Monday, December 12, 2011

Quick Hit: Window Farms

I have had the flu for the last couple of days and was watching a bunch of TED talks when I came across this brilliant open source solution to designing window farms. Anyone need a new set of curtains?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Black Gold

If you can follow a recipe, you can compost. I started composting two years ago because I was sick of throwing food in the garbage, knowing it would be around for a long long time to come. It's so wasteful.  Obviously there are other important reasons why gardeners compost, but watching my trash turn into something useful was a big one for me.

So what does it take?

1. Brown stuff (carbon)
Dry leaves, cardboard, paper printed with soy-based ink, dry hay, wood shavings from your local carpenter...  To start your bin, fill it at least halfway with dry leaves. Then begin adding green stuff:

2. Green stuff (nitrogen)
Grass clippings, coffee grounds, egg shells, tea bags, apple cores, bell pepper seeds, that brown pear you just found in the fruit bowl.

3. Water
Too much will drown your bacteria, but too little will kill them too. Sprinkle some water when you add brown stuff, just enough to make dry leaves shiny.

4. Air
Anaerobic bacteria don't need air to eat your trash and convert it to dirt, but they produce ammonia as a waste product (ew) and are slow digesters. To encourage oxygen-eating aerobic bacteria, efficient decay, and a clean smelling compost bin, stir your pile once a week to replenish oxygen supplies.

What to avoid:
  • Oil, meat and bones, dairy: Homegrown compost piles are not efficient enough to break these down. Meat and dairy also encourage mice, rats, and even feral cats and dogs to nose around in your bin.
  • Pest-infested plants, or weeds that have gone to seed - they'll both love the compost. A little too much.
  • Pet poop. Those little droppings can contain parasites or other diseases.

How do I start?
Many cities subsidize compost bins - I got mine from Cambridge for $40, which included a container to collect kitchen trash. You can also build your own - just make sure it's sturdy enough to keep out rats, etc. All you need are four walls, chicken fencing for the bottom, and a cover for the top.

Place the bin in a sunny spot. Throw some twigs in as the bottom layer. They will help keep air flowing to the bottom of your pile. Then throw in a lot of dry brown leaves, sprinkle with water, and start to add green stuff.  Simple!

How does it work?
Lots of little critters will start to eat the food.Compost This Book! has a cute illustration showing centipedes, earthworms, snails and beeetles gathered around a dinner table. You can't even see the biggest eaters - bacteria. They all produce waste - nutrient-rich dirt, sometimes called black gold.  Don't worry about cultivating pests. The centipedes are so happy in your compost bin, why would they decide to come inside?

Another waste product is heat. The more they eat, the more they heat. A hot compost is a fast compost.

Will it stink?

If your compost stinks, it either needs more air or more brown stuff. Experiment to find a well-balanced diet.

What do I do with it?
Next fall, scoop out the finished, and nearly-finished, compost from the bottom of the bin (store-bought bins come with a sliding door contraption that lets you get at the pile from the bottom) and throw it on your garden, especially around the roots of the plants you want to fertilize. Then cover it with some leaves or hay, and you're set for winter.  Even if your compost isn't fully matured (decomposed) right now, it will be by next spring.

I'm a pretty lazy composter because I don't stir the pile very often and often my mix is out of balance. Still, stuff decays. It's pretty amazing to me how my bucketfuls of kitchen crap can shrink down into rich, dark dirt.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Taking Stock

I started out the year with some spring crops.


Mesclun greens


And beets.
 Following spring was a fallow period while life got crazy. Then I planted tomatoes (no picture - it was not a tomato year for me) as well as

Basil (now pesto)

And astonishingly large kohlrabi.

I attempted to plant a fall crop of spinach but sowed too late, so I revised and planted garlic instead. (That's not technically a 2011 crop, since it'll come up in the spring.)

Not bad growing all this from two of these:

Self-watering container

But I bet I can do more next year. :)   What did you grow this summer? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tiny Houses!

Remember the forts you built as a kid? A couple of cardboard boxes can be transformed into a real place that's your own. That's when life was simple - now we pay hundreds or thousands of dollars on rent or mortgage each month. But a couple of kids grew up and thought of a solution - build tinier houses.

This Saturday morning, the rangers at Walden Pond organized a tiny house forum, fittingly held just outside the replica of Thoreau's 150 square foot cabin. The event was inspired by a movement that has gained national attention in The New Yorker, the New York Times, and NPR. Tiny houses are a DIY trend for people who are tired of mortgages and/or want to have a smaller environmental impact.

One of the speakers at the forum, Sage Radachowsky, made an awesome gypsy wagon that he parks in a driveway of understanding and friendly residents in Roslindale. Sage was adorably unfocused, rambling about swimming in Turtle Pond near his wagon, which is illegal, having a chicken coop, which is also illegal, and owning bees, which may or may not be illegal. The point, I think, was that he wants to live his life simply, magically, and without too much STUFF.

Another speaker was Derrick "Deek" Dericksen, who has become famous via his YouTube series, Tiny Yellow House and his blog, RelaxShacks. He talked about the method to his madness, recycling old junk to make whimsical little cabins. These houses are so small, they're not for living in, but picture stationing one of these out in the woods for your own affordable getaway. BYOB (bring your own book). Best of all, Deek brought examples for us to poke around in:

Deek has his own names for his creations, but I call this The Fish.

The other side of The Fish.

Inside The Fish

This might have been called the Hickshaw.

Inside the Hickshaw. (The orange artwork is original Deek.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Does Better Technology Mean a Better World?

Ok, enough blog posts about gardening and cooking. I named this blog to talk about sustainable living, so I'm going to branch out this week. I've been thinking about the title question a lot without an easy answer and recently came across two articles that seemed to be debating the same issue.

The first was Elizabeth Kolbert's book review in the New Yorker of Steven Pinker's "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined". Kolbert questions his premise, that violence has really declined as a result of statehood and civilization. She argues that we're as violent as ever: "This is one of the lessons of Auschwitz and it's why, since 1945, most people have hesitated to argue that modernity and violence are opposed."  Given the holes Kolbert pointed out in Pinker's book (such as his discounting two world wars and ignoring colonialism), I am inclined to agree with her.

The second was a blog post on Innovations, which cites several ways in which smart technology could sync different systems to help cities run more smoothly. Some, like Living PlanIt (a centralized system that would control all aspects of a city's systems, from emergency services to interior climate control) sound like a hacker invite.  But one idea that seems positively genius is conversation between cars on traffic flow. Rather than have sensors broadcasting whether a road is clear (which then attracts lots of cars and congests the road), cars broadcast their travel time to other cars, which then use that information to calculate the best route to your destination. It's smart because it's crowd-sourced, and because it's fast. The information that highway A is clear isn't outdated by the time your car gets there.

There are plenty of other examples of technology and its role as our hero or villain. I am still conflicted. What do you think - can technology solve our human woes? Or will technological advances just change the scene for the same conversation?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Many Hands Organic Farm

August has been a crazy month and like many, I can't believe September is here already. So let's go back in time a bit to the lazy summer days of July...

                           and to a weekend of volunteering on Many Hands Organic Farm in Barre, MA. 
The house was designed and built by the farmers in the 1960s.
I am proud to say that I can totally hack it on a farm. (take note, Josh!) We spent most of our time weeding in 90 degree weather, making space for frustratingly small carrots and beautiful red lettuces. For the obsessive types, it is so rewarding to look back and see a neat and orderly row of red lettuce where before there was a mess of green.

Because organic farmers don't use pesticides, weeding by hand is essential. But the farmers have other tricks as well. If you plant the seeds close enough together, they will crowd out weeds once they are established. A couple of other tips I learned:
  • Lay down hay in between rows to encourage earthworms
  • Don't pull up clovers - they fix nitrogen so they actually help fertilize the crop

The farmers do chores twice a day, feeding the pigs, moving the cows to new pasture, and moving the floor-less bird pens so the chickens and turkeys can get at fresh ground (and fresh grubs, yum). We also fed the chickens compost, presumably so they could eat the bugs.

Baby turkeys

Whatchyou lookin' at?
We saw lots of other creatures as well.

After a couple of days of hard work, buggy nights, and excellent food (stir fries, soups, and salads, made with the farm's vegetables), we had all earned a well-deserved nap.

I'll finish this puzzle later...just going to close my eyes for a bit.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Quick Hit: An Urban Jungle for the 21st Century

Singapore has a newly developed strategic plan to create and sustain biodiversity in the city.

What do you think? Is this something that could be replicated in the U.S.? Or should we pick up and move to Singapore? I understand English is one of their official languages...

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Back to Beets

Seasonally, it's a bit late to be talking about beets. But I can't not mention my first real harvest of the year, even if it was a few weeks ago.

Beets are often grown in the cooler season. In storage, their sugars turn to starch. Any beet is a good beet, in my opinion, but nothing can beat a sweet beet fresh from the ground.  After drizzling with olive oil, baking about 40 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees, peeling, chopping, and mixing with some chevre, mesclun greens, Evoo and balsamic vinegar, I had me a yummy salad.

That's all. One salad. It's hard to grow big beets in containers. But still, better than my grape beets and resulting one-spoon salad from last year.

Best of all, I had forgotten that I had planted heirloom chioggia beets. What a pretty surprise!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sumptuous Seaweed

I love the small Japanese restaurants in the Porter Exchange mall, in particular the one across from the bakery. They serve an amazing tofu appetizer with a pretty topping of brown and green seaweed-like flakes. I had a craving the other day, so I decided to make it at home. I headed to the international aisle in Whole Foods and found these:

Bonito flakes are actually dried fish, usually skipjack tuna (according to Wikipedia). Skipjack tuna is fished sustainably and does not have high mercury levels.
Wakame is seaweed. It is a delicious ocean plant that has been nominated as one of the top 100 invasive species, so I figure it's actually good for the environment to eat it all up. It also contains antioxidants that prevent cancer and packs a lot of nutrients in a small serving. (But careful, it's also really high in sodium. If you're pregnant or hypothyroid, stay away.)  

And with these, I made this:


Sunday, June 12, 2011

Savory and Sweet Summer Salads

Farmer's Markets are open and my salad greens are growing - it's time to make some salads.

Cannelini Bean, Red Onion, and Arugula Salad
Courtesy of Dave Lieberman at the Food Network

1 can of cannelinni beans I found in my pantry
1/4 red onion that may have been my roommate's
A bunch of mesclun greens cut from my garden
Handful of basil leaves
2:1 EVOO and balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

I learned something about myself - I'm not a huge fan of cannelinni beans. If you are, though, give this one a try.

Parts of Plant Coleslaw
(For this recipe and others, see Tai's blog, Growing Stories) 
I learned this one while volunteering at an after-school garden club in Somerville. The kids get a snack before they come to us, but they always ask, "Are we cooking today?" One day, the answer was yes. To teach them the parts of a plant, the garden club teacher, Tai, chose one of each:

  • cabbage, chopped finely (leaf)
  • raisins (fruit)
  • carrots, shredded (root)
  • celery, chopped (stem)
  • broccoli, chopped (flower)
  • sunflower seeds for sprinkling on top  (seed)
For the dressing, we combined a little mayonnaise with cider vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper.

When I think of cole slaw, I think of the mayonnaise-y, goopy mess you get ready-made from the grocery store. But when you're making your own, you can add as much or as little of each ingredient as you'd like. This salad balances different tastes - sweet, salty, creamy, and sour - for a delicious and refreshing summer snack.

Blueberry, Almond, and Gorgonzola Salad
This recipe is mine, made with what I had in the fridge.

Ripped up greens from the garden
Toasted sliced almonds
A cup of blueberries
Crumbled gorgonzola cheese
2:1 EVOO and balsamic vinegar
Sea salt

Toasted almonds release more almondy flavor and have a better crunch. To toast, I spread a handful in a dry frying pan. Set the heat to medium-low and leave for about four minutes. If I weren't so lazy, I would toss them halfway through. Remove from heat when you're just starting to smell the lovely almondy aroma.

Have a delicious salad recipe you want to share? I'm always looking for new ideas!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Garden Snapshots

Spring peas in the early morning

The largest spinach I ever grew! (Note: I have never grown spinach before)

Mesclun greens in terra cotta 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Scent of Magnolia

When I was about 13 years old, my sister and I were sent to live with my grandmothers in Germany for several weeks during summer vacation. It was the first time I had been so far from home for so long, and my German was terrible then. But I have several fond memories, one of which is my grandmother's garden. Rain or shine, it was beautiful. I remember brilliant flowers standing out against wet greens, sweet scents wafting indoors, the large white flowers on the magnolia tree, the little path that winds around the back, the gooseberries that became my grandmother's gooseberry pie. I would have taken that garden back to the States if I could.

I'm not the only fan. My grandmother and her garden were featured in a full page spread in her local newspaper, the Heidenheimer Tageszeitung, on April 23rd. She talks about my grandfather's devotion to the garden, re-planting the magnolia tree over and over until the fourth tree finally made it through the winter. The garden holds memories of their time together, before he passed away 20 years ago. The fossils they collected on their many "nature walks" now line the garden path. And even though she can't work in the garden anymore, at 96, she still enjoys the changes with the seasons. Spring alone is a kaleidoscope of color:
"First the garden was yellow with winter aconite, then blue with 'scilla,' and after that white with snow bells."

I'm proud of my grandmother for what she and my grandfather built and maintained for all of these years.  Congratulations, Omi! I'd consider myself lucky if I can grow up to be like you.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Too much of a good thing is....not a good thing

Buddha said,
Do not dwell in the past. Do not dream of the future. Concentrate the mind on the present moment.

If you don't, you will dump six gallons of water into your garden container.

I dutifully watered my plants last week, saving the self-watering containers for last. The sound of water pouring down the tube into the reservoir lulled me into mindlessness, until I suddenly noticed water seeping up through the soil and gathering in pools on the surface. !! I immediately turned off the water and poured out some of the water, but then I left it alone, hoping the soil would dry out.

In the meantime, I re-read my pea seed packet. "Soil: MUST be well-drained. Water: evenly moist but peas cannot be waterlogged." Shit.

That was last weekend. It's still not dry. Today I borrowed my friend's power drill (thanks Jess!) and drilled a drainage hole. Water poured out of the bottom for a good twenty minutes. It still looks wet and it's due to rain tonight. I doubt I saved the peas, but at least the next crop will stay dry.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Self-Watering Containers = Happy Plants

I heard it snowed in Minnesota last weekend and it's still chilly in Boston. But technically, it's spring, and it is finally planting season.

This year, I took the advice of R.J. Ruppenthal in his book, Fresh Food from Small Spaces. I made two self-watering containers, which are as awesome as they sound.

In nature, plants want to get at the water table for a reliable source of water. A self-watering container mimics nature because it has a water reservoir in the bottom, with a "soil foot" that soaks up water into the soil level of the container. Plant roots reach deep into the container and get only the amount of water they need. Result? Happy plants! And happy plants are productive plants.

Serving size: 1 self-watering container

The Ingredients**
  • Large container
  • Container lid
  • Wood blocks
  • Plant basket or strainer
  • Plastic or metal pipe
  • Burlap
  • Screws
  • Power drill, jigsaw, and/or nice hardware store staff
  • Challenge: Save money by repurposing old materials for all of the above ingredients. It can be done.
**For better customer service than the large chains, shop at a local hardware store. If you are in the Boston area, I recommend Tags Hardware.

The Recipe
Get the book for the complete recipe. Then come back here for some additional tips.

I cut six blocks of wood to support the lid under the weight of the soil - one for each corner and one on either side of the strainer.

Avoid my mistake and cut the lid before you screw the wood supports in place.

I used a jigsaw to cut the lid down to size, to fit inside the container. I also cut a hole for the strainer to sit inside the lid, and removed a corner to fit the watering tube.

See the duct tape? I'm not too handy with the jigsaw. I cut the lid down to size by eye, rather than measuring first. I did measure the hole for the strainer, but the saw slipped.

Voila! Ready for planting.
I watered from the top while the seeds were germinating, than began to water through the tube once a week.

Caveat: I used PVC pipes, because I am not growing a significant portion of my diet in these containers. But if you want to stay away from PVC, hardware stores sell metal plumbing pipes. They are narrower and more expensive but will work just fine.

How do you deal with lead in your soil, or limited garden space? Leave a comment and let me know.