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.