Thursday, April 29, 2010

How do your veggies go?

How do your veggies go? Do you know?
If you go to your supermarket and buy a head of lettuce, (if it's from the US) chances are it's from CA. There's a lot of whining coming from that section of the country about the new health care bill and how it's going to "negatively" impact their business. Let's look at this "negative" impact for a minute.
First, most of the labor intensive crops, ones that haven't been mechanized, are harvested by a group of workers, largely migrant, largely Latin and largely uninsured. Give us your poor, your hungry, your downtrodden, we need them to pick our strawberries. Most of these workers work for companies that specialize in providing workers to farmers, following a complex timetable of harvest times and working for that company most of the year. That means that it's not the farmer that will have to insure the workers, it's that labor company. But of course they'll pass the expense to the farmer who will pass it on to the consumer.

Now, this is the part that's supposed to be the "negative" impact. The forcing of American consumers to pay closer to the ACTUAL cost of their veggies. Forcing Americans to confront their habits and weigh options honestly. i.e. Do I want to plant, tend and harvest my own strawberries or do I want to pay someone in CA to plant them, pay a worker a FAIR WAGE to pick them and a trucker to haul them to my grocery store? By denying those workers that fair wage and not providing them with basics like health care we were hiding the real costs. Those workers would end up in ER rooms when illness/injury became life threatening instead of the cheaper route of preventative medicine. Those bills were being picked up by tax payers somewhere, and it ain't cheap. The Health Care bill seems like a more equitable way of taking care of those workers. If you want the veggies they pick, you have to bear some of the burden of their fair wage and health insurance.

Grow your own or pay the REAL cost of fruits and veggies shipped halfway across the country. But don't whine about the costs of the choices you make. And for goodness sake, let's not exploit other humans to get cheap mediocre veggies.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


One of my favorite blogs, written by JM Greer, had an interesting piece up today about our modern superstitions.

The widespread reaction to the Eyjafjallajokull eruption, for that matter, points up what may just be the most deeply rooted of our superstitions, the belief that Nature can be ignored with impunity. It's only fair to point out that for most people in the industrial world, for most of a century now, this has been true more often than not; the same exuberant abundance that produced ski slopes in Dubai and fresh strawberries in British supermarkets in January made it reasonable, for a while, to act as though whatever Nature tossed our way could be brushed aside. In the emerging postabundance age, though, this may be the most dangerous superstition of all. The tide of cheap abundant energy that has defined our attitutdes as much as our technologies is ebbing now, and we are rapidly losing the margin of error that made our former arrogance possible.

What does it say about the state of our world when airlines don't have contingency plans for acts of Nature? Do they assume the skies they fly in are under human control? Or, if it's simply a case of not having enough savings to 'weather' the shutdown, how do they expect to continue to do business as we enter an era without cheap unlimited fuel? I know Westerners are accustomed to seeing travel as an inalienable right, but it's not.

I imagine it's the same arrogance that leads people to dam rivers and drain aquifers and build oil refineries in hurricane zones. At what point will we remember that we don't control nature?

Why is it we've heard more about the plight of the airlines with their lack of planning, than we have about the actual Icelandic people who are dealing with both an erupting volcano and a melting glacier?!

*sigh* I don't know, I thought I was going somewhere with this post, and it's turned into mostely rant.

Harnessing the power of petroleum gave us the muscle to bend Nature to our wills, but she's not down and she's not out and we're fast running out of cheap muscle. If acts of nature aren't part of your contingency plans now, they certainly should be. Happy Earth Day.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Garden Buddies Soil Amendment

To amend or not to amend. I know you've heard the phrase, soil amendment. But it can be overwhelming, especially as a new gardener. What should you add and when? I hope to answer at least a few of these questions and point you in the right direction.
Sometimes you won't need to amend. If you are lucky enough to have a healthy raised bed garden, you can go several seasons before needing to add anything to the soil. The reason being, a raised bed has less problems with nutrients washing away and is likely to be uncompacted and full of air and moisture.
Crop rotation can lessen your amendment needs. Some veggies/flowers are heavy feeders, some are light feeders and others fix nutrients into the soil, like peas and beans. A good book can tell you which does what, so I won't post all of them here. (I like "The Gardeners A to Z Guide to Growing Organic Food") If you rotate your heavy feeders to grow where you had beans last season you can lessen the nutrients you need to add to make those plants happy.
Most literature about soil amendment frames the concept in NPK language. NPK stands for Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. This whole way of thinking about soil amendments comes from the Green Revolution and sees soil only as a sponge-like medium, inert and good only for holding the petroleum based fertilizers that deliver massive doses of NPK. Furthermore this framing leaves out micronutrients and minerals and beneficial insects and mycelium. It's like saying humans need only fat, carbs and protein. :-P
But, it's what the industry uses, so here's my advice. If you must buy some packaged soil amendments, aim for well balanced. There are cases, particular soil types/plant types/problems where you want something heavy on a particular nutrient, but for the most part you won't.
Your best bet is to just find some well-rotted compost locally. Sometimes your city will have a composting service, sometimes local garden centers will have local compost, or you can make your own! (Making your own takes time though, so you can start it this year and have it ready by fall or spring of next year, but not in time for early spring amendments this year.) Layer that good moist black compost an inch or two deep over your garden. You can mix it in with a tiller or a shovel, or just leave it, it'll do its job either way. :-D
Its job is to increase nutrients and organic matter in the soil, generally making your veggies happier. Nutrients for them to grow with, and organic matter to help with moisture control, feed beneficials and to keep the soil friable.
You can go overboard with amendments. You can 'burn' your plants using amendments with too high Nitrogen. You can also encourage the 'wrong' type of growth, i.e. plants growing more leaves than fruit. If you stick with compost you'll find it really hard to do either of these things though.
Another great amendment is worm castings. I keep a tub with red worms in a mudroom off my kitchen. When it gets too cold for the compost pile, (compost needs warmth to properly decompose) I switch to the worm bin for food scraps. More about keeping worms later, for now, just know that worm castings make great amendments. You don't need a couple of inches worth either, just a light covering does the trick. You can also make worm casting tea for a liquid fertilization. Google "worm casting tea" for directions and usage.

Some specific amendments I use:
Tomatoes -- heavy feeders-- when transplanting the seedlings to my garden I dig a DEEP hole, I add in a tablespoon or two of worm castings and two crumbled egg shells. Then I bury that transplant deeply. The eggshells provide Calcium to ward off Blossom End Rot.
Peas -- not a heavy feeder, but they tend to do better with nitrogen-fixing soil inoculate. It's a powder you can buy almost anywhere that sells peas.

Don't forget to spread some compost around your perennials too.
I hope this shed some light on the complicated subject of soil amendments. Now is a great time to add them, as the snow melt is done and the ground is thawed. A second feeding can be beneficial for many veggies around flowering time. Again, a good book can tell you which veggies will respond well to that.
Happy gardening!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Yes, it's that's time of year again. April 20th. Marijuana legalization supporters all over the world are toking up today. Some will attend rallies, although there are more planned for the 1st of May. Some will go to a yearly meet up spot and enjoy the group thing. Still others will lay low today due to work or other conflicts. Perhaps your dentist will go home and celebrate, or your CPA or a coworker. Almost half the country supported legalization in recent polling. If you look at those under 35, the numbers go to over half. Californians will have a chance to vote on the issue this November with legislation that would legalize marijuana for those over 21, with the sale regulated and taxed by local governments. Very exciting. :-)

Probably anyone reading this blog knows my spiel by now. Legalize it, legislate it and tax it. There are harmful drugs treated this way right now in our country, surely it can work for a plant with a longstanding positive relationship to humans. Hemp has so many uses I can't even remember them all. Not only is the constitution written on hemp paper, but several of our founding fathers were large growers of hemp.

Medicating patients with herbal essences could be an elegant way to lower health care costs. Over-reliance on pharmaceuticals and their inevitable side effects are certainly part of our rising costs for care.

Re-evaluating our habit of incarceration for non-violent drug offenders would go a long way towards reducing the prison population and those inherent costs to taxpayers.

More tax revenue never hurt any state in the union. :-)

For these reasons and more, I hope to see this prohibition end during my lifetime. Pass to the left my friends and keep on fighting the good fight.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Independence Days 4-16-2010

Yesterday was tax day. :-)
I love all the coverage of the tea parties. Taxed enough already. So these people claim. I wonder though how many of them have considered going from a two person income to a one person income to get into a lower tax bracket? As Sir Greer so eloquently argued this week. Or how many of them have thought about getting rid of a car or two to diminish their vehicle tax/tag fees/gas $. No, I would bet most of them would like to continue their life as they have become accustomed to living it, wanting only that the government tax them less for it.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not completely on the side of the government here either. Our tax code is ridiculous, far too complicated for the vast majority of Americans, and at the same time far too easily circumvented by wealthy corporations/CEO types. I doubt anything will ever be done about it though.

On to my solution for the whole thing, Independence! The more I can make/do/grow at home, the less we have to buy/earn and get taxed for. :-D

1. Plant something: Potatoes went in the ground. A second set of onions got planted next to my cold frame on the South side of the house. I'm not certain if they'll like it there, but I had too many onions and can't stand to just let them die. Rowen and I planted flower bulbs too. Several neighbors have mentioned how nice it is to have someone taking care of this house again. Apparently the last occupants were creepy and lazy. A few kohlrabi seeds were planted in a container. Dave confessed he doesn't really care for kohlrabi. I like it though, so the compromise is I'll plant parsnips in the garden and just grow a little kohlrabi for fun.

2. Harvest something: Harvested another batch of Dandelions. :-) Made a second tincture.

3. Preserve something: My first tincture is ready to be strained, and I've made a second one to give to someone in need.

4. Waste Not: I gave some leftover seed potatoes to a neighbor/co-worker whose kids are planting their first garden.

5. Want Not: Just continuing my herbal medicine learning. Nothing tangible really this week though.

6. Build Community Food Systems: Encouraged budding young gardeners with my gift of seed potatoes. I am searching for a group to tap into for a community gardening push. I sent out a couple of emails to organizations. We'll see what comes back.

7. Eat the Food: We have the last of the roasted tomato sauce in the fridge. Rowen is munching his way through home-canned carrots and corn. We've used up most of the spices I dried last fall.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


My potatoes are in the ground! I have two rows, roughly 8 feet each. I have Yukon Gold and Desiree planted. It rained all night last night, and will rain somemore today and tonight. That should settle them nicely in place.

We're 3-4 weeks away from the LFD, so if you don't have potatoes in yet, do it! Now's prime time to plant spinach, lettuce, peas, onions and potatoes. All these crops have some cold hardiness to them, so they wont mind the cold and rain. The spinach and peas really need to go in early, because they don't do so well with summer heat. Sometimes up here in zones 4 and 5 it can be tricky to find that sweet spot, too early and they can rot in the ground or wash away, too late and they barely get up and put leaves on and summer heat withers them or makes them bitter. How do you find that sweet spot? Is it luck? Instinct? Skillz?

I'll tell you my secret. Succession planting. For example, you plan on a 2 foot row of spinach, (that's not a lot, I would plant more, but I digress) plant the first foot of seed early, then wait about 2 weeks and plant the second foot. You have a great chance of getting both up and sprouted and it's never a bad idea to have crops available to harvest in waves. Should mother nature get uppity and decide to end spring early, she may turn your second planting bitter before they can mature, but there's a good chance your earlier planting will mature soon enough to harvest. I do succession planting with several of my favorites. It works great to keep the garden productive, because it can work in a small space where another crop has just been harvested, or where another crop will grow into later (think vines).

So, try a couple of plantings this spring, and see what happens!

Other things to do this week:

-Keep early spring weeds under control. It's easier to get them now as babies.

-Get fencing and cages squared away. Now's a great time to bang stakes in the ground to hold fencing and cages. The ground is soft and there's not a lot in the garden to have to maneuver around.

-Watch cold frames carefully, temps in the upper 70's can heat them up really fast, no need to steam the spinach before you harvest it!
I'll leave you with a picture from the seed swap. Drew finally emailed me the pics he snapped. Friend Brian is in the red hat, and Drew's wife is sitting on the right. The guy in black is the new gardener who supplied the space for the meeting.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Independance Days 4/9/2010

1. Plant something - Onions, Garlic, Spinach and Peas are planted. Spinach is in a container, peas are half in a container and half in the garden. Onions and garlic are in the garden. (I wish I had more space as I didn't get as many onions planted as I wanted to.)

2. Harvest something - Nothing this week.

3. Preserve something - Still working on the tincture from last week, it should be ready for straining in a few more days. Nothing new preserved though.

4. Waste Not - Compost pile raked into shape, and kitchen scraps are being diverted to it. Shelving rescued from Dave's past employer is being put up in the basement. Made a Chicken broth from a chicken carcass and some veggies.

5. Want Not - Nothing this week.

6. Building Community Food Systems - researched area farms to find possible local sources of veggies and meat.

7. Eat the food - Happily eating on the Roasted Tomato sauce I canned last fall. Peaches have been a big hit this past week too. Cake was made with the large store of flour we currently have. We're thinking bread baking is in order this weekend.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Garden Buddy Series Intro

Gardening, it seems, is like a virus, and it's spreading. Both my mother and my best friend are starting ambitious veggie gardens this year and both are a little new to the endeavor. Neither are what I would call novices, so I expect they'll both do fabulously. Becky has expressed an interest in timely hints and reminders from me, and I'm thinking they won't hurt my mom, even if she thinks she only wants okra and black-eyed peas.

So, I thought to myself, "Self, I bet there are other zone 5 gardeners interested in timely reminders and hints."

So, for this growing season I will be putting out a weekly series here on the blog. Once a week I will write a detailed post about what they should/could be planting that week, what they should/could be harvesting and things to watch out for.

If you're gardening in the midwest and interested in using the information, just add or subtract a week depending on whether you live North of zone 5 or South of it. For those of you who occasionally read my blog in Texas, the information won't be as good, because we don't have the extreme hot/dry spell that y'all have in late summer.

We're coming up quick on the Last Frost Date for our area. I'm North of zone 5, and my last frost date is May 10th, Mom and Becky are probably closer to May 1st for Frost Free. I have seedlings happily growing in the light of the dining room window, supplemented with one of my grow lights. Here's my work area as I was trying to set up flats for potting up the seedlings which I will need to do in the next week I think. The tomato seedlings all have one set of real leaves, and usually around 2 sets of real leaves is the time to pot up.
My work area is just the dining room right now, but there are a couple of places where I hope to move my seed starting area to. Either the small mudroom or down in one of the basement rooms. Nothing is entirely unpacked yet, so it's all a little bit make-do right now.
Tips for starting seedlings in our area:
- Don't start too early. Especially with tomatoes, if they get too big for their britches you might be tempted to plant them out too early, and tomatoes get really unhappy really quickly when planted in cold wet spring ground. Watch for the Last Frost Date and aim to have 6-8 week old transplants for the weekend following that LFD. Other types of seedlings may require different math if they can go out before the LFD or if they need to be bigger than 6-8 weeks old at transplant. Just do the research and sit down with a calendar and map it out.
-Good light is key. A big sunny window can handle a few seedlings, but any more than 4 or 5 and that windowsill is going to be crowded. I have a couple of inexpensive flourescent grow tube lights. I highly recommend them.
-Warmth makes for happy seedlings. I have a warming mat that I place under the tray when the seeds are sprouting. After they pop up and get established I find I can remove both the tray lid and the warming mat and they do just fine.
-Pick your battles. Yes you *can* start everything inside, but trust me, you don't want to. Some plants don't handle transplant well, some don't need the babying. Do some research, and choose those plants that you really need to start early and you know will handle transplant well. (Observant readers may notice that I have lettuce started in my tray. This was a case of wanting lettuce but knowing I would have to move. They were started in my tray just to make them easier to transport to the new house. They will get planted out this weekend I hope.)
Happy gardening!

Friday, April 2, 2010

Independence Days

1. Plant something - Didn't actually plant anything this week. Need to plant peas ASAP though. I have lots of seeds sprouting in my seed trays.

2. Harvest something - Dandelion harvested from the location where I put in my cold frame. I'm using the dandelion to make my first tincture.

3. Preserve something - Dandelion tincture.

4. Waste not - used my yard rakings to amend my soil in the new garden plot. Got a recycle bin delivered from the city. Broke down moving boxes to store and save for next time.

5. Want not - Making the tincture as the beginnings of my herbal medicine stash. Unpacking and organizing emergency food stores. Put together my cold frame on the South side of the house, in a spot I had to rake free of rocks and weeds.

6. Build community food systems - talked with my landlady's dad about proper composting.

7. Eat the food - We have canned veggies and fruit currently being used. Corn, carrots, peaches and applesauce. I'm trying to finish up the spices dried from last year and some even from the year before. I made a cake from scratch for Rowen's birthday, trying to use up some of the flour we have too much of.