Monday, July 12, 2010

Failure and Success

After a soil test revealed high lead in all of the garden beds surrounding my house, I decided to plant in a couple of containers. If I'd had more time, I would have researched self-watering containers, since I never remember to water my plants. (I think my plants have a sinister nickname for me. Something like "The Drought-Keeper".) There's a great chapter on creating your own self-watering container in Fresh Food from Small Spaces by R.J. Ruppenthal. Next year, that's my plan.

Failure: Grape Beets

By the time I got around to planting, I needed to plant my chioggia beet seeds, like, YESTERDAY. So I skipped the self-watering containers, and just bought some large containers from Ricky's Flower Market in Somerville. It's everything Home Depot is not: Locally owned, friendly, expert, and helpful.

I planted the beets seeds and a couple of weeks later had nice beet seedlings. I pulled out the sickly ones and the others became gorgeous beet plants, really pretty with big leaves and red veins.

A few weeks later, I saw brown spots on some of the leaves. I also spotted something that looked like a wasp sitting on top of a leaf, and it looked like it was eating it. Is that a normal wasp thing to do? Days later, the brown spots were taking over, and by the time I pulled up the roots, the leaves were completely keeled over and crunchy.

It was so sad - my beets were the size of grape tomatoes. I minced them and mixed them with a spoon of chevre goat cheese for the world's smallest beet salad. So, ok, not a huge success. Still, I planted something and actually ate the results. That's pretty cool.

Success: Summer Strawberry Rhubarb Pie

Farmer's markets saved the day. Back in June, it was strawberry season, and I decided I absolutely had to make a strawberry rhubarb pie. I took the recipe straight from Joy of Cooking. I'm leery of copyright laws, so I'll just give you the ingredients:

2-1/2 cups strawberries, washed, hulled, and halved lengthwise

About a pound of rhubarb, washed and cut into 1/2 inch lengths

Mix fruit with:
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces, to sprinkle on top of the fruit

A bit of milk to brush on top for a golden crust. You can also sprinkle a bit of sugar.




Monday, April 12, 2010

Preparing Your Garden Bed

It's been a few weeks, and I've decided my garden plans are too grandiose for the small plots in my backyard. All the websites I'm reading are telling me to narrow down and choose a few varieties of vegetables, rather than plant one of everything. While I'm thinking about that, I'll share with you the research I've done on preparing a garden bed.

Some good guides:
Preparing the Garden Bed
Tips for Preparing a Planting Bed
How to Start a New Garden

One thing these guides have in common is that they all give different advice. To each gardener their own, I suppose. I've handpicked the advice that makes the most sense for my situation and made a simple 5 step list of what I need to do. I hope this is helpful for others too, in condensing all the information that is out there - but remember that my steps may be different for you depending on your soil. (Especially if you have clay in your soil, or your soil drains poorly.)

1. Check hours of sunlight.
If you have a plot of land in mind, take a sunny day and check continuously to see how many hours of sunlight that plot will get. This will determine where and what you plant. 4-6 hours is considered low light, 6-8 is considered good sunlight, and 8-10 is awesome. I already know I'm getting at most 5 hours in most of the areas in my backyard, which will really limit what I can plant.
Note: keep in mind that growing foliage will limit your light even further in the summer.

2. Test soil.
Google "soil testing" + your state to find out where you can send a soil sample. Here in Massachusetts, UMass runs a standard soil test for a reasonable $9. Soil testing checks for lead and the pH of your soil. It will also let you know the nutrient levels, so you know if you have good quality soil. Your soil quality determines how you will prepare the garden bed, which is why I've written two versions of step 4.

3. Cut sod.
Cut the sod with a flat-edged spade or sod-cutter. I have literally only a few square feet of land available, so I'm going for a spade. Dig 1-1/2" deep to remove the whole root system.

4.1 Remove sod, add elements for healthy soil.
If your soil needs to be adjusted, remove the sod and add it to your compost so you have space for what you will add. Dig out 6” of your garden bed, toss in a shovel of sand for every 4 square feet. Toss in 3-4” worth of finished compost (that’s a LOT of compost). (Add bone meal for poor quality soil if needed). Till, or turn the soil, to a depth of about 8 inches. Fill in the rest with quality topsoil (dark, crumbly), and till the soil again, as deep as you can.

4.2 Smother sod, add topsoil
If you have good quality soil, smother the sod by laying it upside down in the dug-out bed, and cover with brown bags and newspapers, about 8-10 layers. Wet down the newspaper and cover with good topsoil.

5. Mound topsoil.
Whichever method you’ve chosen, the garden bed should be noticeably higher than the surrounding area. If the bed is next to a wall, it should be highest at the wall, in order to drain water away from the house. If the bed is an island, it should be higher in the center.

Things I need to buy (and you might too)
Flat-edged spade (or sodcutter)
Shovel (or rototiller)
Quality topsoil
Organic compost

Recipe of the Day
Since that's a lot of work, I'm leaving you with a very simple but tasty recipe. Just mix the ingredients below:

1 can of black beans
1 can of diced tomatoes (or 1-2 fresh tomatoes)
1/2 - 1 can of corn (or fresh corn)
1-2 cups of cooked rice
Cilantro or parsley to taste

Since it's simple, you can improvise! Please comment to post other ingredients you've added.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

First Post

I'm a planner by nature - I like to plan everything to the smallest detail. What I am not so good at is follow-through. Friends of mine have told me to tell someone when I plan to go the gym, so I actually go. I am telling the WORLD that I plan to live greener, so I actually do it. How's that for commitment?

This blog will recordmy amateur struggles with composting, gardening, and cooking. I'm looking for advice from those who know better, and I'll share my mistakes with those who don't.

I'll be posting soon about tmy grandiose plans for a suburban garden this spring. Until then, I'm posting a recipe for sweet and sour chicken. It was incredibly easy to prepare and smells sooo good in the oven right now.

4-8 skinned, deboned chicken breast halves
1 egg, beaten
vegetable oil (or Pam) to fry in.
3/4 cups sugar
4 Tbs. ketchup.
1/2 cup vinegar
1 Tbs. soy sauce
1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Mix all the ingredients for sauce together. Dip chicken breast in egg, roll in cornstarch. Fry in oil (or Pam) until just browned. Place chicken in a shallow baking pan. Pour the sauce over it and bake uncovered at 325 degrees F. for one hour. Turn chicken ever 15 min. Serve with rice!

I used regular breadcrumbs instead of cornstarch. I didn't use all of the sauce, because I thought it was too much. That was a mistake -- the sauce really reduces after an hour in the oven, so if you make this, use all of it! After 45 minutes, the edges of the sauce are black and starting to caramelize, which means I'll be scrubbing that baking dish all night.

I'm serving the chicken with orange slices because they're sweet, and because I have them, and with rice, because the recipe said so - with an exclamation mark. Thanks to the University of Hawai'i for the recipe!