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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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Out Standing in my Field

I’m digging up and terracing 200 square feet of lawn to create a second garden. I think the biggest expense will be a fence around it, which may not need to be as substantial as the one around the bigger garden. It will be > 200 SF of turf on a slope I won’t have to mow anymore. This area faces east – southeast and will have a little morning shade from pine trees on the eastern perimeter of the yard. Most of the day it will get unfiltered sun like the original garden – I’ll just start calling that one the Original Garden, or OG, if you will.

First, EG and I measured the rise and run and calculated that the slope is only 1 degree. Here’s his TinkerCad model of this simple plan. The stones that = 1×2 feet are his suggested footpath down the middle, but I changed that to a 2′ wide path horizontally instead of steps down/up the center. That removes 80 SF of planting space but I need that to reach into the  planting beds without stepping on them.

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This will allow two 4 x 10 beds with a short retaining wall on the downslope sides of the top bed and the path. There will need to be a perimeter on the outside as well, so I can access the beds from all sides, so I might as well remove the turf there too. I don’t know what to use for those paths; maybe pea gravel. Removing turf, Minecraft-style with a pickaxe, is burning a few extra calories.

How much can I grow here? This is a rough draft of a goal:

-8 tomato plants, potentially 80-100# of tomatoes or $280-$350 worth (Market value $4-5/pound in my area, but I’m conservatively valuing mine at $3.50 because I’m not a market grower)

-2 pepper plants, which I am never optimistic about, at best providing 10# of peppers or $25 worth

-4 rows of legumes grown vertically, providing about 2 cups per day fresh green beans  in June, July and August (and a few pounds of dried beans in the fall

-Steady supply of mustard, kale and some other greens that grow throughout the summer; maybe $30 worth. I love lettuce but the ship for planting that here has sailed. It’s May and I haven’t gotten this bed ready for planting. Lettuce I already planted in the established beds in March.

-A cucumber vine or 2, maybe 3, hopefully giving us 10# of fruit in June and July. My experience with these makes yield hard to predict. I feel like I have little control over the success and much has to do with the weather.

Speaking of weather, this is what the sky is like today, and I wish I were collecting the rain for when it’s dry later:

clouds

That is a sculpture made of trash (plastic or Styrofoam cups) we saw on a recent trip to Boston, where it’s cold and rains all the time. Apparently. It was at a place called the MFA, which turns out to be an acronym for Museum of Fine Arts. I thought the MF stood for something else. I am fortunate enough to have been so saturated with the experience of fine art museums in my childhood that I hate them. Still, this sculpture made an impression on me. I hope it makes an impression on other parents who run lemonade stands and could use compostable cups. They do jack up the price of your lemonade though.

Here is the new Garden ROI spreadsheet for 2018: Garden expenses 2018

 

 

CloningTomatoes

I know you can clone tomatoes. Their stems have tiny threads covering them that look like tiny hairs or downy feathers on a baby bird. If you clip off a branch or sucker and stick it in water, soil or any medium that isn’t toxic to it, those little things become roots within days.

Previously I’ve done it during growing season because a branch had broken accidentally, or had to be pruned, and that seems to be too late to expect the cloned plant to catch up. This year I rooted some cuttings from seedlings I pruned and, a week later, the little seedlings look promising.

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Spring makes me nervous

Like a crazy person, I pruned some seedlings already. Unlike the other crap I do just to see what would happen, this has a low risk of concussion or dental bills. I do have shoulder impingement but I think it’s from something else, not pinching tomato leaves. Also I was sober (and TBH I typically am despite my declarations of “HMPaWT!” when doing something to see what would happen). It does make me nervous because I feel like I’m injuring my planties.

I planted nightshades in early February but some took weeks to germinate. I got nervous by March and put a heating pad under a metal baking sheet, and the little pods stuffed with seeds on that. It helped; I got a few more sprouts that way.

Last fall I was an idiot and labeled some of the promising seeds I collected as “P.R.” This could mean either Paul Robeson or Pantano Romanesco. You can’t really go wrong with either but I wish I were less of a dumbass.

Right now, what I have with true leaves are:

P.R. (whatever they are): 14 plants, ranging from 2-10 inches tall. I’ll give away a few to friends.

Lucid Gem: 6 little planties; planted later but look promising. I will be reluctant to share these.

Kellogg’s Breakfast: 5 healthy-looking 4-6 inch seedlings.

Golden Jubilee: Just sprouts, 2 with tiny true leaves

Striped (aka Speckled) Romans: 3 little ones with leaves, 2 sprouts…I’m going to need more of these. Hope the other seed sprout soon.

Anything else is a potential plant; either a little sprout or still a seed: 4 striped cherry tomatoes of some kind (heirloom like all my plants, but I bought the seeds and don’t know much about them); 12 peppers, a few Red Brandywines, one true Pantano Romanesco and more of the above mentioned tomatoes.

I’m not sure how I feel about pruning. The biggest of the P.R.s I just pinched off the little stem between leaves 4 and 5, and felt bad about it so I put the amputated parts in water. I know it’s easy to get tomatoes to root that way. I wonder how much of that cloning I can get away with. Like can I double my count of productive plants by cloning branches when they’re a little older?

I mixed quinoa and lettuce seeds with potting soil and water, thinking it less fiddly then planting individual seeds. Something is growing; I think lettuce. If I could really grow quinoa I’d save us like a whopping $7/week. Because the dogs and I have a diet based on quinoa.

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I should have more done by now. I should be digging up more space to plant. But it’s almost time for whatever that other stuff I was going to do today, after which it will probably be time to crack open a Prosecco.

Stuff to do so I’m not tempted to start seeds too early

I’m a busy parent. There are kids to play with, horses to ride and this Prosecco isn’t going to drink itself. It’s all I can do to fit in a 2-hour workout.

That’s not really me. I would never wear that. Also I don’t really have that much time on my hands. I don’t even have a string of horses. Just access to a string of horses. And I bought several bottles of Prosecco but it was for our holiday party. There were two left over and I made jelly with one and used half the other in risotto (see this blog for risotto recipes and pics). Don’t remember what happened to the other half.

Making jelly is fun. I wouldn’t normally waste a good bottle of wine on a batch of jelly, but it was Christmas and I sent some to family members. I added lemongrass and basil to the Prosecco jelly and rosemary to some I made with Moscato (EG colored it green). That’s not really relevant to this gardening blog, is it. I didn’t grow the wine, it was just left over from a party. But I did make jelly from the raspberries that grow in my front yard, and that got good reviews. I also happened to score a cheap case of blackberries in the fall and made insanely good preserves out of those, which was almost too pretty to eat.

My friend Mean Charlene (ironic nickname) grows a variety of hot peppers, which she shared with me. I combined them with heirloom tomatoes, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper for a decent salsa.

I would grow peppers, but as long as Mean Charlene does every year, I can just trade with her. I did have two plants outside this year, one I planted and another that was a surplus seedling a coworker gave me. Right before the first frost, I made a last minute decision to dig those up and bring them in. They blossomed in November and have little peppers on them.

And here’s a blurry pic of the owl in my neighborhood, who has little to do with gardening but I was just so excited I got this close and s/he let me take pics, I’m posting one.

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Lemme back up

Candid thoughts about the daily life of a nine year old. Absolutely worth reading!

Everything You Need To Know About Me

Okay, the scene is set on christmas afternoon, and I am playing my new ocarina.

“What’s an ocarina?”, You might ask, well it’s a 6,300 year old wind instrument. That’s literally it’s entire summary. That’s it. Here, I’ll show you a picture of mine.

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Isn’t it pretty? it sounds pretty nice, too. Don’t think so? I’ll prove it :

Sorry, the audio is a little crappy because I recorded it on my kindle fire 7 with no equipment. But enough about my ocarina, let’s skip 15 days to now, I just finished seeing Paddington 2 in theaters, and it totally deserved it’s five-star rating, as for what’s to come, we’ll need a fortuneteller, or a gypsy or something like that. Or maybe the hero of time would be nice.

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Not just the man who gave us PB&J

Peanut butter and jelly sandwich image
7 grams of complete, delicious, stick-to-your-ribs protein

 

Not trying to hijack MLK day, like the the Commonwealth of Virginia did when I lived there, but I want to mention GWC.  Mostly because this is a blog about a tiny farm. Today Metal Pig talked about George Washington Carver after reading a comment along the lines of, “If you think you’re not getting the resources you need, read about GWC…” That’s not an exact quote. It was something like that. Can’t believe I don’t go around thinking “What would George Washington Carver do?” Although sometimes I think, “What would Joan Jett do?” and that’s good, because she’s a great entertainer, citizen and intrepid entrepreneur. I am not two of those things, but it doesn’t hurt to think like her sometimes. Or like I think she thinks.

What were the most defining traits and experiences that Dr. Carver, a slave as a child who would later become a Master of Science? Can I relate to any of them? The couple who once owned him also homeschooled him, I think in part because he wasn’t a strong boy who could work the fields. The elementary education was at least one less obstacle but it could not have been easy. How did he think? Did he have a natural curiosity and obsession he pursued relentlessly? Did he have low or no expectations? He’s given credit for inventing peanut butter, which he didn’t, but he did popularize it. His breakthroughs include:

  1. Saving crops, such as cotton, from destruction by introducing crop rotation with legumes
  2. The science of improving nutrition in soil and the plants that grown in i
  3. Tapping the value in previously overlooked legumes, sweet potatoes and even useful wild plants (you know, weeds, like delicious purslane)
  4. Improving the health of many through improved nutrition by agricultural education and general resourcefulness
  5. Believing in, and promoting, harmony (many sources use the phrase “racial harmony” but I feel like his influence was not limited to race issues and “harmony” is more inclusive)
  6. He didn’t do it for the money, either. He was an academic, directing the Agricultural Department at what was then called Tuskegee Institute, and I’ve read that he turned down a very lucrative offer from Thomas Edison.

Sources: 

  1. https://www.biography.com/news/george-washington-carver-facts-national-peanut-month
  2. My elementary school education

Time to hoard

My to do list for the day before the first snow of the year:

todo

I didn’t get to do any chalk art on the sidewalk but the kids did. I love sidewalk chalk art and cave paintings, because I’m primitive.

This time of year, my in-laws in Iowa are harvesting corn with giant, sophisticated combines (or whatever they are). The grain goes into silos several stories tall (I think) or maybe it’s made into fuel or corn syrup. The big green tractors are amazing. They are all green because these are John Deere people.

At my house it’s not exactly like that.  My garden is slightly smaller than a combine. I gathered five kids, who are also sophisticated, but kind of small. Then I gave them boxes, locked them in the garden and told them not to come out until all the tomatoes and beans were picked. I ended up staying in there with them to make sure it got done. Actually I picked the ones they missed. They found this fun, like an Easter egg hunt. They whined a little (“Mom? Can we have root beer?” “Auntie, I think we’re dehydrated” – not actual quotes) but we came out with 70+ pounds of usable produce. Then I gave them lunch, cake and root beer, so don’t alert CPS.

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It was 77 degrees and sunny, but snow was coming in that night, so everything had to be brought inside. The weather pattern here is like this: it’s warm and sunny, then breezes bring in an agricultural smell associated with the cow towns to our north, then it snows. And that’s what happened Sunday. Now it’s warm again and the cycle may not repeat for another week. Fall in Colorado is less dramatic than spring.

That’s it for the season, except for greens which grow almost all year long. The mustard and cilantro has re-seeded itself and sprouted. Most tomatoes are green and will ripen indoors. The experience of eating them raw isn’t the same as it was in August or September but it’s still good. I cook and can a lot of them as they ripen. I blended a mix of all the varieties and cooked them down to about 2/3 their original volume and added only salt before canning. Some I canned whole to see what they’d be like, but I think cooking and reducing them is a more efficient use of space. Some are just sliced and frozen. The total weight of tomatoes harvested for the season is 179 pounds.

cans

The beans pictured were blanched and pickled. So now what do I do? Wash, dry and save seeds to plant in a few months. I actually do other things too. In fact, the other things are the vast majority of the things I do, they just aren’t nearly as exciting as vegetables, or if they are as exciting I’m not publishing anything about them.