Sunday, September 15, 2013

Made the Switch

It's been a LONG time since I've shown up here, and LOTS of new things are happening for our family and our farming adventures. But you'll have to head over to Typepad to find out what they are... Click here to get the update!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tomato Delivery

I got REALLY carried away with starting tomato plants this year. Let's skip right over all the pictures of things growing lushly in the greenhouse to how things look currently: tons and tons of almost-root-bound tomato plants that need homes spread out over every conceivable surface both inside and outside the greenhouse. Between the three gardens on the property up here I've planted 20 tomato plants. Of course, the crazy person in me wonders if that is enough... THIS year I plan to preserve tomatoes! Last year I said I would, and had 5 healthy bushes, but we ate every single tomato fresh, and I was left with zero jars of anything tomato. But this is the year of tomato sauce, tomato paste, salsa, sun dried tomatoes... 20 plants should be enough, right???

The plants we couldn't fit have been given away to people, and today Titus and I made our final delivery to the next door neighbor. He (Titus) was very excited to hear I needed his help and that it involved his tractor. He was not excited to hear that he would have to drive SLOWLY down the driveway with the precious plants in tow, and that he was not allowed to purposely crash into anything on the way there. Boy did it feel good to get those things out of here!

Our trusty side-kick came along for the trip, limping along because he jammed his paw into a thistle plant before we left. Stepping in thistles is one of his spring-time traditions, though he's getting pretty darn old and these things are more difficult to recover from. He's taking a nap in the dirt next to some dust-bathing chickens right now.

It was nice to make an event out of The Tomato Delivery, rather than rushing around and cramming it in between errands. It is so beautiful outside these days - almost completely spring-like except for the slight chill in the air. The flowering pear tree that grows where we park our car is dropping showers of white petals down so thickly that it feels like snow when the wind blows. Too bad those blossoms smell like a huge pile of dirty socks - every time we get in the car the kids say "It smells like a dead animal around here..." and start looking for a dead chicken. Too bad, as well, that my children can so easily identify the smell of a dead animal. Hm. Another beautiful word picture ruined.

Things are very exciting and busy around here. Lots of planting, building, bird-netting, and waiting, as one of the hens is sitting on 6 eggs that should hatch next week, and one of the rabbits is due to have a litter the week after that. Spring is one of my very favorite times of year, so much to do, so much to look forward to. And of course, Easter. This year I feel especially full of tearful gratitude when I think about what Jesus did for me, for you. So grateful for joy and peace, and loving our simple little life.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Brussels Sprouts Harvest

Perhaps you remember the Brussels Sprout Tragedy that happened around Thanksgiving time. Happily, in August I had also planted two tiny brussels sprout seeds in a different area, as back up. (I've had enough garden failures to learn not to put all my proverbial sprouts in one basket.) I have been patiently waiting for the stalks to resemble the beautiful things I have purchased at the grocery store or farmer's market. However, yesterday I determined that they were as good as they were going to get and decided to harvest them before something else did.

The stalk was short and the sprouts were tiny, some of them beginning to open up, but they were almost completely aphid-free and tasted delicious! As with every other vegetable, freshly-picked brussels sprouts have an entirely cleaner, more nuanced flavor than the ones you buy in the store.

These were just so fresh that I couldn't bear to put them in the oven, so last night we had our first ever raw brussels sprout salad. The recipe needs a little tweaking so I won't publish it until I've perfected it. But I'll just say this: shaved brussels sprouts plus parsley plus celery plus apple plus some-sort-of-dressing-that-DOESN'T-have-too-much-mustard-in-it plus toasted almonds and avocado = delicious! I have one more stalk out there in the garden and I have a feeling I will be bringing it in the house soon.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Chicken Doctor

Please forgive my rare appearance here on the ol' blog. I like to post something a few times per week, but this has been a doozie of a week. We began with Strep Throat and ear infections, progressed to allergic reactions to antibiotics, threw in some Pink Eye, and capped it all off with a literal flying leap from the top of Grandma's stairs, resulting in a broken 4-year-old foot. You're welcome, Kaiser. Anywho, I have been doing much less farming than I would like, and a lot more health care.

As the kids and I pulled into the driveway after having Titus' leg casted, we noticed one of my dad's hens, an old Pompadour who has always been at the bottom of the pecking order of his flock, milling about our yard. The two flocks tend to stay pretty separate from one another, so we wondered why she had left those other bullies in favor of ours. Moses quickly noticed that she had a long piece of twine tangled around her legs which was preventing her from taking full strides. She has always been a docile hen, so she allowed Moses to pick her up without much difficulty. The hard part was getting that twine off her dinosaur leg. It was so tangled in little knots that were digging into her skin, and I was so afraid of accidentally nipping her with the scissors, that it took about 20 minutes for me to cut it off. She sat placidly in Moses' lap the entire time, occasionally pecking the scissors curiously or peering up at my face through her mop of white feathers. It was a very nice moment. In my experience, helping animals on the farm usually involves pinning them down and working as fast and desperately as you can while they panic and try to escape, the end result being that everyone involved feels a bit traumatized. This, on the other hand, was a calm moment, and Moses and I could both tell that the hen appreciated our help. When we were finished and set her free, she didn't even go running off, but stayed near us, happily scratching and pecking up bugs.

Strangely, Madame Pompadour never returned to my dad's chicken coop after we untangled her. That night she didn't turn up in the nightly head count, and the next morning she could be seen happily wandering around the sand pit on the opposite end of the property, far from any other chickens. She didn't return to the coop that night either. The next day, I spotted her down by the edge of the pond where the grass is greenest and lucky chickens can even find baby frogs to eat. Her shiny black feathers and funny white poofy head made quite a contrast against the green grass and sparkly water. It was a beautiful sight. She looked so happy down there, though it was curious to see her all alone. Even bullied chickens like to stay with the group. She seemed to need some time to herself, though, and spent the entire morning scratching and pecking around the pond.

That afternoon, my dad came over to tell us that he had found her lying dead at the edge of the pond. Nothing had killed her; she seemed to have died of old age. Moses and I were both sad to hear this, but I also felt a soft touch of happiness as well. I was glad she decided to wander over to our house when she needed help, glad to have untangled her and have a chance to hold her a bit. I was proud of her for having such a good death - she had removed herself from the flock, which is natural in animals who know they are about to die - and gone to the prettiest spot on the property where she could live out her last days in peace. I'm glad I got to see her pecking around down there, and happy that this is a place that chickens (even the ones who end up on our table) get to roam free and enjoy themselves.

Friday, February 22, 2013


4 Year Old: "'Sexy' means 'really really gross,' right?"

7 Year Old: "No. 'Sexy' means ATTRACTIVE."

4 Year Old: "What is ATTRACTIVE?"

7 Year Old: "It means, like, really beautiful and it, like, makes people want to love you and stuff." (heaves a huge sigh) "I'm kind of like that. It's so annoying."

Oh, my poor ATTRACTIVE 7 year old. Life is rough.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Violets in Winter

I made two statements in the last week that nobody should every say. The first was "I don't get sick." The second: "I don't believe in hand sanitizer." I am being punished for both of those statements.

Stuck at home for yet another day, we made do with what we had lying around. We painted rocks, assembled some left-over sun-catcher kits, read MANY chapters of How To Speak Dragonese, and snuck in a few games of handball between torrential downpours of rain and hail. None of us are inside-all-day folks, even when sick, so the combination of germs and inclement weather has us a bit stir crazy. As I was washing dishes at the sink, my oldest son said "Mom, it's SNOWING!!!" "No, Moses, that is hail," I replied without looking up. "Mom, it really is snow! Look!" And, as usual, he was right. Amongst the rain drops, huge fluffy white snow flakes were floating down from the sky. Each one melted before even touching the ground, but they were enchanting. The three of us stood there with our pathetic drippy noses, gazing out the sliding glass door in silence, enjoying the excitement of snowflakes. It was nice.

I wonder how the violets on the lawn are holding up to all this weather. They show their pretty little faces every February and it excites me every time. Until moving "up the hill" when I was in high school, I had never seen purple flowers growing in a green lawn before. It seems so rebellious of nature to think up something like that. Everything seems so excited for spring - violets on the ground and lots of blossoms on trees. All while we are being told that we may wake up to a fresh blanket of snow tomorrow. I wonder how my freshly sprouted pea plants are doing out there with all this cold and hail. I'll check tomorrow - for now I'll sit here and enjoy my tea.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Inside projects

Small people are pretty sick around here, so in spite of the gorgeous weekend, a lot of time was spent indoors blowing noses, taking medicine, and lounging around. This gave me a nice chance to do the thing I love to do even more (gasp) than gardening: sew! With a sewing cabinet full of half-finished projects I did the most logical thing: started a NEW project. And a super complicated time-consuming intricate one, too. I'm so happy!

Inspired by this mini quilt over at 1/4" Mark, I broke out my fabric scraps and began making a postage stamp quilt. Each square is 1 1/2 inches, finished to 1 inch which is pretty darn little! Each finished block is made up of 169 of these tiny squares. My poor husband just shook his head when he saw the kitchen table completely covered with itty-bitty fabric squares. "What about that other quilt you said would take two years to finish?" he politely asked. "Oh, the hexagon quilt? I'm still working on that, too," I replied with a smile.

I don't know what it is about overwhelming projects - they just call to me. I actually just love the look of things that are intricate. Because the squares are so small, there is a mosaic effect to the overall block that I think is just perfect. Plus, I managed to limit myself to a more controlled color palette than usual which I am finding quite restful. I plan to sort of "quilt as you go" on this project - hand-quilting a bit in the middle of each block and then assembling all the blocks at the end and doing a bit more quilting with the machine. I have a very old book of hand-quilting designs from my Grandma in which I found this flower motif. I've never officially done hand quilting before, so I am not up to date on current methods of transferring the design to the quilt. The book told me to trace the design on freezer paper, punch tiny holes along the lines using a straight pin, position the template on the quilt, then "dust lightly with cinnamon." What do you know, it worked! Once the template was removed, there was my design, which I traced over with a quilting pen. I'm not sure if people still do this anymore, but it worked well enough for me, plus it smelled great. :)

Today is dreary outside and we spent the morning driving back and forth from the doctor getting throat cultures and picking up medicine. There is a movie from the library waiting to be watched, too. Looks like another inside day (though I still have to gather eggs and water everything outside.) Hopefully we'll be feeling better tomorrow. In the mean time I might be able to sneak some more time with my tiny squares.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Raw Zucchini Pasta with Lemony Garlic Vinagrette

Ever since I read the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver, I have tried very hard to only buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. This ensures that we are eating foods that taste the best and that haven't been shipped half-way around to world, wasting valuable resources. Every once in a while I will cave in, though, when I experience a moment of weakness at the imported organic tomato section. Yes, the tomatoes cost $6 per pound, but memories of how delicious my garden-grown heirloom tomatoes taste overpower my environmental guilt and I go for it. But no matter how perfectly ripe it looks and feels, and no matter how much dang money I spend on it, that mid-winter tomato never tastes good. I have done this enough times to be sure of it: tomatoes are not meant to be eaten in February.

But what about zucchini, I wondered? Yesterday there was an unexpected pile of organic zucchini squash in the produce section and as soon as I saw it I could almost taste what I was going to make with it: pasta! Now, I almost never purchase zucchini because I grow so much of it in the summer that the absence of it during the winter is a bit of a relief. But yesterday I just had to have it, grown in Peru or not. Throwing conscientious eating out the window, I snapped up a bag full, grabbed a bunch of fresh basil and hot-tailed it home to see if I could make what I was tasting in my imagination a reality.

To my surprise and delight, I did! First try, too, which is a rarity for me in pretty much anything I do. Sitting down to enjoy my bowl of freshly made pasta was so luxurious - especially for someone who hasn't been able to eat ANYTHING resembling noodles for almost two years (nope, not even the gluten-free ones, dang). My husband was pretty excited too - pasta without the after-pasta bloat? Make a double batch next time!



5 small straight green zucchini
1 small sweet red onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup nicoise style olives, pitted and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 T olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 T fresh basil chopped, or 3 T dry basil
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

1.) In a medium sized bowl, combine the olive oil and lemon juice and whisk until well combined. Stir in the minced garlic and set aside.

2.) Using a spiralizer or vegetable peeler, make "noodles" out of your zucchini. (I have a spiralizer but used my peeler this time - just peel and peel until your zucchini are turned into a big beautiful pile of skinny fettucini-like ribbons.) Add these zucchini noodles to your lemon juice vinaigrette along with the onions, olives, and basil.

3.) sprinkle on your salt and pepper and mix well until all the vegetables are well coated. Cover and let sit in the fridge for at least a few hours to allow the flavors to marry.

4.) You could add more salt and pepper before serving depending on your flavor preferences. This would also taste great with the addition of some feta cheese, if you are lucky enough to be able to eat things like that! This recipe serves two people - the perfect guilt-free Valentine's Day treat so that you can indulge in dessert. :)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Compost: a fool-proof garden project

Never in my life did I think I would write a blog post about dirt, but I am about to, with pictures of dirt to boot. Glorious, hand-made dirt. I always knew that hand-made things feel better to me - I enjoy giving hand made gifts, we only have hand made cookies in the house, most of the decorations on the walls are handmade... but I never knew that even hand-made dirt would be more rewarding.

I guess calling it "hand-made" is a bit egocentric of me. I didn't actually make the dirt, after all. I basically just threw all our vegetable scraps in a huge pile and occasionally, when he had been extra naughty, my son dumped in a few bucketfuls of chicken poo as a punishment, but other than that God did all the work. There is a bunch of intimidating science involved and an entire shelf of books at the library on composting, but I had neither the patience or courage to learn the proper way to compost. I convinced my husband to build me an open-topped wooden bin out of old pallets and just started throwing stuff in it. The only rule was to put in only paper and vegetable products. I know there was something about "turning the pile" in some of those composting books - I think I turned ours about 4 times over the course of a year. I also vaguely recalled my brother talking about "browns" and "greens," so I made sure to add leaves in addition to all our green veggie scraps. And then in November I "put the bed to sleep" by covering it over with plywood and starting a new pile right next to it. If I am honest, I thought I would end up with a slimy stinky mess of rotten kitchen garbage, but I was wrong.

I probably violated many hard and fast rules of composting, but all I know is that yesterday I took off the plywood sheets to reveal a gigantic pile of the most beautiful black crumbly vitamin-rich DIRT I have ever seen. It felt like a magic show and Christmas all rolled into one. I was practically giddy as I shoveled scoop after scoop into the wheelbarrow. I mean - this used to be a pile of celery ends, banana peels and coffee filters and now it was just BLACK DIRT! I am still amazed. And a little perplexed that I could be so darn excited about it. I did remember a line from one of the books about composting that I ventured to crack open: "You will never have enough compost." And boy is that true. Two wheelbarrows full finished off my beautiful compost pile, and it was only enough to fill two and a half of my garden beds. *sigh* I am addicted.

I do walk to the new compost pile with a bit more enthusiasm, though, not so annoyed to be hauling a stinky bucket of old kitchen scraps. Now that I know what they will turn into, and have learned just how easy composting actually is, I am happy to do it. How about you - do you compost? If I can do it, anybody can!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Vegan Swiss Chard Dolmas with Garlicky Pesto Quinoa

Greek food has a special place in my heart, mainly because every time my mom took me on a mother-daughter outing (and these were few and far-between due to the three brothers in the mix) we would end up eating lunch somewhere she could have a gyro. Being young and culinarily inexperienced, I would always order a cheeseburger from the "American" section of the menu, but mom always let me take bites of her lunch, and I always wished I had ordered that. Aside from the gyro, possibly the most perfect non-sandwich sandwich on the face of the earth, I am grateful to the Greeks for dolmas. Man those things are good!

Yesterday before dashing out the door to a Super Bowl party laden with snacks that I couldn't eat (baked brie, chips, crackers, cookies, etc.) I decided to make something different. I had a hankering for dolmas, none of the necessary ingredients in the fridge, and not much time. I made do.

These could only loosely be called dolmas. They are more of a little bite-sized burrito or something, but whatever the heck they are, they are yummy. This recipe is really quite versatile - you could put anything you want into your quinoa filling depending on what you have on hand and what you are in the mood for. The chard I used is from my garden and was pretty small and tender - larger leaves would have to be cut smaller. Another idea would be to blanch your chard leaves before rolling the quinoa in them - this would be more dolmas-like, and I have done this before. It takes more time and can be a bit of a soggy operation, but still tastes good. I hope you enjoy these!


1 1/2 cup cooked quinoa
1 cup finely grated green cabbage
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
1/4 - 1/2 C vegan pesto (recipe below)
salt & pepper to taste
12-15 small swiss chard leaves, tough rib removed

1.) Prepare quinoa according to package directions, the put in fridge to chill. Stir cabbage and diced onion into quinoa, then add pesto. How much pesto you use is up to you - I used closer to 1/2 cup, which made for a very garlicky, pesto-ish (is that a word?) flavor, which I love. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

2.) Put a dollop of quinoa stuffing in the middle of a swiss chard leaf, then roll it up like a burrito. Use a toothpick to pin the whole thing shut.

3.) Enjoy!


2 Cups packed basil leaves
4 cloves garlic
1/2 cup high quality olive oil
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/4 cup lemon juice
salt & pepper to taste

Place all ingredients in food processor and bland till smooth.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seed Starting Part 3: Put 'em in the dirt!

It is so beautiful outside! Today the kids actually took their shirts off with permission while playing outside. I couldn't resist: I planted peas and carrots in one of my garden beds. I'm pretty sure there will be another cold snap and they won't do well, but all this sunshine and birdsong has me itching to grow things. On that note, are you ready to start some seeds?

All we really have left to do is put those seeds in the dirt. This year I used an odd assortment of containers, sticking to my if-it-costs-money-what's-the-point gardening motto. I've been saving all our small plastic yogurt cups, so I punched holes in the bottoms of them with a steak knife and filled them up with dirt. Then I had a seed-starter tray from last year and a few red Solo cups that I tried to start cabbages in over the winter. Titus and I filled them all with dirt and planted zinnia, basil, echinacea, tomato, eggplant, and pepper seeds. Oh yes, I planted a couple cucumber seeds, too. Plant markers were made from a Solo cup that I cut into pieces and wrote on with a permanent pen.

All my containers are sitting on the windowsill nearest the heater to speed up the seeds' germination. Peppers in particular require warmth to germinate, and the other nightshades appreciate heat too. As soon as those little guys pop out of the dirt, I will move them out to the greenhouse under the grow lights. All I have left to do is get ahold of a fan to set up in the greenhouse. I want to use it to strengthen my seedlings' stems, but also because the air is getting pretty humid and stagnant in there; I'm not trying to grow mold!

Now begins my most insecure part of gardening: waiting for the seeds to germinate. Every seed that doesn't pop up feels like some sort of personal failure. Year after year I am sure that nothing will grow and my garden will be a complete failure. But then a tiny plant pokes up its pretty green face and I am absolutely thrilled. I guess it is kind of ridiculous to have so much emotional energy tied up in a handful of miniscule seeds, but it is true. I am a gardening basket-case. Hopefully the seeds come up this year or you are in for some embarrassingly dramatic blog posts!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Winter Harvest

Every Friday I find we are running low on veggies. I try to buy most of our produce at the Farmer's Market on Sunday, then supplement with whatever organic stuff I can find at Safeway when I go grocery shopping on Monday (and the Safeway stuff NEVER tastes as good as the produce from the Farmer's Market, plus it is more expensive, so I try very hard not to buy too much of it). No matter how stocked the fridge is at the beginning of the week, Friday and Saturday are a struggle for me. Since I eat primarily veggies, I can't just skate by on grilled cheese sandwiches and eggs, so running out of vegetables is not an option around here. This has necessitated many last-minute trips to the grocery store on Friday afternoons as I try to fill in that two-day gap with green stuff.

Today, however, I didn't have to buy anything because my winter garden is growing like crazy! This is the first time I've ever gotten a winter garden right, and it was so therapeutic to go out there and harvest a huge bin full of broccoli and kale. In the greenhouse, I found that the baby bok choy I've been growing had flowered... not sure if this is a bad thing as it is with lettuce? I will steam them up tonight and decide. Nevertheless, my fridge has been replenished with green stuff and it looks like I will make it through the week without having to go to the produce section. Have a wonderful weekend! P.S. Next week we'll start our seeds! This weekend plan on getting some good organic potting soil (I buy mine at Orchard Supply) and seed starter trays or plastic cups you can poke holes in the bottom of.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Seed Starting Part 2: LIGHTS!

SOOOO... what have you decided to grow? I think I'm most excited about growing black cherry tomatoes this year. I plan to start a lot of those seeds to make extra sure I end up with at least two bushes.

Today we'll talk about how to set up a grow light, which will ensure that your seeds sprout into sturdy healthy seedlings. But before getting into all that, I have to say that last year I started tomato seeds on my window sill using nothing but the natural light shining in from outside. The seeds sprouted and grew into spindly floppy baby tomato plants that looked terribly unhealthy - but they were growing! I hardened them off and planted them out into the garden. And they didn't die! They didn't grow either, for about a month and a half, but they didn't die! This was a major success in my terrible gardening track record. While my friends were watching their large leafy tomato bushes from the nursery blossom and develop tiny green tomatoes, I was watching my tiny seedlings sit in the garden and not die. But then, after waiting for over a month, they took off and grew, blossomed, and gave me a decent crop of tomatoes. Out of the 24 plants that I started, I ended up with 5 mediocre tomato bushes and enough fresh tomatoes to keep us happy through the summer (though I didn't have any left over for canning or making tomato sauce, which made me quite sad).

I tell you all that to let you know that it is definitely possible to grow tomatoes from seed without using grow lights. However, you will put in just as much work and emotional energy and see a lot less output than you would if you took the time to rig up a light or two. And that's just tomatoes. I have never been able to start pepper or eggplant seeds using my window sill method.

This will be my first official year using grow lights to start plants, so maybe you and I are in this together. I've been watching my brother do it for years and every spring find myself coveting his deep green leafy BUSHES sitting there waiting to be planted out into the garden. This year I hope to have some of those myself. Here is the basic process:

1.) Obtain a light. "Grow Lights" sound fancy and can be expensive, but you will do just fine starting your seeds under regular old 40-watt fluorescent bulbs. The difference between these and officially-labeled grow lights is that grow lights emit slightly more red and blue light than fluorescent bulbs, but the difference is not enough to dramatically affect your plants or warrant spending tons of money. Go for the cheap bulbs!

2.) Create your space. Once you have your light (or lights, depending on how many seeds you plan to start), you need to find a way to rig it up so that it hangs just an inch or two above the top of your seed tray and is adjustable. As you plants grow, you will need to raise the light so that it is always just a little bit above the tops of the plants. There are many ways to do this, ranging from fancy-schmancy to jerry rigged. Here is a picture of my brother's set up from last year:

You can see that he put his seed trays on a shelf in the guest room with the light suspended above them. Rather than moving his light up, he has opted to put a box under the seed tray and gradually move the plants down to maintain the proper distance from the light. Good idea David! :) He is also using a fan; blowing air (gently) on your seedlings better mimics the outside environment and causes them to develop sturdier stems, making them easier to transplant later. You don't have to use a fan, but it will make for prettier and healthier plants, which means more vegetables!

My dad and I are sharing a seed starting space this year, so he built grow light stands using PVC pipe:

The lights sit on top of the PVC pipe frame and we will be lowering our seedlings as they grow. I'm using the greenhouse to house our seed starting operation simply because there is no room in my house. I know that my brother has started seeds in his garage where there is no sunlight and my other brother has started seeds in his closet. You don't need a lot of space to do this, and because you are providing the light using your grow light, it doesn't have to be done outside.

3.) Furnish your space. If you are anything like me, you get excited about a project like this but run out of steam once the newness wears off. A few weeks in, you get tired of watering the plants twice each day, or actually forget to water them at all! Let's not allow that to happen this year and make sure our space is as user friendly as possible.

Of course you need to be near an electrical outlet so you can plug in your lights and fan, if you are using one. Put plastic under your area if you are growing inside to keep water from draining onto your floor. Buy a watering can or mister - something that puts out a delicate spray of water so that you don't wash your tiny seedlings away when you water them. You will be watering them a lot, so you want to make sure doing this is not a huge pain - positioning your grow station far away from a water source is a bad idea.

4.) Get Creative! As far as I'm concerned, one of the biggest benefits to having a garden is saving money. There is no point in spending all of the money you are about to save on supplies to get your garden set up. Look around and ask around for things you can use to set up your seed starting station. Craig's List is a great resource, as well as freecycle or even garage sales. It doesn't have to look good - it just has to work.

If you've hung in there with all my ramblings, you are ready to set up your growing space. This is the hardest part of the whole process - once your seed starting area is ready, you can move on to the fun part: putting seeds in dirt. That's coming next - I'm so excited, aren't you?

Monday, January 21, 2013

Seed Starting part 1: Decide What to Grow!

Yes, spring is still months away, but it is time to get ready to plant! If you want to grow tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant from seed, you will need to get those seeds started around the end of this month so they can grow into strong sturdy mini plants by the time the outside soil warms up. Seed starting is exactly what it sounds like: planting your seeds and getting them to start growing. However, since it is winter and your seeds won't grow well outside where it is cold and dreary, you will need to create a cozy spring-like growing environment for them using grow lights and/or heating mats. If all goes to plan, by the time spring rolls around, you will have beautiful leafy plants ready to put in your garden.

Perhaps you are wondering why anyone would even bother with seed-starting when they could stop by their local nursery in March to buy bushy tomato plants somebody else started. In fact, many of my gardener friends think I am crazy for starting my own seeds. It is a lot more work, but I find it to be more rewarding as well. At the risk of sounding like a complete weirdo, I feel much more emotionally attached to the tomatoes I grow from seed than I do to those I buy from OSH. That is not the main reason I start my own seeds, though. The main reason is: VARIETY.

Have you perused the Baker Creek seed catalog or website yet? They offer tons of rare, heirloom seeds with which you can grow tomatoes and other vegetables that you have never heard of and certainly can't buy at the nursery. Paul Robeson, Black Cherry, Orange Icicle, and Snow Fairy tomatoes. Sweet Chocolate bell peppers. Just a quick perusal through their tomato seed offerings might be enough to convert you to a hopeful seed starter. I love the idea of growing and eating rare vegetables, or vegetables I would only be able to eat if I visited another country. This year I went a little nuts on my seed order and am scrambling around trying to make enough space to grow TEN different varieties of tomatoes!

This week as I get ready to start my own seeds, I'll be writing a series of posts on seed starting so you can follow along with me. Trust me: it is not hard, and you don't need to be a gardening expert to do it. I am certainly no expert, but I have messed up enough gardening projects to have learned some things by trial and error.

The first (and for some of us shoppers, the most exciting) step is to decide what you want to grow in your garden this year, buy the seeds, and then figure out what seeds to start. In my early years of gardening I used to start every single plant from seed in January and have since determined that is NOT the way to go. Many plants, like peas, beans, sunflowers, zucchini, carrots, as well as lettuce and other greens start just fine when planted "in place." In other words, wait until after the last frost when the soil has warmed and is easy to work, and stick those seeds right where you want the plant to grow. If your soil is healthy and there is plenty of sunshine, they will germinate and grow just fine, sometimes better than they would if you started them earlier and then transplanted them.

Other plants, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant, take much longer to grow, which is why they need to be started within the next week or so. I am still on the fence when it comes to cucumbers - this year I will start a few cucumber seeds and see how they do. I have had very bad luck with transplanting cucumbers - once I plant them out into the garden they just sit there looking sad. So in addition to starting some cucumber seeds, I'll also plant some in place come spring. All that to say: by the end of this month, plan on having tomato, pepper, eggplant, and cucumber seeds ready to start. I am also starting some basil and flower seeds as an experiment. This is a helpful chart about seed starting - it gives tips on how to start a variety of seeds, as well as listing when it is safe to transplant your starts to the garden.

The weather is sunny and gorgeous outside today, and writing this post has me itching to get out my shiny new seed packets and put them in some dirt. The next post will talk about setting up a grow light system - much simpler than it seems. Happy seed shopping!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Under the Weather

Actually, the weather has been wonderful. But the men in my family have been passing around a few different sicknesses and have been low on energy this week. Yesterday after snapping pictures of the lettuce in the greenhouse, I found somebody enjoying the sunshine in an unusual place. Can you spot him?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Operation Greenhouse is a success!

I am so excited that my completely impromptu greenhouse project is working! I have butter lettuce (above) and baby bok choy (below)...

... as well as a tray of cut-and-come-again salad greens. I didn't buy anything fancy for this other than organic potting mix. Everything is growing in old plastic containers I snagged out of the recycling bin. I just stabbed holes in the bottom of each using a kitchen knife, filled them with dirt and seeds, put them in the greenhouse and hoped for the best.

It's certainly not as impressive as growing tomatoes in winter. These are cold-hearty plants, after all, which is why they are growing so easily in my non-heated greenhouse. But I know they are doing much better in here than they would be doing outside, where the daytime high has been around 37 degrees for over a week. I don't have a thermometer in the greenhouse yet, but it is noticeably warmer inside it than out. And it has been so nice being able to grow something during the middle of winter, when I am usually only able to daydream about spring.

I know I'm pretty fortunate to have a greenhouse. They can be costly and take up space, which is shy many people don't have them. But if you want the same basic idea and are limited on space but not creativity, you should definitely consider building a cold frame. This is a good tutorial on how to build a cold frame - looks like a pretty simple and inexpensive project that would be well worth it in the end, as it can be used just like a greenhouse to extend your growing season. Let me know if you decide to give it a try!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Salmon Head Soup

Try telling your family "Salmon Head Soup" when they ask what's for dinner... The reactions you get will be only slightly less awesome than how it tastes.

I bought a salmon head at the farmer's market this weekend because it cost $1 and I am a sucker for almost free wild-caught protein. I asked the man what I was supposed to do with the gigantic thing, and he said people usually make soup out of it. I did a little research, and it seems many people consider the head to be the most flavorful part of the salmon, even though there isn't much meat there. The perfect way to extract this flavor is to simmer it in soup. Using what I had on hand I came up with this recipe - it really was surprisingly flavorful! Once we convinced our kids to take their first bites, Salmon Head Soup quickly went from something to be dreaded to "This is four times yummy."


2-3 T olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 celery stalks, chopped
2 large carrots, chopped
2" peeled ginger, finely diced
3 garlic cloves, crushed through a garlic press
1 large bay leaf
1 piece of Kombu Seaweed (I buy dried Kombu at Whole Foods)
1 large salmon head
1 lemon, quartered
2 T coconut oil
1/4 cup brown rice flour
1/4 c diced fresh parsley
2 T lemon juice
2-3 cups chopped greens such a bok choy
1 t liquid aminos
salt and pepper

1.) Heat olive oil in large soup pot. Cook onion, celery, and carrots until the onion becomes translucent. Add the ginger and garlic. Stir and cook till garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add kombu, bay leaf, lemon (squeeze each quarter into pot before dropping it in) and salmon head (yes, eyes and all!!!) Add 1/2 t salt and a few dashes of freshly ground pepper. Add enough water to submerge everything and give it a stir. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer over medium heat about 20 minutes, until the fish is cooked.

2.) Using a mesh strainer, carefully remove the fish head from the pot. It will be very tender and you don't want weird pieces of bone or fins to fall into the pot. Pick all of the meat off of the head (if you are squeamish have someone else do this part. Or maybe don't make this soup.) and set aside. This is easier than it sounds - it is very obvious which parts are edible and which parts aren't.

3.) Remove the lemon, kombu, and bay leaf from pot and discard. Using the same mesh strainer, strain all the vegetables out of the cooking liquid, RESERVING ALL OF THE LIQUID. You just want the veggies to be separate from the liquid. At this point you will have a plate of salmon meat, a bowl of cooked vegetables, and a bowl of stock.

4.) Using 2 cups of the reserved cooking liquid, cook up 1 cup of dry quinoa. This will be served with your soup and tastes really good cooked in the salmon stock!

5.) Once your quinoa is going, melt the coconut oil over medium heat in your now-empty soup pot. Add the brown rice flour and make a roux, stirring until it is nice and browned. Add 1 cup of the reserved cooking liquid and stir to combine - it should become thick and bubbly pretty quickly. Continue adding liquid until the broth is the consistency you want - I went for a broth slightly less thick than stew broth because I wanted the soup to be more chowdery than chicken-soupy. (I think I used about 2 1/2 cups of liquid but didn't keep track.)

6.) Return the reserved salmon meat and vegetables to the soup pot with your broth. Stir in liquid aminos and chopped greens. Cover and allow to cook about 7 minutes until the greens are wilted. (If you think there isn't enough meat in your soup, you could add a can of salmon at this point - I buy canned salmon at Costco and it tastes really wonderful.)

7.) Just before serving, stir in fresh parsley and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper and serve over the cooked quinoa quinoa, garnished with more chopped parsley.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Processing Sunflower Seeds

Last week while it was dark and rainy outside, I decided to "process" one of my sunflowers. It has been hanging in the pantry to cure since mid autumn, and it was nice and dry and ready to be dealt with. Also, I had run out of sunflower seeds, which I usually toast and put on salads, and wasn't in the mood to drive all the way to Whole Foods to replenish my stash. Why spend money when I had a huge sunflower hanging right in the middle of the house?

I had a helper for the first and most satisfying part of the operation: getting the seeds out of the flower. Something about picking those seeds out and seeing just how many there are is very satisfying. Then we were on to phase two: hulling the seeds. My helper quickly lost interest as it became apparent that this is a tedious and SLOW process.

Before I even harvested my sunflowers, I looked into sunflower seed hullers, and it seems there isn't much available for the non-commercial, home sunflower grower. If you want to build a huller (or want to build one for me,) you can find instructions here. I was excited at first, but then I read the "tools required" part of the instructions: Table Saw. Drill Press. Band Saw. Saber Saw. Frankly, it would be easier and cheaper to patronize the bulk foods aisle at Whole Foods every week than build my own sunflower seed huller. This article gives a few at-home methods of hulling the seeds; the first two didn't work at all. Maybe I wasn't smashing the seeds hard enough?

I resorted to hulling my sunflower seeds like a squirrel - biting the shell to crack it and using my fingers to pry the inner part out. After an hour and a half I had just under 1/4 cup of edible seeds. Which, by the way, I couldn't in good conscience share with anyone else, since every single one of them had been in my mouth. Definitely not time effective. They sure tasted great, though. I earned those darn sunflower seeds! When every last seed had been cracked and opened up (and about a third of the seeds in the flower were just empty shells), I had about 1/2 cup of sunflower seeds. Again, neither time nor cost effective. My dreams of making my own sunflower seed butter had disappeared and I began revising my garden plans: maybe filling an entire bed with sunflowers doesn't make sense after all.

My husband tells me there is an old tabletop grain mill in the barn, which I plan to dust off and try using. Everything I've read indicates that is the most effective at-home way of hulling these yummy seeds. I still have three dried flowers hanging up, waiting to be processed. I'll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Winter plans

Happy New year! I'm a little late, but it is nice to be back to blogging. Despite all the lovely blog posts I had planned for December, the entire month got away from me and I am just now realizing that I haven't show up here for about a month. This was my first year with TWO kids in school and I was downright shocked by how busy their Christmas activities kept us. The week before break I was a frazzled mess. (Note to self: while giving all the teachers handmade marshmallows was a nice touch, next year plain old gift cards might be in order.) Then we had gobs of family in town and spent the next two weeks chumming around with them playing disc golf and eating and sitting in front of the fireplace and eating and... eating... Naturally, I had to spend the next week or so recovering from all that sitting around. Oh poor me, life is rough. :)

And now it is a new year and I am brimming with new year garden plans. I am not one to make grand resolutions, but this year I am determined to actually grow a significant portion of our food. Of course, I am now just in the planning and preparing phase of that resolution and still spending just as much money at the grocery store. But I hope to put a significant dent in that number by the end of the year. I'll be sharing my process here so you can follow along, and maybe even grow some of your own family's food as well.

These pictures were snapped a few mornings ago when we woke up to a completely frozen back yard. The boys ran outside the (new!) sliding glass door to the pond and spent a chilly half hour throwing rocks out onto the frozen surface, enjoying the crack each one made as it broke through and sank to the bottom without making even the smallest ripple on the solid surface. Such a simple, pretty morning.