Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Gardening 101

Memorial Day Weekend is, in my opinion, the official start of gardening season in Wisconsin.  Yes, if you're fancy (and I am), you will have started lettuce, spinach, and peas, as well as seeds, prior to Memorial Day, but Memorial day is when you get it all into the ground.  I guess the theory is that there shouldn't be any snow after Memorial day.

One can only hope.

I got my garden in a few days early, because I was in Las Vegas on Memorial Day, where I'm assuming planting dates are a good deal earlier.  I actually connected to the internet and typed some of this blog from an airplane.

We totally live in the future.  It's crazy.

I took the day off of work to prepare for my trip, and took the time off to get my garden in.  I also managed to get a sweet farmer's tan sunburn, so there's that...

I know a lot of people who feel gardening is too much work, or too overwhelming for them to do.  That's really not true.  Yes, it takes time.  Yes, if you want a traditional outside garden it takes space.  But the time, effort, and money you put in are really nothing compared to what you get out of it.  People always talk about the tomato... that a tomato pulled off of the vine, still warm from the summer sun, is the best thing ever.  And I agree - real tomatoes from your garden taste a bazillion times better than anything you're going to get out of the grocery store, but in my opinion, the best defense of growing your own food is lettuce.  Lettuce, that you've pulled from the ground and have on your plate within 10 minutes, tastes so spectacular.  It's no longer just a vessel for salad dressing.  It becomes a food in itself, something with flavor.  You can taste the flavor of the different kinds of lettuce.  Distinct differences.  Not just like, "Oh, yeah.  I guess that lettuce does taste a little different.  Or maybe it's just harder to chew..."  Lettuce takes almost no space.  It can be grown in a container.  It can be grown in the shade.  A packet of mixed lettuce seeds (sometimes sold as "salad bowl lettuce") costs about $1.50.  Plant half in the spring and half in the fall.

Gardening is work, but it's not that hard.  You don't need to start things from seed.  You don't need to do a lot of back breaking weeding.  You don't need to spend a fortune on fancy plants.  For those of you who are afraid, I thought I would take this post to help alleviate your fears.

Step 0: Build a Garden

Yeah, okay.  This is the hardest step.  In order to garden, you need a place to have a garden, and then you need to prepare the space before you start gardening.  The bad news is, this is going to be exhausting.  The good news is, you only have to do it once.  And you don't have to be that fancy.  People are all about raised gardens and  putting in garden liners, and fancy edges and stuff.  But you don't need any of that.  Really, you just need a patch of dirt.  Yes, okay, if all you have is a patch of dirt surrounded by grass, the grass will try to work it's way back in and you'll need to weed it out.  But you're going to have to weed anyway, so it really doesn't make that big of a difference.  I created an elevated garden because I had easy access to the stones, and because I hoped that it would create a boundary that I could teach my dog to stay out of.  That sort of worked... when I'm paying attention and when he feels like staying out of the garden.

I don't have a picture of this step, because I did it years ago.

Step 1: Weed the Garden

If you're like me, you'll wait until it's time to put your vegetables into the ground before taking a second look at your garden.  That's fine, but if you recall, we've been eating dandelions since the beginning of April.  Which means the dandelions (and other weeds) have been growing since the beginning of  April.  Which means your garden is overrun with weeds.

The first trick to weeding is to make sure your soil is damp.  You can do this by waiting until it rains and then weeding the next day, or, if you're pressed for time and can't wait, you can water the garden.  You want it to be damp, not mud, so I will water the garden pretty well first thing in the morning, and then let it dry out for about an hour.  Just make sure you are getting up early enough if you do this to get the weeding done before the sun gets super hot, or you will be nursing a severe sunburn (says the voice of experience).

The second trick to weeding is to stretch.  Seriously.  This is physical activity, and if you don't warm up a little first, you are going to be sore tomorrow.  Sore and sunburned!

Then just get in there.  Get your hands dirty.  Make sure you have one of those pronged diggy things to get the roots out.  This is why you made the soil damp in the first place.  If you're soil is bone dry, you're just going to get the plant and not the root, which means your weed is going to come back.  Which is annoying.

One hour and two bushel baskets of weeds later, this:

and this...

turned into this:


Step 2: Prepare the Soil

Dirt is dirt, but some dirt is better than others for growing stuff.  If you're interested, check out your local University Extension Program.  I am sure they have all sorts of awesome information on what you want your soil's PH to be, how to test it, and what to add to get it there.  That's all fine and good and useful, but frankly I want to play in the dirt, not do science.  I personally just try to go for soil that is soft, full of organic material (not like "ORGANIC," just like stuff.  Like compost.), and easy to work with.  I personally like to mix in a thin layer of manure, a thin layer of peat moss, and as much of my own compost as I produced last year.  I basically dump it all into the middle of my garden, rake it out across the top, and then use a shovel to turn the whole thing over.

My compost is really my secret ingredient.  I most of the credit to my successful gardening to this guy:

His name is Butch.  He's a dutch bunny.  He likes to eat, and is a little chubby, and doesn't play well with the cats.  Meaning one time he drop-kicked one of them across the kitchen floor.  He's bigger than they are, so there's not much concern of his getting eaten.  Since he is such a good eater, he is also quite a good pooper (those things generally go hand in hand), and rabbit poop is, in my opinion, the best fertilizer in the world.

From weeded to this point took about 45 minutes:

Step 3: Plan out the Garden

This is my favorite part.  It's a good idea to lay everything out before you start planting.  This way, you can be sure that everything has enough room, and you won't have any last minute surprises or need to figure out where those last two tomato plants go.  On the topic of tomatoes, you want to make sure you spread them out.  This is especially true if you are planting heirloom tomatoes, which are more prone to tomato blight.  Poor air circulation around your tomatoes encourages the blight, and the closer your plants are to each other, the more likely the blight is to spread from one plant to the next.  Your plants will continue to grow and give fruit (yes, tomatoes are a fruit) after they get the blight, but not as well and eventually they can dry up completely and die.  When they're young, I try to pull any blighted leaves and branches off, but at some point you just have to give up and say "okay, I've got the blight again this year."  But be absolutely sure NOT to throw any blighted leaves/branches/anything into your compost pile.  Burn them.  Putting them into the compost pile will only guarantee worse blight for you next year.

I read somewhere that you can help prevent the blight by planting basil in between your tomato plants. My theory is, really all you're doing is spacing the tomato plants out by putting something - anything - in between them.  But I do the basil thing anyway because I grow a lot of tomatoes and a lot of basil, and everything else I grow tends to be pretty viney and would choke out the tomatoes if they got too intermixed, and because tomatoes and basil go together anyway.

You want to make sure that you give your plants room to grow.  Even if they're not tomatoes, they still need room to breath.  BUT, I do put my plants just a little closer together than is recommended.  I do this, because when the pants get bigger, I want them to choke out any weeds.  When the plants are small, through June and early July, there is some weeding to do, but come August I am done with that.  It's too hot.  I just want to pick my produce and be done with it.  Besides, I have too much canning to do to have time to weed.  And even before that, I really do a pretty crappy job of weeding.  Because I'm lazy.

Step 4: Plant the Plants

Yeah, this is the hard part.  But it doesn't take that much time.  So suck it up and put the plants in the ground.  If you aren't doing all these steps in one day, or if you didn't stretch before step one, for the love of god do it now.  Or don't come crying to me when you're sore the next day.

You want to water your plants really well after planting them.  I recommend a hose on low while you're planting.  Just make sure it stays on a plant far enough away from any future planting areas to prevent them from getting muddy and unworkable.

And that is putting in a garden.  Actual working time, it took me about four hours.  I did take a break in the middle of the day to avoid getting burned to a fiery crisp.  

Because I wanted to save that for Vegas!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Other, Other, Other White Meat?

Quiz time.  And we're on the honor system here, people, so don't lie to yourself.  Maybe everyone knew this but me, but I was a little surprised. 

What would you guess is the most widely consumed meat in the world?

If I had to guess, if I had been asked to guess prior to having learned the information and being surprised by it, I would have guessed chicken.  I know there are places and religions where both beef and pork are banned, but I'm not aware of any banning of poultry.  (Sidebar: a quick Google search of "poultry banned" returns two types of stories.  1. Raising poultry banned due to avian flu, and 2. Poultry found to contain banned drugs/banned antibiotics.  I find that second one to be very disturbing.  I am certain that there will need to be a post on the dangers of factory produced poultry or meat in general. But I can't get stuck reading about it tonight because it's late, and because I need to get back to talking about the purpose of this blog.  Which is the most widely consumed meat in the world.  Which is not poultry.)

So, it's not poultry, and it can't be pork what with the being banned by two of the world's major religions (it truly is a cruel god that bans bacon...), and it can't be beef what with it being banned in India and the many people who think it's bad for your heart.

So, what is the most widely consumed meat in the world?

It's goat.

Do you eat goat?  Have you ever eaten goat?  Or is goat one of those edible things that just isn't food - like dandelions and smelt?

According to The Washington Post, 70% of the red meat consumed in the world is goat.  Goat can be kosher and halal.  It has 1/3 fewer calories than beef for equal serving sizes, and 1/4 fewer calories than chicken.  It has two-thirds less fat than beef and lamb.

Goats are sustainable. They are browsers, as opposed to grazers like cows.  Browsers eat leaves, bark, and stems from plants, while grazers eat vegetation at ground level.  What does this mean?  Well, Cows need large areas to be "free range," because they pretty much destroy where they are and need to move on to allow the grass to grow back.  Goats basically eat whatever's around, and not destroy the land.  1 acre of pasture will hold maybe two steers, but will comfortably hold 10 goats.

It's better for you.  It's better for the land.  Why aren't we eating more of it?

A common answer I found on the internet to that question is because it's not easy to find.  There's no mass producer of goat, and generally the only way a butcher can get it is as a whole animal.  But I learned enough in my MBA program to know that supply and demand doesn't work that way.  If there were some demand, it would be supplied.  

I think it's mainly that goats get a bad rap.  We think of them as eating garbage and tn cans and what not.  I remember one time as a child at a petting zoo, a goat tried to eat my sleeve. 

We eat the cheese, and that's okay.  But for some reason, goat meat is not something that Americans want to eat.  Which is actually a problem.  Because here's the thing: only girls make milk.  I'm not sure if you knew that, but it's true.  So you've got dairy goats, and they're making milk, and also making baby goats, but some of those baby goats are boys.  Goat dairy farms don't want male goats.  On a cow dairy farm, the male babies are sold to beef farmers and become steer.  They are then sold for meat.  But no one eats goat meat in the US.  So, most of the male baby goats are killed at birth.  Nobody wants them, which means they're worth less than the cost to feed them.  So they're killed off.

If you like goat cheese, and that sounds terrible to you, you should probably start eating goat meat too.

Here's the thing, though.  Not only is it good for you and good for the earth, it's also just plain good.  I mean, really, really good.  I would describe it as a cross between pork and lamb.  You can tell that it eats a lot of grass because, to me, it tastes just a little grassy.  It's almost sweet.

Give it a try.  You probably won't find it at your local butcher.  I have purchased goat from BSW Farms, out of Union Grove WI.  I know that they are at the Menominee Falls Farmer's Market on Wednesdays, and that you can also email them to order directly.  They do not have a website that I can find.  I have not ordered form Shepherd Song Farm, but I might.  They have a very nice website with goat and lamb, and are located in Downing, WI.

There are lots of goat recipes out there, especially a lot of Greek recipes that look really good.  I decided to go sans-recipe with this one, though, and just use up some of my (you guessed it!) chutney.

Braised Goat Chops in Yellow Tomato Chutney
(makes two servings)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 6 goat chops (they are very small)
  • salt and pepper 
  • 1 pint curried yellow tomato chutney (see below)
  • hard apple cider
 In a dutch or french oven, heat the two tablespoons olive oil over medium high heat.  Add the onions and saute until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and saute three additional minutes.

Meanwhile, season the chops on both sides with salt and pepper.  Add the chops to the onions and garlic, and brown on both sides.  Add yellow tomato chutney, and hard apple cider as needed to bring the chutney/liquid level to about 3/4 of the way up the sides of the chops.  Reduce the heat to low, cover tightly, and allow to braise for one hour, turning once.

I served this with brown rice, and sauteed asparagus and morels with goat cheese.

Curried Yellow Tomato Chutney
(This was a recipe that I made during my canning frenzy last fall.  It turns out to be a great base to braise meat in.  I'm not sure what else to do with it, although the picture in the recipe book seems to imply that you just want to eat it, like jam, on flat bread.  This recipe is from William Sonoma's "The Art of Preserving.")

  • 5 lbs yellow tomatoes
  • 2 large yellow onions 
  • 2 fresh green chiles
  • 1 Tbsp plus 1/2 tsp curry powder
  • 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 3/4 tsp chili powder 
  • 1/4 cup canola oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp peeled and grated fresh ginger
  • 3/4 cup malt vinegar
  • 1/2 cup raw cane sugar or light brown sugar
  • 3/4 tsp salt, plus additional to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper
Have ready hot, clean jars and their lids.

Blanch, peel, and core the tomatoes, then cut them into large chunks.  You should have about 10 cups.

Cut each onion into quarters through the stem end, and then cut each quarter crosswise into slices, separating the rings.  Cut each chile in half lengthwise and remove the stem, seeds, and ribs.  Cut each half in half again lengthwise and then thinly slice crosswise. 

In a small cup, stir together the curry powder, mustard seeds, cumin, and chili powder.  In a large nonreactive saucepan over medium heat, warm the oil.  Add the spices and cook, stirring constantly, for one minute; do not allow the spices to smoke or burn!  Andd the chiles, garlic, and ginger, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes longer.  Stir in the tomatoes, onions, vinegar, sugar, and 3/4 tsp salt.

Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has thickened, about 1 hour.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Ladle the hot chutney into the jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace.  Remove any air bubbles and adjust the headspace, if necessary.  Wipe the rims clean and seal tightly with lids.

Process the jars for 15 minutes in a boiling-water bath.  Sealed jars can be stored in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.

Makes 7 half-pint jars.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Happy May!

Spring is finally springing. Although, I think maybe it got confused and it's doing it backwards.  I think the spring is up in the sky, pointing downward. 

It's been raining a lot.


I understand rain is good in the spring.  And it is.  Things are happy and growing.  I have tiny little green strawberries, and the rhubarb is going nuts. The chives, and sorrel, and mint are all green and spreading.  (They're all also weeds, too, for those of you who think it's weird to eat dandelions.)  The dandelions are actually done, which is kind of sad.  I was considering making dandelion jam.  Yes.  That is a thing, and I was really considering making it!

My container garden on my patio is sprouting.  Lettuce, spinach, and arugula, carrots, radishes, and kale, all popping up out of 25 gallon plastic totes.  Oh, and Quinoa.  Every year, I pick something random to grow.  Last year it was some sort of Asian melon that I can't remember what it was.  Those died within two weeks of planting.  I'm pretty sure my dog peed on them.  Two years ago it was okra.  I'm pretty sure I wasted about four square feet and ended up with about four okras. 

I'm not expecting much more from the quinoa.  Quinoa, for those of you who don't know, is a grain.  Well, actually, no.  According to Wikipedia, it is a "grain like crop," but not an actual grain.  In fact, it's more closely related to beets, spinach, and tumbleweed.  Tumbleweed, btw, is also edible.  And, while I've never tried it, I certainly would.

Regardless of grain or not, it should be growing in a field, not half of a 25 gallon container.  It should look like this:

Quinoa Field.  From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quinoa

I do wish I could show you pictures of my back porch container garden, but every time I think to take a picture, it's either dark or pouring.  Or both.  The sun comes out to let the plants grow, but when I'm at work so I can't take any pictures. 

There's something I love about growing my own food.  Yes, sure, I'm cheap.  I've mentioned that before.  $1.80 on a packet of seeds that not only provide food all summer, but also probably last two or three years (because I don't have a farm.  I'm only planting three squash plants at a time.  There are like 20 seeds in the packet!) seems like a pretty good investment.  But it's more than that.  I like watching the seeds grow.  To put something tiny in the ground, add water, and then step away.  To see the light green mist spread across the soil.  Or, in the case of peas and beans, to watch this sprout push up through the ground and then spring free.  To have something gone one day, and then there the next.  It's a lot like magic. 

This is one of those things where I would love to say that I have loved gardening since I was a child.  That would be fun, and it would make an interesting story.  Aww, sweet attachment to childhood. Imagine Kate as an adorable little girl, playing in the dirt, and not a jaded jerk face jerk.  It's a fair picture.  I remember having a garden.  I remember going to the farmer's market with my mom and picking up plants.  I remember being far more interested in flowers, because they were pretty.  I know we had a small vegetable garden, too, and strawberries, but I don't remember ever starting anything from seeds. 

Anyway, I find it calming.  To be outside, in the sun, in the fresh air.  I recommend it.  Even if you don't have a lot of room, or any room, for that matter.  Container gardening is very effective.  Lettuce can grow almost anywhere - the soil doesn't have to be very deep.  Peas and beans work well in a pot.  Herbs can be grown on your kitchen counter.  And I know quite a few people who've had success with those upside down tomato thingy-s. 

So, what I'm saying is that, I know money is tight.  Let's take a hint from our grandparents and grow something.  It's good, and it's good for you.  And it's cheap.  And it's fun.  And, in a time when we all have so much to do and so little time, it's a god way to take a break and breath.

None of these are mine, but here are some of my favorite examples of container gardens:

Lettuce growing in in gutters: http://www.treehugger.com/green-food/container-gardening-options-for-small-spaces-slideshow.html

Your containers don't have to be expensive.  Try plastic bottles: http://containergardening.wordpress.com/2008/12/21/allotment-gardens-and-container-gardening-in-the-philippines-r-holmer/
Herbs will grow just about anywhere... because they're weeds: http://www.shoestringmag.com/diy/diy-eco-friendly-affordable-container-gardens
Normally, I would say that strawberry wine isn't classy.  In this case, I will make an exception:  http://www.myyardrocks.com/container-gardens-grow-anything-anywhere/
It would work for vegetables too:  http://indulgy.com/post/m7e6MJfSI1/perfect-for-the-back-of-the-garage
Really?  You don't have room for a garden?  REALLY?  http://sustainablog.org/2011/09/container-gardening/
I feel like this person is an overachiever.  Also, this picture looks like it was taken indoors:  http://www.makeuptalk.com/t/96065/try-a-vertical-garden
I want these to be full of mint, and chamomile, and things like that: http://eblack01.blogspot.com/2011/05/vertical-container-gardening.html
I can't quite say why, but this one is my favorite: http://www.logantrd.com/2012/vertical-gardens/