cause undue pain to a local honeybee keeper. In short, try a little tolerance.

Bee on Anise HyssopHere is a bee on some anise hyssop in my back yard. Sorry this picture is less than ideal, but you can see that it’s fuzzy. If you look from a different angle you’d also notice that its hairy legs are covered with yellow pollen. Bees eat pollen, and in the process they give us fruit, vegetables, tree nuts and honey.

Minnesota has more than 350 native bee species, and most of them live in the ground or in hollow stems of trees. So one thing you could do to help bees would be to make a bee hotel. Click here for 1 million + ideas.

But more importantly, we need to diversify our monoculture landscapes. Lawns=monoculture. Corn and soybeans=monoculture. And putting in non-native sterile nursery plants like tulips, marigolds, and daylilies (I’m guilty of having tulips) does not help, since they don’t provide pollen. Buying plants from big box stores is even worse, since many of these are treated with neonicotinoids, a pesticide that stays in the plant for… the U of M is currently embarking on research to find out how long. Neonics kill every insect that partakes of the plant, beneficial or not. Read local food writer Dara Grumdahl’s excellent Panic in Bloom for more on neonicotinoids.

Good news: it is now getting easier to find nursery plants that are neonic-free. The Friends School Plant Sale is 100% neonic-free. Bachmann’s recently announced that they are going neonic-free. The Hennepin Master Gardeners plant sale is neonic-free by design, since the plants are dug up from our own yards. Mother Earth Gardens in south and NE Minneapolis is also neonic-free. If none of these places are near you, go to a nursery. ASK QUESTIONS. If they are unable to tell you whether the plant is neonic-free, do not buy. I can’t say enough about the importance of avoiding big box stores for your plants (and not just because of pesticides; the plants are lower quality). Real nurseries will know what they have and be able to talk about it. Here is a helpful index of bee-friendly plant retailers in the Twin Cities.

So, now that we’ve covered all those topics, we get to the fun one: what should you plant? In a nutshell, go native. Most every wildflower that is native to our area will have some benefit for pollinators. Many non-natives do as well; I can think of several including dandelions, clover, dill, fennel, and the various vegetable plants that bees love to visit. Seed clover in your lawn! It will feed your grass (clover fixes nitrogen in the soil, which feeds grass) AND benefit bees.

If you’re really a gardening newbie, you could consider buying a butterfly or pollinator package, such as this delightful one from the Friends Sale. It’s a great place to start, since most plants that are beneficial to butterflies are also beneficial to bees. I would recommend buying and planting actual seedlings over one of those ubiquitous, cheap “butterfly garden in a can”-type seed packages. If you are newer to gardening it will be difficult to tell, especially with native seedlings, what is a weed.

The University of Minnesota Bee Lab also has a really nice list of native plants that help bees, and the required site conditions for each. Here’s another PDF from The Xerces Society that talks about both native and non-native plants for bees.

Great St. Jon's WortMany native flowers are stunningly beautiful as well as beneficial, such as this Great St. John’s Wort, also in my back yard.

If you’re adding pollinator plants for the first time, start small and simple. You don’t have to tear out your whole yard. But try a little plot with, say, some milkweed, bee balm, a couple of sunflowers, anise hyssop, and maybe an early spring ephemeral such as bloodroot. Note this spot must be full sun to part shade for these to thrive. And THRIVE they will; they are all very easy to grow. There’s a reason why milkweed has the word weed in its name. But I like easy, quite honestly, and I like this even more:

Anneke with MonarchQuestions? Ideas? Let’s save some bees! (Well, and let’s save the monarchs too, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.)

 


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Book review: The Art of Fermentation

Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix KatzThe Art of Fermentation
An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World
By Sandor Ellix Katz

I met Sandor Katz a few years ago, shortly after I purchased his first book, Wild Fermentation. I feel fortunate that I took a class from him when he was still relatively unknown; the likelihood that he’ll be teaching inexpensive classes at local co-ops again in the near future seems pretty low.

Wild Fermentation is a true recipe book; in it you will find recipes for things like sauerkraut, kimchee, mead, and a whole host of other fermented foods. But one of my main issues with it was that I wanted to know the WHYs of every recipe. Why is it OK to eat brined pickles that are a bit moldy on the surface? Why did my brined pickles fail? Actually, how do I know whether they failed? Why is lacto-fermentation as safe (or safer) than canning? Does lacto- mean it involves lactose?

I had a lot of questions, clearly. Some of them were answered slowly, over time, as fermentation became mainstream. When I made my first batch of yogurt four years ago, google searches turned up almost no answers. Now, there’s even an heirloom vs. modern yogurt debate. I retired my yogurt maker and switched to the oven method a year ago.

Actually, the reason I read Wild Fermentation was in search of answers to MANY questions that I had after reading Nourishing Traditions. If you’ve ever read either one of those books, or had mixed success with some of the recipes, The Art of Fermentation is an invaluable resource. It covers everything the WAPF-ers are passionate about, from proper preparation of grains to culturing dairy products to the value of live-fermented foods, but the difference is Katz includes the science and logic to back up every single claim. Wild Fermentation and Art of Fermentation are truly complements to each other.

Here were some of my favorite bits from Art of Fermentation:

Botulism
If you’re confused about the now generations-old association between canning and botulism, Katz puts this question to rest once and for all. For starters: fermenting is completely different than canning, even though it may use the same jars. The acidic environment present in any and all fermented foods prevents botulism spores from ever gaining a foothold, as they can in warm, sterilized canned food environments. Katz includes an anecdote about Native Alaskan peoples’ techniques for preserving/fermenting fish, which involve burying them in a pit in the ground. Recently, people interested in reviving the tradition have tried fermenting fish in plastic bags and buckets instead of pits, and the results have been questionable enough that the US Centers for Disease Control conducted a test. To me, this was one of the most powerful passages in the book:

Two batches were prepared the proper traditional way, and two were prepared…using plastic bags or buckets. One of each batch we inoculated with botulism; the other was left natural. After the fermentation process was complete, we tested them. To our surprise, those batches of foods prepared the traditional way had no trace of the botulism toxin, not even in the foods that were inoculated with botulism spores. On the other hand, both batch of foods prepared in plastic tested positive for botulism. The advice that came out of that experiment was—”keep on fermenting your food, but never use plastic bags or buckets, and be certain that you do it the traditional native way without any short cuts or changes.”

Do you really need whey, or what?
I found the Nourishing Traditions fermented vegetable recipes confusing. The book made it sound (to me anyway) like if you do not use liquid whey (and I was unclear whether the whey should be from raw or pasteurized dairy), that your fermented foods will not turn out. My own anecdotal evidence plus this book has now settled this issue for me. Whey: not necessary at all. There’s no harm in using liquid whey; adding it is sort of like adding a “starter”–think sourdough. In vegetable ferments, it can help fermentation get started quicker, but it’s not necessary.

Yogurt
I’ve already documented a couple different yogurt-making methods that have worked for me, and Katz says his method has evolved as well. For one thing, he uses only 1 T. of starter per quart of milk and only cultures it for about 4 hours. Also, Katz clarifies the differences between using store-bought yogurt and heirloom cultures. But this is one of the great things about him: he doesn’t fuss about contentious issues like raw vs. pasteurized milk. He wants people to ferment foods which they have access to, whatever those may be.

Butter
I’ve always been confused about what is the difference between sweet cream and cultured butter. The difference is this: sweet cream butter is made from agitating fresh cream until the butter and the buttermilk separate. Cultured butter is made from cream that has first been “soured”–on it’s way to becoming creme fraiche. To make creme fraiche, simply add 1 T. of yogurt or buttermilk to 1 c. cream and leave it out for 24 hours. Refrigerate until set for creme fraiche, or shake it up for cultured butter. Now it all makes sense!

Water
I now understand why several of my brine ferments have failed in the last few years: up until 2012, I always used tap water. Katz recommends against using city water because it has chlorine in it, which upsets the natural balance of bacteria. I had a feeling about this, so I used spring water for my pickles in 2012, and not one jar went bad. I don’t like buying bottled water, but for this one thing, it’s worth it. There are ways to de-chlorinate city water, but most simple filtration systems don’t remove enough of it. Yes, of course, I’d love to get a super expensive filtration system, but… maybe someday.

Other topics
Just to give you an idea, Art of Fermentation also covers all of the following: kombucha, sauerkraut, tempeh, miso, wine, beer, sake, hominy, coffee, cheese, salami, cod liver oil, brined mushrooms, kimchee, cider, fermented urine as garden fertilizer, sourdough breads, koji, and 100 year eggs. That’s only a sampling.  There are only a few recipes, in the traditional sense of the word; this is a book of methodology and inspiration. If you decide to make one of the more complicated ferments, such as salami, Katz urges you to read more on the subject and gives you ideas of where to start. On the other hand, with simpler vegetable and cultured milk ferments, there are SO many right ways to do them that knowing the basic methodology (and science behind why it works) is really all you need.

Fermentation, wow, who knew I would become so obsessed!? I love it!


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Recipe: chicken wild rice soup in a crock pot

Chicken Wild Rice Soup

This recipe makes a lot of soup. I use a 5 quart crock pot (a no-frills oval-shaped one we received for a wedding present 12 years ago). Adjust accordingly if your pot is smaller:

Crock pot chicken and wild rice soup
4 chicken thighs
1 onion, chopped
6 carrots
1 1/2 c. wild rice
1 tsp each of dried oregano, basil, parsley
1 pint heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Early in the morning, place the chicken and onion in the bottom of the crock pot. Fill with filtered water, leaving an inch or two at the top. Add a splash of vinegar. Set the crock pot on low or “auto” and leave it for 8-10 hours.

When you get home from work, pull out the chicken and set it on a plate to cool for a bit. Add peeled, sliced carrots, wild rice, and spices. Remove the meat from the bones and return it to the pot. Cover it and let it cook another 60-90 minutes or until the wild rice is done. The wild rice could be parboiled or soaked ahead of time to shorten this second cook time substantially.

When the wild rice splits open, turn off the crock pot. Stir in salt and pepper to taste, then stir in the pint of cream. If you use a 5 quart crock pot, this recipe makes A LOT—a good 10-12 servings. I always make big soup recipes, freeze the leftovers in pint jars, and take them to work for lunch. I know you’re technically not supposed to freeze cream soups, but I thought this one was still great after being frozen.

This soup is very simple. But as one of my favorite cookbook authors says, 90% of good cooking is good shopping (or good gardening). I used meaty free-range chicken thighs, Minnesota wild rice, herbs from my own garden, and the best cream a person can buy in the Twin Cities. Quality makes a HUGE difference. You don’t have to choose recipes with 15 hard-to-find harder-to-pronounce ingredients to serve up a satisfying, nutritious, spectacular meal. This soup really brought that concept home for us.

My initial interest in grass-based dairy and meat grew from reading how much more nutritious they are (3.5MB PDF). Now I’m completely hooked on the taste as well. Homemade soup in a jar—your hipster co-workers will be impressed/jealous.


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Recipe: Evening in Minneapolis

A friend got me a variety of teas from Tea Source last Christmas, and I absolutely fell in love with Evening in Missoula. Since my favorite co-op also sells it, I’ve had it in the house ever since.

But I’ve also gotten much deeper into growing my own teas this year. Last year was the first time I had an herbal tea harvest, and I expanded my operations greatly in 2012:

quart jars of dried herbal tea

1 quart each of dried anise hyssop, sage, raspberry leaf, chocolate mint, lemon balm, bee balm, and german chamomile. I will pick more lemon balm and mint before the first frost.

Recipe: Evening in Minneapolis Tea
1 generous pinch each of: anise hyssop, mint, lemon balm, bee balm, and chamomile. Pour boiling water over leaves and steep for a good 5-10 minutes.

The flavor of this tea is more subtle than Evening in Missoula, but then again so is our landscape. I can taste each of the ingredients, but together they combine into a deeply satisfying evening tea.

The deeper I go into back yard foraging, the more exciting it becomes—and I’ve really only scratched the surface this year. The permaculture people are really onto something. The broader implications of growing your own perennial food plants are even more exciting than vegetable gardening, really. If we can get more people growing edible, native plants in their urban and suburban landscapes, well, think of the possibilities for ourselves and our planet.  (See how excited I am?!)

So, let’s START with a list of some great [mostly] native perennials that can be used for herbal tea. All titles below link to wikipedia.

Hops: Yes, hops for tea not just beer! Apparently it can relieve insomnia and indigestion. I was wondering if hops tea would taste like beer, but it doesn’t at all. It kinda tastes like snow peas, but not in an unpleasant way. It actually reminds me a bit of bee balm tea (see below).

Mints are probably the most popular herbal tea plant. They are considered invasive, so don’t plant them in full sun unless you want them to take over. But with 100s of varieties, each with a unique and interesting flavor, they’re a great place to start. Just look at the variety of mints available at my favorite plant sale.

Anise Hyssop, like mint, is a member of the Lamiaceae family. Native Americans used it to treat coughs, among other things. It’s my favorite of all the new plants I added this year; the flavor of the tea is like a mild, aromatic licorice.

Lemon Balm is another Lamiaceae member. Alas that it is not native to North America, though it has apparently become widespread. It’s not completely hardy to Minnesota, but will survive with some winter protection such as a nice pile of mulch or snow. It can be used in any application where you’d like some lemon scent or flavor.

Bee Balm is the common name for several different plants (also lamiaceae), but in particular wild bergamot (monarda fistulosa) and scarlet bee balm (monarda didyma) were used traditionally by Native Americans. Both plants are great for supporting pollinators and butterflies. I have wild bergamot in my yard and it makes a very bright, summery tea that is more stimulating than relaxing, in my experience.

Chamomile is two different non-native plants: German chamomile and Roman chamomile. These two are cousins in the Aster family (Asteraceae). I’ve grown both, and found German chamomile easier to grow, though it really does need full sun in order to get a large number of flowers. I’ve read that Roman chamomile has stronger medicinal qualities, and is a true perennial, while German chamomile is technically an annual, though it tends to re-seed itself and come back every year.

The sage commonly grown in herb gardens is Salvia officinalis. We only started making tea with it because we had such an overabundance—one plant really gives you quite a lot. It’s neither native nor hardy to Minnesota, so it must be re-planted every year. I love sage tea in the dead of winter. I’ve never tried to ward off evil with it, but it is delightful as a savory tea or mixed with butter and spread on pork chops.

I have been looking for a local foraging source for rose hips. They are one of the ingredients in Evening in Missoula tea and I believe they might be the magical one. They’re incredibly good for you, but sadly many modern hybrid rose bushes are sterile and don’t ever produce a fruit. Rose hips are easier to find on old rose bushes at your Grandma’s house. Maybe your great-Grandma’s house. They smell AMAZING, and add a nice tart flavor to teas.

I added MN native northern lungwort (mertensia paniculata, a member of the borage family) to my rain garden this year, and apparently the leaves of this pant can also be used in teas which support (surprise!) respiratory function. My plants aren’t big enough to harvest from yet, so I’ll have to report back on this one next year.

Feverfew is related to the chamomiles, and also is not native to North America, but apparently has even stronger medicinal qualities. I’ve never grown it, because it is another pesky full sun plant and I have such limited space for full sun plants. Perhaps next year, though!

This is by no means a complete list, but it’s a start. These are all on my radar. Can you think of any others? Another foraged (but not by me) tea that I’ve fallen in love with is Douglas Fir Tip from Juniper Ridge. We’ve made it a Christmastime tradition, due to the piney scent. Yes, it does taste a bit like drinking a pine tree, but in a really good way. Am I losing it?

Update: How could I forget Raspberry leaf tea? Apparently raspberry leaf tea was traditionally used to support menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth. It has an earthy taste, but that depends on how strong you brew it. You may want to add honey.


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Yogurt: oven method

When I started making yogurt 3 years ago, I had a hard time finding information and recipes.  Now the internets are practically exploding with yogurt methods — crock pot, oven, yogurt maker, heating pad, back seat of your car, you name it. Yes, there is even heirloom yogurt now. (Thanks, Christina!)

Anyway, as my kids kept getting bigger I started having to make yogurt with my little yogurt maker twice a week. I have limited time, so I put the yogurt maker away for a while. Here’s how we’re doing it, three years later:

Start with a 1/2 gallon of the best whole milk you can get your hands on. Heat it to just around the boiling point, or 180 degrees F. Remove from heat, plunge into a sink full of cold water, and bring the temperature back down to 110-115 degrees F.

Stir in a cup or so of yogurt from your last batch. Whisk.

My oven has a setting called “proofing” — for people who have time to bake bread (some day I’ll get back into it, sniff) — it holds the oven at around 100-110 degrees.  Perfect. I bake my yogurt overnight usually, around 8-9 hours. Simple, and it makes quite a bit — usually around 80 ounces.  Still no plastic to recycle (though now the city of Minneapolis does take yogurt containers).

A little chunky for ya? That’s what happens when you use non-homogenized milk. Doesn’t bother me, honestly. A solid week’s worth of full fat yogurt from grass-fed cows who live less than an hour away (and who I’ve actually met) for only about $5. Cool!


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The time for natural animal fats is NOW

I saw this a couple weeks ago and I can’t get it out of my head.

A mother orangutan hugs her daughter as bounty hunters move in - the pair was saved at the last minute by an animal rescue group

[original source article]

Palm oil, dudes. It’s in EVERYTHING. And the increasing demand for it is causing unprecedented rainforest destruction and killing of anything that stands in the way, including orangutans.

I see two ways of addressing this.  Number one: reduce the number of highly-processed foods we consume, since so many of them contain palm oil. It’s tricky to puzzle out which products have it, because it’s usually simply labeled “vegetable oil.”

But secondly, can we also get over ourselves and start using animal fats in cooking, as people did for millennia? I’m talking about lard. Beef tallow. Duck and goose fat. Buttah. Not only are these traditional fats rich in fat-soluble vitamins, they are also cheap and easy to produce locally since they are byproducts of the meat industry. They can also easily be obtained without resorting to pesticides, GMOs, or deforestation. A win for all of us, including small family farmers AND orangutans.

And don’t think you’re innocent if you shop at natural foods stores — many natural foods products contain palm oil because, let’s be honest here, it does have some health benefits and is seen as an alternative to highly processed, GMO-based oils such as corn, canola and soybean.

Don’t be afraid of lard, OK?

For many more resources on traditional fats, visit the Weston A Price Foundation.


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Book Review: The Winter Harvest Handbook

The Winter Harvest Handbook
Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses
by Eliot Coleman

This book has been on my list for a very long time. Glad I bought it, because I absolutely loved it and plan to start using it this year.

Mr. Coleman and his family run a CSA farm in Maine (USDA hardiness zone 5a, only one tick warmer than where I live in Minnesota), and they are able to deliver certain crops to their customers all year round with some pretty amazing techniques.

We’re not talking about tomatoes here, but certain cold-hardy vegetables — greens, carrots, turnips — are actually superior in flavor during cold weather.  Coleman breaks it down: the history of winter vegetable production, the maximum-yield yearly schedule, “cold” vs “cool” greenhouses, the basics of how he handles soil prep and pests, plus the very best cold weather vegetable varieties.

This book is written with the small farmer in mind, not the home gardener. If I bought a farm tomorrow, I would use this book as a guide. But most if not all of his ideas are totally adaptable to the home garden, and actually will end up being more fun for me to experiment with since my livelihood will not be dependent on the results.

Coleman’s major discovery that has revolutionized his winter greenhouse gardening is simply this: he creates two microclimates by doubling the layers of insulation over plants.  The first microclimate is the unheated greenhouse. But the second, equally important one, is a layer of thin fabric, draped over the crops inside the greenhouse, like this:

(From Amazon.com customer image gallery, click image for source)

On average, the temperature under the inner covers is up to 30 degrees warmer than the outside temp.  This means if it gets to -15 degrees F outside, it’s still +15 degrees F under the covers. So obviously you have to have hardy vegetables, but still: a huge difference!  (And this was the first part of the book where I squealed like a little girl.)

He also talks a bit about cold frames, which are very popular for small-scale winter vegetable production. They were not practical for his farm because of the volume of food they need to produce, but he got me thinking about where I might fit one in my yard.

I can’t stress enough how useful this book would be, to me anyway, if I was starting a small CSA farm.  He talks about tools, marketing, and growing vegetables that give you the most yield per square foot, and what’s worth your time or not, in terms of how successful he’s been in the past at selling various items.

Several things that I’m going to try that I learned from this book, in no particular order:

1. I’m going to build wee hoop houses for my new stock tank gardens in the back yard and try for a late fall/early winter harvest of carrots and greens, using Coleman’s schedule and methodology.

2. I’m going to try his method for planting leeks. Most people hill up soil around their leeks as they grow, in order to get that nice blanched stem. Coleman starts his leek in large 3-inch deep seed flats.  He lets them grow until they are at least 10 inches tall. To transplant into the ground, he first digs 9-inch deep, narrow holes with a tool he calls a “dibble,” then drops the leeks in so only 1 inch of the plant is above the surface of the soil. Then there’s no mounding necessary, and he gets beautiful leeks.

3. I’m going to start a gardening calendar here on the blog in the next few days. My plan: record the dates of every garden-related event for the entire year. I hope to experiment with planting and harvest dates year-over-year and develop a better system to maximize my yield from my wee 1/4 acre.  I hope you find it [marginally] interesting!

4. I’m going to work on convincing Adam that we absolutely must add at least 4 cold frames. This will probably be about as successful as my work in convincing him that we should get chickens.

This book goes on the HIGHLY RECOMMENDED and inspirational list, for sure!


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BPA in canned foods, continued

I wrote a post just a little over a year ago about our efforts to avoid BPA in canned foods. Since then, a handful of organizations have done actual scientific studies on BPA in can liners.  The most damning of these came from the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Urine samples taken during each week of the experiment found that BPA levels increased by 1,221 percent during the week that the participants had canned soup for lunch.

“The magnitude of the rise in urinary BPA we observed after just one serving of soup was unexpected and may be of concern among individuals who regularly consume foods from cans or drink several canned beverages daily,” said Karin Michels, senior author of the study and an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard, in a prepared statement. “It may be advisable for manufacturers to consider eliminating BPA from can linings.”

(Read the whole article on MinnPost.com)

Now, I posted this article on Facebook and a friend pointed out that an increase of 1221 percent is meaningless if you don’t know the base number.  He’s not wrong, but what concerns me is this: BPA is one of *many* toxic chemicals that are now in our food and water supplies.  Measured individually, each one might come in at a safe/acceptable level, but what about when taken altogether?  No one is studying this, because it would be absolutely impossible to study scientifically. Your research subjects would have to live in a bubble.

Control is such a hard thing. We want to control every aspect of our existence, but we simply can’t. Accepting that can be so hard. I want to follow steps A, B, and C and then get result D. But life has never, ever worked out that way. I can’t do much to control the toxins I take in through the air and even to a large extent, the water.  Food, then, is one of the few areas where I do have a choice.

The study specifically mentioned canned soups; I can’t think of a easier thing to phase out.  I am not much of a cook, but soup is pretty much the easiest thing in the world to make.  Take a crockpot.  Add some water and some veggies, legumes, meat, and/or herbs.  Turn it on and leave it for 8 hours.  Done.  Every time I make soup, I double the recipe and freeze the leftovers in glass pint jars. Fast, BPA-free food.

What do you think, gentle readers?  Are you taking steps to avoid canned food?


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Drying foods for long-term storage

Here’s an area I’m just starting to, uh, get my feet wet in. A while back, I realized how fantastic certain herbs tasted when homegrown and dried. Last year, we had a very respectable herb store for the winter. We still have a bit of 2010 thyme left, more than enough to last us until April, so I didn’t dry any thyme this year.

This year I really wanted to get into growing my own herbal teas. So to that end, I planted significantly more mint in the shady area on the north side of the house. I’m not sure whether that long-term strategy is going to pay off because the mint just does not grow very enthusiastically in the deep shade. I may try more mint elsewhere in the yard next year–avoiding full sun so that it doesn’t get completely out of control. So here’s my respectable (in my opinion) first-ever herbal tea harvest for 2011:

home grown herbal teas

Left to right: foraged banana mint from a neglected garden (strange but good), peppermint from a neighbor, chamomile from our garden (we’ve already used more than half our supply) and chocolate mint from our garden. These make FANTASTIC teas. We usually just make loose-leaf tea in one of our french press coffee makers.  I love growing plants for tea — especially since so many are perennials.  Here are some tea plants you could grow:

German Chamomile: technically an annual, but I’ve had reports from other master gardeners that it re-seeds itself readily. It definitely needs full sun, and an open, breezy spot would suit it well — I’ve had mine fall victim to powdery mildew a few times.

Mint: there must be 4,000 varieties of mint, and all are perennials that do well in MN. Be aware that mint can become invasive in full sun. Better to plant it in part (but not full) shade to keep it under control.

Feverfew: looks and acts a lot like chamomile. Can be used medicinally for migraines. On my list to try for 2012.

Lemon Balm: another one with many varieties. Useful in salad dressings, too. Also on my list to plant in 2012.

Anise Hyssop: a midwest native that will tolerate part-shade. Licorice-flavor tea. On my 2012 list.

Valerian: gets four feet tall! Root is used as a sedative.

Well there you have just a few, but there are many, many more. We’ve also made tea with sage and raspberry leaves, since we usually have them in ready supply.

Here’s some more of our dry harvest:

1/2 pint (packed) rosemary, a bit of oregano, Christmas lima beans and Cherokee Trail of Tears beans. I know that dried beans are super cheap to buy, but you can’t really buy the heritage ones anywhere. They are super fun and easy to grow, so why not?! Unfortunately many of us in the Twin Cities had uninspiring bean harvests this year, but… well… there’s always next year.

Finally, sage and garlic in a very inspiring picture, photographically speaking. Good grief. Anyway, you get the idea. This will be the first time ever that we might just make it until next year without having to buy garlic. The sage should be dried out in another week.  It’s so great having some of our harvest put-by with minimal effort — drying could not be easier or less resource-intensive.