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Food I grow and what it costs

Here in Colorado, suburban agriculture can be considered kind of a luxury. The soil, without amendment and nutrients, is worthless for growing those plump, colorful vegetables you see at farmers’ markets. It can go for months without raining in the summer or snow and flood in the spring and fall. Daytime temperatures can be double the nighttime lows.

It’s possible to grow a lot of food in a small space without using an unreasonable amount of water or other resources. This year I’m tracking the expenses as accurately as I can and will calculate or estimate the return on my efforts as I pick them. I grow a lot of beans, which are eaten fresh and dried, and the ornamental-looking plants produce a lot of enjoyment and nutrition in little space. Tomatoes and other nightshades are not so easy. In the past I’ve only weighed tomatoes, a good yield for one summer being 200 pounds. You could say that’s almost a thousand bucks worth of food when you consider that these types of heirloom fruits cost $4-$5 at markets (if you can find them). But that’s only a legitimate return if you sell them or would normally buy 200 pounds of heirloom tomatoes from August to October. I make damn sure we eat, share and preserve all of them, and it’s worth it. To me. But this year I’m going to look at the actual numbers and calculate some hard, cold figures. I’m not entering time as an expense, even though time is money, because I love gardening. So it’s not billable time unless I skip work to do it.

Spreadsheet tracking garden expenses and returns

 

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I almost gave up

Last night the worst hailstorm I’ve ever experienced blew in and pummeled the area for about 10 minutes. I hadn’t covered my plants, not that it would have helped much. the weather has been weird – on June 22, horses were blanketed because of persistent cold rain. Then it was finally summer a couple days later. The hail punched through a shade sail and left holes in our picnic table. I wondered what area horses without shelters were doing. Kids gathered a bowl full of frozen balls and put them in the freezer because kids do stuff like that. I about cried.

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This morning I surveyed the devastation. It isn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be. Several poblano plants are barely injured at all, and I’m not sure why. Most of the tomatoes and beans took a hit, and the few squash plants, which were thriving and optimistic-looking before the storm, are beaten down. They look how I feel. I think they will recover, but it would eat up a lot of the growing season and once again I will get, if anything, a late harvest. I hope the frost will hold off until late fall.

I gathered broken tomato branches and a fish pepper into a desperate bouquet and put them in water with a little fertilizer, knowing they will grow roots and clone themselves. Whether the clones will become viable plants I’m not sure. This morning there was still a pile of hail that had collected in a shade sail and taken it down.

 

I guess there’s nothing to do but move on. I’m glad some of our house sparrow friends have a nest box.

I don’t know if this is just a tough year or if it’s related to climate change. I can blame myself as much as anyone for climate change, since we just got back from a trip to Santa Fe we took in our fuel-burning minivan. This will be our last fuel-burning vehicle.

Bunnies and watercress

That’s not a recipe, I just accept that rabbits live in my backyard now for the first time in a decade. Because Pixie isn’t here, I guess. Dean will chase a bunny but stop if I call him off. They don’t seem to be eating the watercress, mustard, lettuce or coriander that’s sprouted though. Those flavors might be too strong for them, or they may just be waiting for the greens to get larger. I’m not really worried about them eating my plants, I was just always worried about their safety in my backyard, but that was when Pix was on the job. Without his sister egging him on, Dean doesn’t have strong feelings about prey.

A couple days ago it was near 80 F and yesterday we got about 5 inches of snow. That’s typical for this time of year but when it’s cold and grey, I feel like it’s just always cold and grey. I am in a horrible mood. Just because of weather.

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There is a lot to look forward to though. We now have a container for collecting rainwater, which isn’t really interesting-looking or attractive enough to warrant having its pic posted. But it’s big enough to make a difference, while small enough to be legal.  The seedlings indoors get filtered water or water from the rain barrel when it’s available. The unfiltered tap water some days smells like chlorine. It can’t be that good for them.

Waiting indoors:

About 40 tomatoes of these varieties:

  • The usual suspects: Pantano Romanesco, Lucid Gem, Striped Roma/Speckled Roman, Kellogg’s Breakfast, Golden Jubilee, Paul Robeson
  • And some I haven’t tried: Barry’s Crazy Cherry, Kentucky Beef, White Tomasol

A coworker who is going to be traveling this summer instead of gardening gave me his LED grow light. It’s very effective. There are also plants under a cheap fluorescent shop light and another small grow light. Some settle for the south-facing window and are doing OK. I know that when I start seeds as early as January I’m going to end up with big plants in my sunroom by spring if everything goes well, but sometimes it doesn’t and I have to start over. That’s why I start in January. You could get away with starting nightshades indoors in March.

When seedlings are about 4-6 inches tall I usually see the sign of phosphorus deficiency, which is a purplish cast to the bottoms of healthy-looking leaves and sometimes stems. I watered them a few times with plain club soda and the new growth was green in about a week. Do not use sugary soda, just plain club soda because it has a little phosphorus and is otherwise just clean water with bubbles. The pale leaves above are a sign they were overwatered previously, so I cut back.

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This is not an example of the purplish cast, but green plants under the blue and red LEDs:

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Other plants that look happy are:

  • Fish pepper: this is popular where I’m from in the mid-Atlantic US, but I don’t see it in the markets here. It may be hard to grow. The leaves and fruit are variegated and pretty and its heat is similar to a jalapeno’s.  I think it’s called “fish pepper” because if its common use in cooking seafood.

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  • Biquinho: This is a cute, sweet little Portuguese pepper I started for the first time this year. The reviews claim it’s a little spicy and therefore the seeds are not the real deal, which I would be OK with. When there were little kids around here I didn’t grow anything spicy for fear they’d pick some and then rub their eyes, but now that EG is 10 I think we can handle it. He makes a good hot sauce that will put hair on your chest.

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  • Poblano
  • Ghost pepper: EG’s idea; I brought this in from the garden last year and will put it back out in the summer. It took all winter and has two tiny, probably angry red peppers on it. I don’t think it’s reasonable to grow these here in one season without a commercial greenhouse because they want heat and humidity like in India.

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  • Persian basil, which I hope takes off outside
  • Chamomile, cosmos flowers, blue butterfly pea
  • Sesame: I have never tried to grow this but am excited about it. I read the plants are large and have pretty flowers which produce seed pods. It was be interesting to be able to grow my own fat. I mean, not just on my person – that’s easy – but as a food source. I don’t know where I’m going to put the plants if they make it yet.

This weekend we tilled the entire front yard and will add more fruit trees to it. We also tilled the O.G. (original garden) to remove turf and weeds and basically start over. I’m not a fan of tilling and was going to rent a sod cutter instead, but Metal Pig brought home a rototiller and I wasn’t about to argue. It should be fine. It seemed like it weighed more than I do and I wrestled with it – he did about 80% of the work.

Blurry, crappy pics of dirt:

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I usually avoid using animal products but here are two I will use: llama manure from a couple of nearby farmers I met who love their llamas and eggshells from our chicken friends next door. I may use chicken manure and bedding but it needs to be composted. Whatever gets used is pending soil testing to see what is needed.

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Next post will be about food preservation and fermentation.

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Now Pixie can be in the garden

You know those people who attempt to jerk tears out of you by going on and on about their pets who have gone on to The Good Place for eternity? I’m one of those people and this is one of those rambling, emotional posts, so skip it if you hate that stuff. But you can thank me for not using the expressions “fur kid” and “rainbow bridge.”

From my friend Matt:

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There goes my hero

Our dog Pixie was euthanized after her kidneys were no longer working. She was with us almost 14 years, and was full grown when we got her. Not knowing her date of birth, but knowing she was over 14, it was no surprise that eventually something had to wear out. She never had cancer, arthritis, a sense of self-preservation or other age-related afflictions, except a selective hearing loss. So that was good; at the same time, it was a hard transition for me, having watched her go from being a superdog to a sick dog very quickly.  For awhile I just avoided the back yard because it was so obvious she wasn’t in it anymore. Now it’s time to get back out and start cleaning inside the fences for the baby plants huddled inside, staring out the south-facing window.

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If I discovered an element, I’d name it after Pixie. She was a unique force that deserves a place on the Periodic Table. Five years ago, with the help of family members including small children (who were willing participants!), we built a fence over 5 feet high to keep Pix out of the garden. Her brother isn’t as much of a jumper. She would still get her share of the vegetables, but if allowed in the garden would have eaten everything in one day.

There are other reasons to keep dogs out of the garden, so it wasn’t just that. But any future fences can be a lot lower because few other dogs can clear five feet. Kids, let this be a lesson:  eat your vegetables if you want to be super. Better yet, eat your vegetables and everyone else’s.

She also liked high-protein chipati flour and decorated several rooms with a 5-pound bag of it:

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She also won a race at a charity event for retired Greyhounds, and kept going around the track after the race was over. She was the fastest dog in the tri-state area.

She cleared a boundary that was in a pond at a dog park, swam about 400 yards, bolted and returned to me a little later; no idea where she was. This would become a theme. She was an amazing agility dog but when we went to an outdoor trial was redirected from the course by a flock of pelicans. Again, no idea where she was but when she came back it was obvious she’d been swimming.

She enjoyed swimming, running, jumping, climbing and eating. She was a Boss and always got her way by using Jedi mind tricks.

She would body slam the back door when she wanted in or out, which was more effective than her brother’s method of sitting quietly hoping someone would notice he wanted the door open. She got things done. She took initiative. She was effective. But deep down, she was an orphan who had lived on the streets and loved her adoptive family. Her last nights were spent in our bed, waking up a few times during the night to look at my face and make sure I was still there.

So I think I’m going to till some more dirt in a few weeks and create a stupid memorial garden for her, with just a short rabbit fence. She and the spirit of our cat, JB, who also loved being in the garden, can be there. Not that I believe in an afterlife, necessarily, but I really want to. That concludes this sappy post and it will be about gardening again after this.

Late summer fruit

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunset over Waneka Lake, Lafayette, CO

Someone gave me 5+ pounds of surplus grapes, which yielded 7 cups of juice. The juice itself was good enough to drink unsweetened but I used it to make jelly and gummies inspired by Ana Rocha. Her recipe uses apple and pear juice with agar powder. Because I thought apple juice would have more natural pectin, I added pectin in addition to agar, but it was not necessary. Agar is a very good substitute for gelatin. It was surprisingly hard to find at my Natural Grocers and other stores in the area though. Employees didn’t even know what it was.

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Concord grape without its purple skin

 

There was a little grape juice left, which I combined with blueberry green tea steeped in pomegranate juice and made blocks of similar gummies to consume during endurance sports. We all ran a 5K open race before a cross-country meet, and this being only my son’s second run at that distance, I thought he might need replenishment. I do sometimes. I’m still tweaking this recipe, but if you want to try it, here’s what I did that day:

  1. Boiled 1 1/2 cups juice briefly, then turned off and steeped 4 blueberry green tea bags in it for about 5 minutes (adds a little caffeine)
  2. Stirred in a tablespoon of powdered electrolytes until it dissolved; the brand was Ultima Replenisher because that’s what we had
  3. Removed the tea bags and boiled the juice with 1 tablespoon agar and 1 teaspoon pectin (you could probably not use pectin and it wouldn’t matter) and about 1/4 cup of agave syrup until it thickened
  4. Poured into a silicone candy mold of 24 blocks, 1 square inch each

I assume this means 6 blocks have the caffeine of one cup of green tea, and my 9 year old had only one block. I ate a single block myself on a morning run when I was feeling weak, and it really picked me up. If it’s a placebo effect that’s OK. My 5K time that day was 3 minutes faster than my goal, but I don’t think that little block of sugar, salt and caffeine knocked 3 minutes off itself. If so, gummies will be banned substances.

That was the best use I’ve ever had for surplus fruit. Let this be a lesson not to throw away any fruit just because it’s more than you can consume fresh. If you don’t want to process it, find a neighbor who will and they’ll probably give you a cut. Next episode, I’ll tell you what we did with 40-some pounds of Gala apples and Bartlett pears from the trees in my front yard. I planted them 10-12 years ago but this is the first time the apple tree produced a lot of fruit.

And here’s another picture of my friend Mantis, because he’s so cool. I hope he’s still out there, alive.

 

 

This is not a food blog

How did I make pasta for decades without knowing I could stop the water from bubbling over by simply placing a chopstick over the pot? I learned this recently from one of our favorite shows, Chef & My Fridge

A wooden spoon works too. A stick would work. The bubbles pop when they hit whatever item you rest on the rim of the pot and it doesn’t boil over onto the stove. My dad lived his whole life without knowing that, and he made a lot of pasta. Is there anything else simple and obvious I should know? About cooking, gardening, parenting, putting my pants on, anything?

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Here’s another stupid thing I did. Somehow I mislabeled seeds either when I collected them or planted them, and came out with plants I didn’t expect. A lot of them are cherry tomatoes, which is fine. They taste very, very good and make an excellent sauce. They just don’t impress your friends with their size and aren’t some wacky color, and it’s easier to harvest a few large tomatoes than 100 small ones.

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I also have a variety I can’t even identify as one I previously planted or bought seeds for. It’s pinkish and medium-sized; looks a lot like a bald peach.

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I wonder if I hybridized something, although I don’t know how. It’s shaped like a German Orange Strawberry but not golden in color and frankly not as tasty. And I haven’t grown those in several years because they were susceptible to disease and not very productive. I won’t give them a bad review, I just might not have the right climate for them.

Lucid Gems are as expected, and a couple Brandywines I didn’t have much hope for are producing. Almost no large tomatoes are ripe yet, and most are still getting larger. We had a party last weekend and I was unable to impress the other parents with a tomato salad, but there are some decent Marketmore cucumbers. These and a zucchini make pretty good, inoffensive low-carb noodles. I recommend eating them raw. They have a nice, crisp texture and that’s about it. They taste only as interesting as the sauce, oil or whatever you put on them.

Here, we’ve had smoke from the California wildfires and several downpours they could use in California. To get an idea of how bad it must be there, this is Boulder, CO on a clear day, which normally means the sky is a saturated blue and mountains are visible:

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I am starting to see something like Septoria Leaf Spot on a few leaves but that doesn’t freak me out. I excise the affected leaves knowing it won’t eradicate it completely, but I have seen it this time of year frequently and healthy plants usually overcome it for the rest of the season.

 

Peppers are doing unusually well. I don’t know what the ones that look like Ancho chilis are – they might be Ancho chilis. The seeds are from a plant a coworker gave me last year, and he didn’t know what it was either. The long curly ones are Jimmie Nardellos , grown from seeds I removed from ripe peppers I bought at the farmers’ market. They are sweet and not spicy at all.

 

I used about 4 cups grated zucchini to make 2 bundt cakes, which were very good.

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Metal Pig made Kolaches (traditional Bohemian pastry) with cherries from my friends’ tree. But I didn’t get a pic of the cherry ones before they were gone. This has poppy seed filling:

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Hanukkah in August

I didn’t get any suggestions for different ways to enjoy fresh beans, so I’m posting one. Disclaimer: this is not a food blog.

I batter-fried some beans in a pool of oils – avocado, coconut and sesame. The pool was only about 1/2 inch (2-3 cm) deep in a non-stick pan. My pans are non-teflon, non-stick and I used a smallish one to make the pool deeper and use less oil. I dredged the beans (also sliced peppers, but they are not the subject of this, because I didn’t grow them) in:

-1 cup mixture of Ener-G egg replacer (potato and tapioca starch) and AP flour

-tsp salt

-tsp baking powder

-1/2 cup-ish ice water

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Then I fried em in the oil (you saw that coming, right?)

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I served them with a dipping sauce of:

-tsp miso paste

-1 or 3 tbs soy sauce

-2 or 3 tbs Thai chili sauce (sweet chili sauce)

They were crisp, sweet and a huge hit, even without the sauce. Part of a complete dinner with baked tofu, Chana chaat (lovely Indian chick pea salad) and naan:

Recommended beverage, smoothie made with seasonal Colorado peaches:

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What would Saint Francis do?

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For the first time in 10 years, I see bunnies in my yard. They couldn’t get through or under the fence since we built it, and I assumed wouldn’t want to anyway because of our dogs. But last week I saw a big bunny and a baby bunny and EG found a depression in the gravel under the fence they must use as a portal. EG’s dog Dean chased one out through it. They hide under the shed, where I think they might be living.

That’s St Francis on the left, and one of his little friends perched on a plank on the right:

 

 

Here’s another interesting creature I found in my entryway. I didn’t think he wanted to be there, so I put my hand in front of him and he climbed on. I was like, “buddy, I have just the place for you” and placed him in the bean jungle. I wished him well and hope he finds a mate who won’t bite his head off.

I drank this Vinho Verde at sunset while picking beans and wondered about the Mantis’ love lives.

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How do they find each other? It must be so hard get together with someone of your own species that you’d take the risk she might eat your head. I hope they don’t have an appetite for ladybugs. There are little grasshoppers in there, and I don’t even kill them, but someone will eat a few – probably the Mantises. I have so far avoided using any kind of bug repellent or killer and everything seems to work itself out. It’s tough in the spring when I think sowbugs (pill bugs, roly-polies) eat newly planted beans, but the beans that tough it out catch up with a vengeance in June.

As usual, I don’t have large, ripe tomatoes yet, and probably won’t for another 2-3 weeks. I just get a late harvest, maybe because I don’t feed the plants enough early, or the soil is tough to get established in? They look good though. We are having a party next week, and I may resort to picking some large green ones and ripening them in a paper bag so I can make a salsa. Ditto the peppers, which I never see ripe before September.