Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Poor planning

About that kale.  I planted some seeds.  And they sprouted!  Not that that’s terribly unusual, at least when you use seeds that are from the last couple of years.  Now, I have 3 different kinds of kale, and nowhere to put them now that they’re doing their thing with the growing.  

I don’t have the greatest planning skills, clearly.

But there are these things that I’ve been looking at for a while.  SIPs.  Self Irrigating Planters.  You can buy them in any number of stores or online, but those suckers are expensive.  Like, $40 for a tiiiiiiiny planter.  

Why not just use a regular pot?  
Or the ground?  

Well, I have this problem.  With sand.  My backyard should be oceanfront, that’s how sandy it is.  

There’s this other problem.  With my apartment.  I don’t have a spigot in my backyard.  It’s the worst.  I have to haul water from the house.  And for someone with my proclivity for dropping things, it can be... messy.

So these SIPs.  I read on a blog (imagine that) instructions for making my own 35 gallon SIP.  And it looks pretty damn easy.  With things that I could easily find in any home improvement store.  I even made a spreadsheet for material costs!


Where Found:Item:Cost:Quantity:Total:
Home DepotSterilite 35 gal. Latch Tote$14.972 $29.94
Easy Gardener WeedBlock3 ft. x 50 ft. Polypropylene Landscape Fabric$9.97 1$9.97
1/2 in. x 10 ft. PVC Sch. 40 Plain-End Pipe$1.78 1 $1.78
4 in. x 10 ft. PVC Sch. 40 DWV Plain End Pipe $16.51 1 $16.51

So, not including the potting mix or fertilizer, two of these are going to cost around $60.  Which is amazing, considering I haven’t been able to find any of this size for under $200.

Now, I just have to make a couple of these puppies, stick my kale in their new high-rise luxury condo, and wait for the sweet, sweet taste of ingenuity.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Macaroni and Cheese with a twist

I love macaroni and cheese.  But really, who doesn’t?  Well, except if you’re lactose intolerant, or vegan, or gluten free, or just don’t like cheese (who are you?  We probably can’t be friends.)

Anyway, because of my love of macaroni and cheese, I don’t make it very often.  It’s a matter of dignity, see, when I come face to face with a dish of homemade mac and cheese, I lose it.  It’s messy.  There’s some grunting, and rooting, and noodles and cheese sauce flying...  And then it’s over, and I end up bloated with my pants unbuttoned and cheese in my hair.  

Ok, so maybe it’s not that bad.  I don’t usually get any cheese in my hair.  

But because I’ve found that I can’t seem to control myself when it comes to this, I’ve tried to make the dish a little more redeeming.  I add healthy stuff to it.  Specifically squash or pumpkin.  It doesn’t change the texture at all, the overall flavor is just slightly sweetened, and I find the color a little more vibrant than if the squash is left out.  Overall, it’s still delectable, but with some added fiber and vitamin content.

Here’s what’s in it:

⅓ c. butter
⅓ c. all purpose flour
2 tsp. mustard powder
1 tsp garlic powder
½ tsp smoked paprika
2 c. cooked winter squash pureed or mashed * (I’ve used pumpkin but this time it was butternut)
3 c. milk (I use 1% since this is what we drink in my house.  I’ve done it with skim before, too)
1 lb cheese freshly grated** (I prefer a mix of things, this time I used half NY extra sharp and VT      extra sharp)
lots and lots of fresh ground pepper
1 box dried macaroni (I used Dreamfield’s crazy low carb pasta.  Use what you like)

In a medium saucepan melt butter over medium low heat.  Whisk in flour to make a roux.  Keep stirring over medium low heat to remove the pasty taste from the flour.  Here’s where I’m weird, I add the dried spices now.  Mustard, garlic, paprika all go into the roux.  It turns an awesome color.  Toss in the squash*.  Whisk in the milk.  As it heats, it will begin to thicken.  

Toss the pasta into boiling salted water.  You had that going, right?

Once your sauce thickens, you can add your cheese.  If you’re baking this at the end, reserve about a cup of cheese to sprinkle over the top.  If you don’t want to, that’s fine too, I’m flexible.  I typically turn the burner off at this point and let the residual heat melt the cheese slowly.  Then I turn it back on because it’s taking too long and I’m impatient.

Check your pasta.  You want it on the slightly underdone side of al dente.  Drain, and toss it back into the pot.  Now dump in your cheese sauce.  Marvel at the beauty that is macaroni and cheese.  But you’re not done.  Taste test for seasonings.  I typically find that mine needs some salt to counteract the sweetness from the squash.  And then I stand over the pot with my pepper grinder for about a full minute.  I like pepper.

Taste it.  Go ahead, I give you permission.  Add more of whatever it needs.  More garlic powder?  How about mustard?  Be creative, fresh or dried herbs, veggies, anything can go in this stuff.  Done?  Okay then.  This is where we divide.  Sometimes I like to eat my macaroni like this, straight out of the pot, coated in creamy sauce.  However, most of the time, I bake it.  Throw it into a 9x13 inch pan, top with that reserved cheese, and throw it in the oven at 400F for about 15-20 minutes.  Heaven.

Recipe Notes:

*Mine was mashed and then I used an immersion blender once I added the milk to smooth it out since I didn’t want the chunks of squash to be noticeable. This method also has the added benefit of smoothing out any bits of roux that may be gloppy.  But I bet it would still be totally awesome if you left some bigger bits of squash in there.

**Pre-grated cheese has this stabilizer powder coating it that makes it not stick together, this is yucky and I don’t like the way it melts, which is why for melting purposes, I always grate my own cheese.

***Unrelated: I have actually found that my mac&cheese with the squash re-heats in the microwave better than the un-squashed version. Maybe the squash holds the sauce together and doesn't allow it to separate upon re-heat? I have no idea. Just a fun little fact.

This is clearly not a low-cal dish.  Again, why I don’t make it often.  It usually lasts long enough for dinner and maybe two lunches the next day.  But that’s just me and my very tall boyfriend with an enormous appetite.  He had three helpings for dinner last night.  I had two, and some broccoli thrown in the second (because I’m being healthy).  What?  Don’t judge.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Better late than never?

As per my usual M.O., I have nothing ready to go in my winter “garden”.  It’s almost November, and I don’t have a cabbage or broccoli seedling to my name.  

This time, it wasn’t for lack of trying.  Ok, so maybe it sort of was a lack of trying.  But I managed to start a flat of seedlings in September.  An entire flat guys!  Eight or ten different varieties of plants.  About six of each variety.  

I was all excited about my new coconut-based organic seed starting mix.  A little dry, but it held moisture pretty well.  And the color change from wet to dry was so drastic that I could see the difference even from my upstairs bedroom window.  

I did everything right.  Appropriate watering, sunlight, protected from the more harmful elements.  I could taste the kohlrabi now.  It was going to be a glorious winter of cabbage, kale, cauliflower, broccoli...  Mounds of snow peas...

Three days later, the first seeds popped their heads out of the dirt.  Awwww.... I love it when they’re so tiny like that.  Three tiny plants striving for the sun.  I couldn’t wait for their brothers and sisters to join them in that journey towards... feeding my face.

Days later, those three little seedlings were still standing.  But they were the only ones.  

My germination rates SUCKED!

To be fair, I was using seeds that were 1-2 years old.  But still, I should have had a better time of it than that.  I even over-seeded all of those cells.  So many tiny cabbage seeds wasted...  

I bought some new seeds.  They’re in, waiting for me to get my crap together again.  I just haven’t had the heart.  I keep looking at that abandoned flat and shake my head.  

  • “Where am I going to put them if they sprout?”  
  • “I just don’t have the time.”
  • “I’ll need to buy more potting soil.”

Whine, whinge, complain, bitch, moan.

But now I want some kale.  So I’ll be planting those suckers today.  Temperatures be damned.

Don’t worry, I’ll keep updating on their progress...

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Soil Problem

In my area, the main component of my soil is fine sand.  Technically, as I learned today,  it’s called “Bonneau fine sand, 2 to 5 percent slopes”.  The USDA has this handy website that has data from soil tests from all over the country, so if you’re really excited to learn about your soil’s “parent material” (mine is sandy and loamy marine deposits), you should check out this website: http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/

Right, the reason I brought up my soil composition is because of my plans for my new (since August) tiny backyard.  I have these plans.  They’re for growing plants.  In the dirt.  Novel, right?  Now, I’ve been a small container gardener for a couple years now.  And it’s ok.  I can stick a plant in a pot and it’ll usually do pretty well.  I’ll get some veggies, and I usually won’t kill it.  But that’s not how I was raised to garden.  I like to really get in there.  Digging deep, dirt flying, soil up to my armpits.  Did I mention that my boyfriend calls me his dirt child?  Yeah...

Anyway, this sand, this planting medium that I’m plagued with, isn’t the greatest for holding organic matter.  Compost, manure, leaves, mulch, they all disappear after a time.  And I don’t mean that it breaks down (though it might...), I mean that it’s gone.  Poof.  Like it gets eaten, or blown away, or carried off on a swift current.   According to the USDA, my area’s typical profile looks something like this:

  • 0 to 9 inches: Fine sand
  • 9 to 29 inches: Fine sand
  • 29 to 38 inches: Fine sandy loam
  • 38 to 84 inches: Sandy clay loam
That’s a lot of sand to amend.  And the sand is eating my soil amendments.  From what I’m told, it’s not impossible to amend sandy soil, but it requires a lot more work and money that I am willing or able to spend.  

So I’m going to ignore the sand almost altogether.

Enter the world of raised beds.  

From my research, I have narrowed my options down to three.  
  • Hugelkultur
  • Lasagna or Layered beds
  • Purchased garden soil
Each has its pros and cons, and I’ll be going over all of them in depth in later posts.

Now, I’m still working on the logistics of this.  Do I want to contain my raised beds, or just build a pile of stuff?  Should I dig into the sand?  Or just lay everything on top?  I have many questions, and I’m excited to find my answers.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Moving on up! Erm, right?

This is more for my personal reference than anything else.  But if I find it useful, maybe someone else will, also.

The USDA released a new hardiness zone map in January of this year.  It appears that I have been bumped.  Instead of staying in zone 8b, my city has, by the skin of its teeth, been moved into 9a.  Not a huge difference, to be sure.  But this may actually require some attention.



Where was I?

What happened?

October is sorta close to June, right?  Right?  Anyone?

Life got away from me, I guess.  Or rather, I got distracted by living my life and quit writing anything down.  It happens.  In fact, now that I'm settling into a new routine, I have more ideas than ever.

New place, new ideas, new dirt...

I'm ready to get (re-)started.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eat some dirt

There was an interesting Op-Ed piece in the New York times yesterday.

Dirtying Up Our Diets


I can't really sum it up any better than this:  "Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Tomatoes.  Those perfectly sweet-tart tangy acidic fruits that are the long-awaited harbingers of summer.  And for the gardener, at least yours truly, the determining factor whether or not the harvest is a success.

Tomatoes.  I sort of just sighed in my head writing that.  I love them.  And with all the different varieties, it's hard to choose a favorite.  Cherry tomatoes: the candy of the tomato world.  Beefsteaks: amazing between two slices of soft multigrain bread with a healthy smear of basil aioli, salt, and plenty of black pepper.  Romas.  Sometimes not so good for fresh eating, but cook those puppies up, sauce, paste, canned whole; they take on a whole new dimension.

I went to visit the family homestead yesterday.  All told, there's around 18 acres of land.  My parents and grandparents usually have big gardens going.  This spring my parents didn't plant, and my grandparents have scaled back a lot.  To some, a dozen tomato plants doesn't seem like "scaling back" but that's what it is, at least for my grandparents.

Unfortunately, this season they were over-run by leaf-footed stink bugs.  The plants have a TON of tomatoes on them, but they're all sagging pitifully on the surface of the soil.  So I did what I have always done.  I created a kangaroo pouch in my shirt, and picked as many of those tomatoes that were close to ripe as I could.  Several varieties of cherry, roma, and beefsteak tomatoes eventually found their way into a bag for me to take home and do something with.

I made sauce.  Tasty, delicious, roasted tomato sauce.

1.5 to 2 lbs of tomatoes (I used whatever I ended up with)
1 large yellow onion
6-7 cloves peeled garlic
1/4 c olive oil

Roast in a high sided pan at 400* F until everything gets mushy and starts to caramelize

Transfer everything into a pot and blend with an immersion blender or CAREFULLY process/blend into a smooth-ish sauce.

Then add:

2-3 Tbsp fresh oregano
4-5 Tbsp fresh basil
1 Tbsp rosemary (optional)
dried marjoram (I need a new plant)
1 Tbsp sugar (dried cane)
salt to taste

Cook on medium-low for as long as you deem necessary.  Mine was good after a few hours, but I left it on the stove for about 8.  Oops.  Strain if you don't want to deal with the seeds or tiny bits of skin.  I didn't, because I'm lazy.  Can and process if you want, I threw mine in the fridge and freezer.  Makes about 3 quarts.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


A good friend of mine, Dawne , is wanting to "homestead" her urban yard.  We were on a road trip to Tampa last weekend when she brought up the idea to me.  Of course, I decided I am more than willing to lend my hand, back and experience in aiding this process.  For some of the fruits of my labor, of course.

We reconvened on Monday at her home for some initial planning and design.

I wasn't prepared for what I saw.

Dawne is an amazing person.  She was my Realtor when I was looking for houses a few years ago.  She is so kind, so genuine, and very quirky.  Her SO is a contractor.  He is also very sweet, very kind, and very quirky.  Really, they're awesome, and lovely, and quirky.  Unfortunately, they share one of the same quirks.  They're collectors.

As a contractor, Chris has access to a lot of surplus building materials.  Which is awesome.  I don't see us having to buy much of anything for this project.  Or any other project I can think up.  Ever.  And Dawne, as a realtor, has access to all those odds and ends that get left after an old owner moves out and before the new owner moves in and says, "What the hell is this [fill in the blank] that got left here?  We don't want this!"

So you can see where this becomes a problem.  They have some stuff.  A lot of stuff.  Just laying around.  Taking up space.

Luckily, Chris has a new warehouse, so building materials will soon have a new home, along with tools, and sawhorses, and glass, and... goodness, everything else out there.  Hopefully, I can convince Dawne to pare down some of the yard furniture, plastic pots, and decorative whimsy that clutters some amazingly usable space.

They already have a really cool, very large garden plot.  I'm planning to turn this into annual/seasonal vegetable space.  It also already has a huge nook for composting, which I jump started yesterday with a special delivery! A truckload of composted horse crap.  Florida is Sand.  There's nothing to do about it but compost the shit out of everything we can and try to amend to the point of sandy-loam soil.

What I love the most is the fact that both of them are willing to transform their entire yard into edible gardening land.  All the perennials: artichokes, asparagus, walking onions, etc., will have their own separate areas around the house and the yard.  This means I don't have to take up valuable seasonal space for things that are going to take years to grow.

Plus, they already have chickens.  Which is something I don't have to plan or deal with setting up.  Just rabbits. And there is already a perfect spot for them.  It's a pretty awesome set-up.  The labor required is going to be substantial, but the pay-off will be totally worth it.  Dawne and Chris are both so excited and ready to take on this challenge.  They each had some great ideas for what they want out of this experience.

They just needed a catalyst to get it all started.  Hopefully we can live up to all these plans!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dashed Hopes and an Opportunity

I have recently learned that Dearest Boyfriend is not nearly as interested in animal husbandry and homesteading as I am.

The plants?  He thinks my obsession with growing things is cute and quirky.  He calls me his dirt child when I come in from a particularly messy evening spent in the courtyard garden.  I put a huge grin on my [usually dirt smeared] face and ask him to turn the faucet on for me.  Ya' know, so I don't get dirt on it.

We're moving at the end of July to a new townhouse.  No yard to speak of, but one of my "must haves" was a place to keep my plants.  So it has a tiny back "patio".  The unit backs against a forest buffer, so I'm not sure how much light I'm going to get at any given time, so I may be stuck with plants and veggies that can tolerate partial sun.  We'll see.

But back to the unenthusiastic DB.  We were walking to dinner downtown one night last week and I made mention that the next place we look for (I'm really excited to move to this townhouse, it's really nice, but I'm a dirt child.  I need space to play.) needs to have a yard so I can have chickens.  This elicited a reaction I wasn't prepared for:

          "Why would you want chickens?"

          "Uhm...Eggs?  I thought that was pretty obvious.  Also, chickens are tasty."

          "We can buy eggs and chicken at the grocery store.  Plus chickens smell.  I don't want to live on a farm,  or anyplace that smells like a barnyard.  They'll be a lot of work, and we're not the kind of people who can keep up with that...."

Speak for yourself DB.

I stopped talking and let him rant.  If there's anything that DB is really good at, it's ranting.  I love that I never have to wonder how he's feeling about any given subject.  If I just shut up and let him go, I'll learn everything I need to know about what he thinks.

Post-tirade, he and I remained silent for about half of a city block before, "I just dashed your hopes, huh?"

Yes, DB, yes you did.

Now, to be fair, I haven't been on the BE SELF SUFFICIENT bender that I was on about three years ago.  Which is before DB was in the picture.  At that point, I lived in the country, and I could garden and plan and farm it up to my heart's content.  Now I live in an apartment with about 50 sq. ft. of outdoor living space, most of which is poured concrete.  So I have my container garden, but everything else is totally out of reach.

Now, DB is a smart boy, he's a grad student pursuing his PhD in molecular virology.  But sometimes, he's an idiot and I want to beat him over the head with something hard and heavy.  I have at least a year to convince him I totally have the right idea of it.  Especially since I have had a really amazing opportunity pretty much fall into my lap.  If all goes well, I won't be too misplaced for much longer.  I'll just be setting some roots down on borrowed soil!

Monday, April 23, 2012

My start

As I've grown into something vaguely resembling an adult, I continue to realize just how lucky I am.  While I was growing up, my mom had a huge vegetable garden.  We're talking rows upon rows to the tune of around 600 sq.ft.  I pretty much grew up in the dirt.  I was that grubby child, with dirt under her fingernails and pollen on her nose.  And barefoot.  Always barefoot.

My mom would plop me next to her to pull weeds, plant seedlings, and poke holes with my skinny fingers for direct seeding.  Once I became more dexterous, I started seeding whole rows by myself and then subsequently thinning the mess out once everything sprouted.  Planting young starts was always my favorite.  Seeing those poor root-bound plants come out of the flats, teasing the roots out of their tangled mess, and sticking them in a hole in the ground.  Once they were watered, they almost instantly greened; seemingly thanking you for getting them out of purgatory.

Watching all those little seeds and plants grow and thrive under frequent watering and rich soil was always exciting for tiny me.  Finding forts among the towering tomatoes and zucchini plants with fuzzy leaves the size of my torso to fan at myself.  I don't actually remember tending to the plants during this process, other than bounding through the rows, most of the actual work was left to the mother.  However, I was certainly in the thick of things.

But my favorite part of the whole process?  Harvesting.  I mean, really, what grower of edible plants doesn't look forward to the harvest with much anticipation?  Only at this point in life, it was less "harvest" and more "salad bar".  In typical childlike fashion, nearly anything that entered my grubby grip ended up consumed.  Cherry tomatoes?  Immediately popped into my mouth like sun-warmed tangy candies.  Carrots were washed with the hose, or at least wiped off on the front of my shirt, before they were crunched down.  Baby zucchinis were gnawed to their blunted stem ends.  Radishes, snow peas, asparagus, green beans, snap peas, broccoli, you name it, I ate it straight from the ground or stem.  Nothing was safe from my chomping baby teeth.

Luckily I was a pipsqueak, so eventually some of that produce ended up in the kitchen to be consumed in an actual meal for, you know, the rest of the family.

I never had trouble with the whole, "where does your food come from?" thing.  I know, first and foremost, my food comes from the earth.  I'm baffled by the idea that anyone who consumes anything doesn't know that green beans grow on vines or on bushes, or that brussels sprouts grow on a stalk.

I love growing food.  Maybe it's because I was lucky enough to have a mother that gardened.  Maybe it's because I believe that my understanding of plants allows me to cook tastier foods.  Maybe it's because I not so secretly want to live off the land.  Maybe it's because heirloom seeds and open pollination is really important to me.  Or maybe it's simply because I just really like to play in the dirt.

You know...  It's probably just that last one.