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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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Emo plants, dog and writer

I used to write between 05:00 and 07:00 (yeah, I have a preference for military time, I guess from a previous life as a night-shift medic) weekday mornings. When EG was a baby he’d nurse at 03:00 and sleep for another 3-4 hours. I’d take 2 of those and write stuff like this. Now, he’s 8, and this is our nighttime ritual: he reads in bed while Metal Pig and I stay there with him, he falls asleep, we go to bed, and sometime in the middle of the night he is scared and needs someone to sleep in his room with him. That’s usually me. The 50-pound dogs curl up with me. It’s uncomfortable. After awhile I go back to my own bed. He joins us very early in the morning and crashes hard, waking up at 7 with a residual dream narrative like, “These flying cats are trying to pat me on the head.”

I’m fully aware how much we’ll miss these nights and mornings. But I get a little drained of energy and inspiration. And this is a blog about plants, I think, and this time of year there’s kind of a lull. Things will really heat up when I buy mushroom compost in April. Oh yeah.

Thanks to the post I mentioned earlier from the indoor vegetable garden blogger I like, I realized I could cultivate a little celery and lettuce from the ends of previously eaten heads – wait, that phrase “previously eaten heads” could be interpreted so many ways… Anyway, I can grow a lot of greens outside in March and have stuff to eat May through November. But now I got nothing, and I can’t ever grow celery anyway. So for fun I put these in water that I change daily and they did start growing from the center in about 5 days:

 

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Here are some month-old seedlings that are good examples of how their 50-some sisters look today. I’m still not cocky though. Well I am a little, boasting that I have them and might have SO MANY I’ll have to find them homes in my friends’ gardens. My friends tell me how excited and impressed they are, which is just sad.

They are Lucid Gem, a new variety I started for the first time, Speckled Roman and Pantano Romanesco. The last two are from seeds I saved and were the most eager to germinate.

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Should we talk to the new girl? She’s not even Italian.

I can identify Speckled Romans from this point on without the tag because of their willow-like form. The first time I grew them I thought they were droopy and underwatered, but they are a regular-leaf plant that differs from the others by their spindly, long leaves. Do not think this is a sign of ill health. They normally drape in a way that’s almost emo, like my dog:

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I’m so pale. And it’s so dark. I wish I had more eyeliner.

I love you, little planties

Look at my babies:

We were out of town for a few days and I left them under a light 24/7 while we were gone. I don’t think that’s normally recommended but I don’t have a timer and without the lights they’d be doomed. Now I’m back to turning it off at night. Still not getting cocky about the plants though.

We were at a family-friendly camp in the mountains we go to twice a year. You can rent cabins, yurts, campsites or stay at the lodge. We always get a cabin, which is far from fancy but comfortable and enables us to prepare our own food. I brought cookie dough and we improvised by using an empty glass bottle to roll out the dough and sprinkling clumpy powdered sugar from a spoon. This is what we came up with:

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Our dogs Pixie (right) and Dean (left) made a heart shape with their butts instead of with cookie dough. Pixie might have eaten some dough. There’s no chocolate in it (chocolate is toxic to dogs). Pixie eats everything. Dean eats pants.

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They don’t provide many kitchen tools, a TV or a dishwasher, but that’s OK with us. We don’t go there to stay inside all day anyway. Right, Pixie?

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Can you find the dirty white dog in this pic?

Growing new food from old food

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The Indoor Vegetable Garden

Did you know you can grow new plants from kitchen scraps you regularly throw away? I mean, you’re probably vaguely aware of the concept, but have you ever actually tried it? I hadn’t until recently and it’s been the biggest surprise so for. IT’S JUST SO EASY!

The idea really appeals to me since it is helping to cut down on food waste, therefore being good environmentally, but is also free, which my student budget definitely agrees with. Seeds are expensive sometimes…

I’m currently growing the following from scraps on my windowsill:
Onion
Garlic
Carrot
Parsnip

I’m also growing chickpeas and black beans, which while not from scraps, are growing from supermarket bought dried beans I had in my cupboard anyway.

I could write out instructions for growing from scraps, but instead I’ll link you to this lovely video from Buzzfeed, which tells you everything you need to know.

If…

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True leaves, still not counting potential tomatoes

Even though my planties look healthy today, with a few true leaves starting, I’m nervous about the possibility of the damping-off disease that killed so many last year. This time they’re started in a new tray with no residue from previous plants, and are under fluorescent lights. I’ve always been confident that I don’t over- or under-water but maybe I’m wrong about that. The damping-off fungus that strikes early can be diagnosed by the base of the stems becoming skinny and weak near the top of the soil, like that guy at the gym with huge pecs and lats and sad chicken legs trying to support them. So far I don’t see any weakness here:

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Still, too early to get cocky. Below are the survivors from last year’s second, maybe third, attempt (the ones I dropped when I tripped while carrying the tray). I don’t think there are ever survivors of damping-off disease – these just didn’t get it.

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And because this post is kind of boring, only slightly funny and not sexy at all, here’s a pic of Mr Waffle (from when my kid used to like his breakfast to be funny) and my waffle/pancake recipe:

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Mr Waffle
  1. 2 cups oat flour
  2. 1 cup wheat flour (or all oat flour for my friends who avoid gluten)
  3. 3 tsp baking powder
  4. 1 tsp salt
  5. 2 1/2 cups milk – soy, almond, oat, hemp, cow, whatever you use
  6. 1 cup applesauce
  7. 1/3 cup oil
  8. 1/4 cup sugar, syrup or other sugary substance (I’ve used ginger ale, because I’m not some kind of health nut)

Note that I live at about 5280 feet above sea level. That, and the fact that I don’t value accuracy when measuring ingredients, means your results may vary. Combine first four ingredients in one bowl and remaining ingredients in another. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix with a fork; don’t overmix. Leave it for at least 5 minutes so the dry ingredients can soak up the liquid and you can heat your pan or waffle iron. For pancakes, you may or may not thin the batter with more liquid like ginger ale. When I make pancakes, sometimes I sprinkle a few chocolate chips in them while they’re in the pan. I usually make a lot of these and freeze them for quick breakfasts during the week.

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And here’s a bonus pic of a cute little horse, not relevant at all but she was in the same folder of pictures. Behind her are stacks of untreated wood including a lot of 2×6 boards. I’ve used some to build SFGs and may use more this spring on that farm to make as many raised beds as I can. I got my friends who own that property excited about growing vegetables out there. They scored those pallets free from a company that makes wind turbines and uses the pallets to transport the huge blades. They’ve used some in building horses’ turnout shelters and there is a lot left. There’s no shortage of horse manure, but a lot of things to consider before using it as fert or soil amendment.

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Spinach dough

Spinach ravioli are so pretty! I wish I could get mine to come out this good.

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As you may have noticed from my posts, homemade ravioli makes me happy. It actually became a Sunday habit. There is something about the process of combining just a few of very simple ingredients, that once mixed together the magic begins. Even though it is very simple to prepare the pasta dough, the whole process of ravioli making can be time consuming. Nevertheless, this process is therapeutic to me and I enjoy it to the fullest. What is interesting is that the ideas can be endless. In an earlier post, I explained you how to make your own Garganelli. Now it is time to color thins up and make some green ravioli with fresh spinach.Spinach ravioli are not just beautiful, but also very tasty.

How to prepare the pasta dough:

You will need 30g of fresh spinach. Saute the spinach with some salt and pepper. Drain it well using a…

View original post 343 more words

Why is this tomato soup so good?

Yesterday EG and I got an after-school snack at one of our favorite places in town, a cafe called Eats and Sweets. It was cold and humid, like I imagine Seattle in the dead of winter. There was a treacherous, barely visible coat of ice on everything and the sky was the color of a tooth needing a root canal. I had gotten to school to pick up EG just in time to hear the bell chime and see 5 or 6 kids come running out and immediately fall on their poor little butts. The soup of the day seemed like a good idea. It happened to be vegan tomato basil, so things were looking up.

I wasn’t even hungry, but when I got to the bottom of my cup and the soup experience was over, I was kind of sad. I have to know why it was so delicious. I grow my own tomatoes and make my own soup and it’s not as good. EG tried it and said it was the same as mine but it was better. Here’s how I make soup:

  1. Overcook a little chopped onion in oil (because I hate them raw, they have to be cooked until sweet)
  2. Blend the onion, a clove of garlic (I don’t like that to be overwhelming), handful of basil or cilantro, and about 4-5 large, ripe tomatoes
  3. Add salt and pepper and simmer until, I don’t know, it smells done.

And it’s good enough for Metal Pig and me. EG’s pickier. He doesn’t like tomatoes raw and I do. I’ve used Brandywines, Speckled Romans, Kellogg’s Breakfast, and Pantano Romanesco for a pretty hearty soup. I’ve added other stuff to the blender like leftover baguette (Andalusian style), tortillas, roasted peppers, lime juice and even sugar to try to make EG like it better. But it’s winter, so I know the cafe isn’t using fresh tomatoes. And they probably aren’t frozen either, because I think I’m the only one who freezes tomatoes. We have a lot of freezer space so that’s my preferred method of preserving food. I’m assuming they used canned, and it makes me wonder if cooking with canned tomatoes is better than using frozen when you can’t have them fresh. I’m kind of lazy but if my harvest is successful this year I might can more than freeze, or maybe can half as much as I freeze. It’s more effort up front but if the power goes out you don’t have to worry about the canned stuff going bad.

More than 12 hours after eating it, I’m still thinking about that soup. I wonder if I’ve ever made, or said, or done anything that people couldn’t stop thinking about for a day and a half.

 

I’m suspicious of organic fertilizer

I rotate my “crops,” alternating legumes (which fix nitrogen in soil) with other plants like tomatoes, peppers and squash (which suck it out). But that alone is not enough to replace nutrients used up in a season. My garden is a fenced collection of 4×4 or 4×8 boxes of untreated wood that look like square foot gardens (SFG) but are not exactly. It’s fenced because these adorable dogs love to eat vegetables, particularly green beans:

In case you’re wondering, the fence is 16′ x 48′ and cost about $500 in material but $0 in labor. We built it 3 years ago with the help of EG, his 3 cousins and my sister-in-law so it’s about paid for itself.

There’s a lot to be said for SFGs but they are basically container gardens, requiring a yearly investment in growing medium. My soil, if you want to call it that, blows. So I require seasonal infusions of soil amendments and nutrients, as well as some growing medium, but I think it’s inefficient to start with a fresh new load of dirt every year. Even if I weren’t such a tightwad, Metal Pig would see the expense on my spreadsheet and estimate the cucumbers’ worth at about $5 each.

But the headline says I’m suspicious of organic fert and compost, which is true. The first thing I think of when I see labels like “organic” or “all natural” is slaughterhouse waste. You might argue it’s a good use of waste, and I don’t really want to focus on that subject, but I’d rather avoid growing with animal parts if I can. There is a mushroom farm I can drive to and get a trailer load of compost that consists only of mushroom fragments and the wood shavings they’re grown in, and it’s been great for mixing with vermiculite and the existing crappy soil as a growing medium. I’ve also sucked it up and gotten city compost, which is made from stuff my fellow townspeople discard and I’m pretty sure that includes bones from chicken wings and other body parts, but it’s heavy on the nitrogen. I probably won’t do it again but I support the city’s composting program. Throughout the season I’ve added alfalfa meal, cottonseed meal, something called Texas green sand and compost tea. It’s been tempting to just use something made in a lab like Miracle Grow though.

The beans pictured below are being allowed to mature for drying; they might be the speckled ones pictured (Greasy Grits, from Baker Seed Co.):