Confessions of an EVERYDAY ECOTARIAN

creative, conscious and conserving ideas, thoughts and solutions

11 Things for a Great Efficient Garden June 19, 2010

Filed under: On Food — adm @ 7:25 pm
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Gardening is upon us!  Over the last 10 years due to my nearly obsessive quest for efficiency in just about everything, we have evolved a garden that uses resources, (such as water and time) wisely.  It also happens to grow plants well despite our short growing season.  A few key pieces in our gardening “tool-box” have become essential to this efficiency.   First, a disclaimer:  I’m writing this on little sleep so I’m aiming for coherency but…

Anyway, 11 things for a great, efficient garden (pictures below text):

1. Soaker Hoses – This one absolutely belongs #1.  Soaker hoses put water exactly where you want it, and nowhere else.  This is not only an efficient way to water your garden, but it often keeps weeds at bay as well because you are not watering the weeds.  We lay them out after we plant the plants -or in the case of seeds, I’ll lay the soaker hoses out first, turn them on for a bit and then plant the seeds next to the hose where the ground is wet.  Soaker hoses add both time and water efficiency to a garden.

2. Hose Manifolds – The ideal partner for a soaker-hose watered garden.  Manifolds allow you to adjust your garden in “sections” watering each zone as needed with the flip of a few valves.  It takes a bit to set it up, but once it’s done, it’s done.  This makes the watering process extremely efficient.

3. Kraft Paper – I LOVE craft paper!  We use it to mulch our plants we put in the garden as seedlings.  We lay the paper out in roles, cut X’s in it, fold the corners back and plant a plant in each open space.  We lay the soakers over, (or under) this paper.  The ground stays wet and the weeds stay out.  You have two choices in buying this:  You can buy it as “organic gardening mulch-paper” and pay a premium for it or you can find a home-improvement store and buy “contractors kraft paper” and get twice as much for 1/2 the price.  I’ll let you decide.   At the end of the season, we till it right into the ground where it adds to the soil for the next year.

4. Frost Covers – These are a necessity where we live.  Our growing season can be very, very short and without an early start there are a few crops that may not have time to mature.  I’ve also found that frost covers keep the soil nice and moist for germinating small-seeded vegetable like lettuce and carrots.  They are helpful in the spring, when the night frosts are not yet over and also helpful in the fall when they may begin again.  I’ve also found that they can keep hot-loving plants like peppers a little happier earlier in the season by the slight greenhouse effect the provide.

5. Garden…Claw? – I’m not sure what to call this but it’s great.  You can get a small hand version of this or a larger one with a longer handle.  This is an absolutely useful tool for “tilling” up weeds and even preparing small beds for planting.  Kids think it’s fun too, which means you can trick them into some free labor.

6. Cages/Fence – This is another thing we’ve evolved over the years.  Tomatoes need cages.  Period.  When they are laying on the ground, they aren’t as productive, they are harder to pick and they pick up soil disease way too easily.  Since we plant between 60-100 tomato plants a year we tired of buying traditional cages early on, (that break in a season or two).  So, we came up with these tomato “tents”.  These are made from extremely durable cattle panels, (which can be found at a farm supply store).  They are cut in 1/2’s or 1/3’ds and tied together at the top with zip-ties.  They’re made to keep cows contained so they have no problem keeping our tomatoes contained year after year after year.  You can also use them to grow cucumbers up off the ground, saving ground space.  We’re experimenting with that this year.

7. Sprinkler – Well, ok so this one isn’t very original.  But, it’s also important.  Sometimes there are crops that are watered best with broad-range watering.  In our garden this may be our strawberry or lettuce patch.  We don’t use it often, but its definitely a necessity.

8. Hand-Waterer – Sometimes you just have to water certain things by hand.  Besides, it gives the kids a chance to “give the plants a drink and make them happy”.  They like to get involved and this is a great way for them to get a one-on-one connection with the garden.

9. Sprayer – NO!  Don’t say a SPRAYER!!  Yes, I say a sprayer.  Not all sprayers have to perpetuate biological evils.  I have two sprayers that are also invaluable tools in my garden.  Although our garden is constantly replenished with a good feed of manure every fall, I do like to foliar-feed, (through the leaves) throughout the growing season.  It seems to be a bit more efficient for their nutrient metabolism.  That’s just my observation.  There are a variety of organic products out there for just that -fish emulsion is an example, (although it can smell terrible).  My 2nd sprayer I use for a Neem oil spray.  This is an oil from a tree in India.  It is greatly diluted in water and then sprayed on the plants.  It works against biological disease such as bacteria or fungus as well as insects.  I use it only when needed, for example if I have a pest problem or if it has been rainy and wet for days and I’m going to have an issue with a fungus or mold.

10. Straw – Good old multi-purpose straw.  Now, here is a warning:  Don’t use HAY use STRAW. For those who don’t know the difference, hay is the grass from the field, (and all the weeds and weed seeds in it) cut, dried and baled.  Straw is the cut, dried and baled stalk left over after a grain harvest -so very few weed seeds.  You can get barley straw, oat straw, wheat straw… The bottom line is, straw may grow a bit of the grain it came from but it’s easy to pull.  Hay will grow all kinds of weeds that will encourage a hostile take-over of your garden.

We use straw for two main purposes.  First, we build our cold-frames with them so plants can get an earlier start.  2nd, when the cold frames are no longer needed, we take the straw and use it for mulch under our vines.  At the end of the season it returns to the soil and improves the garden for next year.

11. Old Storm Doors – We pretty much only use these for cold-frames.  However, cold-frames are an important part of our early-season gardening.  Old double-paned windows will work as well.

There you have it, 11 things for a great, efficient garden.  I hope it was coherent, but I can make no promises because I’m not sure I’m actually awake right now.  Pictures below…

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Seed Starting for the Year March 17, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — adm @ 1:22 am
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Seed starting is one of those jobs that requires me to sit still and do something repetitive.  Normally, I like to keep moving and these kind of projects really drive me mad.  But, for some reason I find this task very settling.  I get the kids involved, we bring dirt inside and make a big mess on the hardwood floors.  In the end, we end up with hundreds of seedlings that will later be transplanted into our garden and eventually bring us food.  I think my kids enjoy seeing their food start from a seed and a dirt-covered floor as much as I do.

Over the years I’ve gone through the seed-starting process a few different ways.  I’ve settled on one that works well for us each year.  Here are the supplies we gather:

  • Seed Starting Mix
  • Plastic Trays and mini greenhouse covers, (like the “Jiffy” kind)
  • Plastic greenhouse “cells”
  • Spray Bottle
  • Seeds

I’ve found that using seed starting mix is the very best ways to get the seedlings off to a good start.  Other soils are made to hold water and can keep the soil too compact and too wet for optimal seed germination and early seedling growth.  Although I’ve tried making my own starting pots I’ve found that the plastic cells, trays and mini greenhouse covers are easy, cheap and work fantastically for getting the seedlings off to a great start.  I use these cells, trays and covers again and again for several years.  The spray bottle is a great way to water the seeds in and to water the young seedlings as they grow.  This is a task I give to my kids without fear because it is very difficult to over-water with a spray bottle!

Here is the process we go through to get our seeds started.  Again, its a process that we’ve worked out that seems to work well for our kids.  I assign them each an age-appropriate task and let them go!

  • Put seed starting mix in the cells (great for a toddler!)
  • Put 2 or 3 seeds in each cell (an older child with better fine motor skills is best for this)
  • Gently touch the seeds and lightly tap them into the soil
  • Lightly sprinkle a little more seed starting mix on top
  • Water the seeds in with a spray bottle
  • Cover with the plastic cover, put in a sunny warm place, keep moist, (but not overly wet) and wait for the seedlings to emerge!

Once the seedlings are growing, tip the edge of the cover up with pencils or a ruler so they don’t get too warm.  When they have grown a few leaves beyond their “first” leaves, take the cover off entirely.  At this point we usually water from the bottom, pouring water in the tray as needed.  It keeps the top of the soil from getting too wet which very easily leads to a fungus problem.  Many plants will need to be transplanted into bigger pots at some point.  We usually use big plastic cups with holes drilled in the bottom for drainage.   We also use these cups year after year after year.

Below, some pictures of this years future garden plants.

 

Cold frames, winter sowing and other ways to get a jumpstart on the growing season February 16, 2010

It may not be time to get those tomatoes growing just yet but this is a great time to plant some cold-hearty vegetables even in the colder climates.  I live almost halfway between the equator and the north pole and even I can get a jump on a few crops this time of year.  The plants I love to get started as soon as I can are peas and lettuce.  Baby lettuce greens are such a luxury in my world in the winter so I am especially pushed to get those growing.  There are a couple of ways to do this.  One of my favorite ways is to build cold frames with straw or hay bales and old double paned windows.  These cold frames are easy, quick and only involve finding recycled doors and/or windows and using straw that can later be used for mulching plants in your garden.  Its as simple as creating a warmer environment for the plants than your climate allows at that time in the season by insulating them with the straw and the windows.  Here are some pictures of my cold frames, (as well as the milk-jug sowing I’ll talk about next) from last year, some of our garden seedlings and my curious then 1.5 year old son.

If you don’t happen to be married to someone who salvages any potentially useful thing from a variety of places you may not have what you need to build a quick cold frame.  That’s ok!  You can still do some “Winter Sowing” -or planting seeds while the weather is really too cold for them to grow.  Another quick way to do this is to use a variety of plastic containers for mini greenhouses.  A friend of mine who didn’t even grow up in an area with winters introduced me to this idea.  You can use old milk jugs, fruit clam-shell cases and more.  For more detailed instructions check out WinterSown.org.   They have a great deal of helpful information on the topic AND an opportunity to get free seeds.  -Yes free.  Last year I received many different lovely species of heirloom tomatoes and a few peppers  -all delicious.   Here are a couple of pictures of plants I grew in milk jugs.  Simply cut a slit around the bottom third of the milk jug, poke holes in the bottom for drainage and fill the bottom portion with seed starting mix.  Then, put your seeds inside.  At this point, tape up the slit in the milk jug and put the cap on.   This is my favorite part:  put it outside somewhere.  I love to just stick mine on top of a snowbank. Last year I put a few on top of the ice in our pool.  It makes me feel as if I am conquering winter.  Anyway, watch it every day and when the seeds germinate take the cap back off.   Then, watch your seeds grow.

The premise behind winter sowing is that by planting the seeds directly outdoors with a little help with heat conservation (either by cold frame or mini-greenhouse like a milk jug) you are allowing the seeds to germinate and grow as they would in nature.  This is opposed to starting the seeds indoors under a light or in a window where they just don’t get the same amount of sunlight.  Winter sown plants end up being heartier and healthier in my opinion.   Although I do use my cold frames to grow plants I can eat early in the season, (like lettuce) I also use them to start and/or grow seedlings I will later transplant in our garden when the danger of frost has passed.   They do seem to be healthier this way and it keeps the hundreds of seedlings out of my house where who-knows-what could happen to them at any time.

The time is now so get yourself a milk-jug, some lettuce seeds and get winter-sowing!

 

Spring + Ecotarian + Garden = No Time to Blog! April 28, 2009

Filed under: Ramblings — adm @ 1:39 pm
Tags:
broccoli, cabbage and all things cruciferous...

broccoli, cabbage and all things cruciferous...

Spring is finally here! There are pockets of snow here and there tucked into the woods but I am dutifully ignoring those flashbacks of Winter. I’ve been spending a great deal of time outside preparing our two gardens and strawberry beds as well as doing some winter cleanup in the animal paddocks. So, it’s not that I don’t have anything to write about it’s just that I don’t have any time. I love being outside in the dirt as much as I love writing and teaching so I guess my current predicament is ok for now. I would, however, love it if someone invented a wireless brain-activated blogging mechanism. I could then be outside in the garden and blogging at the same time. Just think of the possibilities it would open up in the blogging world! -And while I’m at it another great invention would be a one-handed keyboard for mothers who are holding a child in the other hand. Some of you know exactly what I mean.

Anyway, here’s a picture of my daughter watering newly started seeds from a few weeks ago. More to come…

In the meantime,

Busy One-Handed Typing Moms Unite! (we could start some sort of union…)

 

On Food: Heirloom Vegetables, Healthy Diversity January 29, 2009

Today, in the bleak mid-winter, I received something in the mail that always offers me a glimmer home_catalog091of hope that spring will someday arrive. Where we live, our winters are a good five and a half months long. This year I’m thinking it may be seven. It’s to be expected seeing I live halfway between the equator and the north pole. I don’t complain about the winters too much but by the time February roles around, my body is screaming for some sun-induced vitamin D and fresh local vegetables. Not to mention that we had so much early snow this year that we spent the day after Christmas on the roof, shoveling 3 feet of snow onto the ground, (had to take a ladder up and just stepped onto our pile of snow on the way down). And although I do like the snow, (most of the time) I relish the times when things are green and growing again.
So what is this beacon of hope? The Seed Savors Exchange catalog. Every year we do our best to pack every inch of our nearly 3000 square foot garden, (twice as big as the living space in our house) with a wonderful diversity of heirloom vegetables, fruits, herbs and greens. We rely heavily on Seed Savors for our plant selection. Seed Savers is a non-profit organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations. Located in Decorah, Iowa, where 23 acres of gardens are on public display. There you will find an awe-inspiring collection of genetic diversity. In merely 97 pages of their seed catalog is a seemingly infinite variety of vegetables,fruits, herbs, flowers and greens, (and as far as I understand it’s only a sampling of the varieties grown at the farm). The catalog is brimming with an array of full-color pictures of gorgeous and healthy vegetables. Granted, the seeds are a bit more pricey then “conventional” garden seeds but if an ecotarian garden is what you are after then conventional plants may not fit the bill.

Case in point: How many varieties of tomatoes can you find in your grocery store right now? Four? Five? Six? Even in our largest grocery stores we have about four basic types of tomatoes: Beefstake, Roma, Cherry and (if you are lucky) Plum. All of which are basically red and uniform from tomato to tomato.

As a contrast, just moments ago, I counted 72 varieties of tomatoes in the Seed Savers catalog, (and through SS you can actually have acess to 4,495 varieties of tomatoes). In it one will find tomatoes that are round, oblong, small, large, red, pink, green, yellow, purple and orange. -And oh, how wonderful those tomatoes taste. One browse through this catalog and you realize that what we see in the grocery store today is not reflective of the wonderful diversity present in our world. It’s reflective of “big business meets agriculture”. So instead of an unlimited variety of produce that represents our histories and our pasts, we are left with varieties that grow fast, ship well and store long. When big business pairs with agriculture what we are left with is a fraction of our beautiful diversity and a fraction of our history, (one really interesting and eye-opening book on this topic is Fatal Harvest, The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture).

Another fantastic resource for very ecotarian gardening is the WinterSown Educational Organization. This lovely little site gives tips on sowing seeds all winter long, (as the name implies). Here, they show you how to grow cold-hardy plants in recyclables like empty milk jugs, clear cake boxes and cottage cheese tubs. No heating devices, fancy seed-starting sets or energy-wasting, (and in turn money-wasting) lights needed. They also offer free seeds! In my envelope I received 8 different heirloom tomato varieties, rainbow chard and dill seeds. Visit the site and it may just have you digging in the recycle bins for suitable containers today!

So this year, whether you are planning a large garden or you are venturing to grow something in a container for the first time make an effort to plant at least some heirloom varieties. You will be rewarded with wonderful produce, seeds to store and grow for the next year and the knowledge that you are passing a piece of our history on to the next year.

To close, I’m going to list all 72 varieties of heirloom tomatoes listed in the 2009 Seed Savers Exchange catalog. Each variety has a paragraph stating where it came from and how it got to the Seed Savers Exchange. Head to SeedSavers.Org to have your very own beacon of winter hope shipped to your home!

So here I go, 72 varieties of tomatoes in this years SS catalog, (add that to the 17 varieties of garlic and you’ll have a nice start to a marinara sauce).

black sea man

The Black Sea Man

Amish Paste, Aunt Ruby’s German Green, Austin’s Red Pear, Beam’s Yellow Pear, Black from Tula, Black Krim, Black Plum, Black Sea Man, (kids love this one), Blondkopfchen, (can you pronounce it?), Brandywine, Brown Berry, Chalk’s Early Jewel, Cherokee Purple, Chery Roma, Cream Sausage, (vegan!) Crnkovic Yugoslavian, Currant, Gold Rush, Currant, Sweat Pea, Czech’s Bush, (I thought he was Texan) Dr. Wyche’s Yellow, Earliana, Eva Purple Ball, Federle, German Pink, Giant Syrian, Gold Medal, Golden Sunray, Gourmet Yellow Stuffer, Green Grape, Green Sausage, Green Zebra, (another kid favorite) Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Hartman’s Yellow Gooseberry, Hungarian Heart, Italian Heirloom, Isis Candy, Japanese Trifele Black, Juane Flamme, John Baer, Kellogg’s

Green Zebra

Green Zebra

Breakfast, (no, not cornflakes) Large Red Cherry, Long Tom, Martino’s Roma, Mexico Midget, Moonglow, Nebraska Wedding, Nyagous, Plum Lemon, (looks just like a lemon!) Ponderosa Red, Powers Heirloom, Purple Russian, (catalog note: “Original stock came from Irma Henkel in the Ukraine”) Red Fig, Redfield Beauty, Red Zebra, (friend of the Green Zebra) Riesentraube, (German for “giant bunch of grapes” in case you ever need to know…) Roman Candle, Rose, Sheboygan, Siberian, Silvery Fir Tree, Soldacki, Speckled Roman, Striped Cavern, Stupice, Tasty Evergreen, (and you thought evergreen’s weren’t tasty!) Tommy Toe, Trophy, Trucker’s Favorite, Wapsipinicon Peach, (I read this one is actually fuzzy) and last, but not least, Wisconsin 55.