Stacking Functions Garden


2 Comments

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!


Leave a comment

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?


2 Comments

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.


1 Comment

Milkapalooza!

Yes, there is an event called Milkapalooza, and yes of course we went to it this weekend. It was a blast. Anneke, it turns out, is a natural at milking cows:

The event featured tours of the Minars’ farm, and I eagerly soaked up every minute. This was our opportunity to see where our milk comes from! And considering how much yogurt, butter, and ice cream we make with their milk/cream, a fair amount of our family’s daily calories come from this patch of grass and cows near New Prague, Minnesota. Here are some of the highlights from the tour:

Here’s the winter hoop house (not sure if that’s the right term) — it’s a simple structure where the cows go in cold weather. There is no barn for them to sleep in — this is it.  The bedding at the bottom is turned frequently, and as it decomposes, it heats up (this is all part of the process, as those of you who compost know). The heat is plenty for the cows, even in Minnesota winters.

The milk parlor was a little dark, so sorry for the low quality.  I’ve only seen a handful of milk parlors, including my Grandpa Rensenbrink’s very low-tech one, so this was very impressive. They can milk 32 cows at once!  Looking at the picture, basically cows would be facing you. The person goes down a set of stairs into a galley where they have easy access to all the udders to hook up the machines. It was pretty neat and efficient, and very clean.

The family raises pigs and chickens too, but not for commerce necessarily (that I know of anyway). Those were some darn happy pigs. Anneke naturally thought they were completely adorable and said that one in particular looked exactly like Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web.

Finally, the cows themselves. My, what beautiful girls. The milking herd is about 150 cows, which seemed like a small number to me (not really sure on that though). They have several different breeds including brown jerseys like this one. So, Cedar Summit Farms is different from conventional and even some organic dairies in several key ways:

1. The cows eat grass, and stored hay in winter. Quite a bit of acreage is required to grow that much “pasture salad,” as the tour guide called it.  Apparently when they switched from grains to grass, milk production went down.  But so did costs, so things balanced out in the long term.

2. Calves get to stay with their mother for 4-6 weeks after birth. Apparently you get much healthier calves this way.

3. The cows live a bit longer than they would if they lived on concrete, inside, their whole lives.

4. The cows still become hamburger, after 5-6 pregnancy and lactation cycles.  Sorry, but it’s true.

I know very little about dairy farming. But I liked everything I saw and heard at the farm this weekend. There were so many things to think about — and I’ve already gone on and on about how much healthier grass-based dairy products are.

This is going to sound a bit melodramatic, but I looked at this farm and saw a way to save the rural America I grew up in and love.  By making farming a bit less efficient, you instantly need many, many more farmers than we currently have.  Farms get smaller again.  Families can be supported by a smallish farm.  Rural communities have an economy again.  Everyone wins.  You can set aside the health, environmental, and animal welfare implications of “agribusiness” as we know it, and the bare economic facts point to smaller, greener farms being much better for people and communities.

Now the challenge: how to talk people into making the switch to milk that costs twice as much. And, how to get the government to subsidize farm programs that actually benefit real farmers instead of corporations — because conventional dairy farming, like so much else in our society is partially a product of subsidies both to corn and oil. It’s not sustainable. Things have got to change.

[ Blushes, thanks you very kindly for reading this far, and steps off soap box ]


11 Comments

DIY potato tower

Last fall I came across this idea for a way to grow lots of potatoes in a very small space.  This year I’m trying it in my yard.  I made a couple of improvements on Stefan’s design, after eavesdropping (so to speak) on a conversation on his Facebook page.  Without further ado, here’s how I did it:

1. Bend some steel fencing into a 36-inch diameter circle and fasten. Ours is nearly 5 ft. tall, but it does NOT need to be… 3-4 feet tall would be plenty.

2. Make a nest of straw in the bottom, and fill it with a 50-50 mixture of compost and old leaves.  Nestle 5-7 seed potatoes, with eyes pointing to the outside, all the way around the circle.

3. Get a soaker hose in there, too.  Continue layering up: straw, compost/leaves, seed potatoes, soaker hose, repeat until you run out of seed potatoes.  Put a final topping of compost and straw on top, and you’re done.  Here’s another view:

Here’s the completed potato tower:

It needs to be in a sunny location. Stefan of Growing Lots claims that people have gotten upwards of 25 lbs of potatoes from 5 lbs of seed potatoes in towers like these.  The two main changes that we made from his design are putting in the layers of straw, adding the dry leaves, and the soaker hose.  He pointed out that it’s really difficult to water the lowest layers, without it.

And here’s what it looked like about 3 weeks later (about a week ago). The plants are even bigger now.  There aren’t quite as many sticking out of the bottom as I would have thought, but it seems like the majority of the seed potatoes sprouted.  Now we wait!

See the post from Fall 2011 when we harvested our potatoes.


2 Comments

A complete takedown of the USDA guidelines

Interested in nutrition, and the new USDA dietary guidelines?  This is a must-read, study-by-study breakdown of the new eating rules the USDA has decided are good for us.  Here’s a quote that spoke to me:

A recent Dutch study showed that full-fat fermented dairy was inversely associated with death from all causes and death from stroke. A large study of Australians, published in 2010, showed that full-fat dairy appears protective against cardiovascular death. Yet another study, this one from 2005, showed a significant inverse association between full-fat dairy consumption and colorectal cancer. Another study still linked vitamin K2 from full-fat cheeses to reduced risk of death from all causes, as well as a reduction in aortic calcification. And a review from 2009, examining 10 different dairy studies, noted that some types of saturated dairy fat have a neutral effect on LDL, and full-fat cheese—compared to other dairy products—seems to have the strongest inverse relationship with heart disease.

And that’s just the section on whether fat-free/lowfat dairy products are your best choice.  Read the whole thing; it’s spectacular. (via Michael Pollan)


2 Comments

The Grocery Budget, 2010

(Final harvest, October 2010)

I’ve just completed my yearly review of our grocery budget.  Despite my big goal of reducing our grocery expenses in 2010, we actually increased how much we spent.  #sadtrombone

To review:
Total grocery expenditure, 2008: $7,661
Total grocery expenditure, 2009: $7,609
Average for both years: around $640 a month

Now for 2010:
Total grocery expenditure, including CSA: $8,273
Monthly average: around $665

Yikes, that’s $25 more per month!  How did this happen?  A few reasons off the top of my head:

  • We switched to butter from grass-based cows. Sometimes I make it myself, sometimes I buy PastureLand butter.  Either way, it’s both expensive and tasty. And packed with vitamins of course.
  • We bought our meat mostly in the form of meat bundles from the co-op.  You get nicer cuts of meat, like steaks, roasts, etc., for a lower per-pound price.  When we buy meat off the shelf we tend to just get the cheapest cut we can find.  Nobody needs that many drummies.
  • Started buying more non-food items, like soap and toothpaste, at the co-op.  This is partly to avoid going to Target, and also partly to try and support local merchants.  So, I should really run our Target numbers because we probably reduced our monthly Target bill by at least $25.  There.  I feel better already.

SO instead of being unrealistic about 2011, how about this: I will just try to hold the line and not increase again this year.  The only major difference coming up this year is that we are discontinuing our CSA.  I was disappointed in the amount of produce we received in our weekly box.  I also have plans for some major garden expansion this year, so we might be able to grow enough of our own to have plenty to eat and still put some by for next winter.

Here are my grocery budget posts from last year: Part 1 | Part 2