A Journey to Grow a Little Food Close to Home

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


In a world of peak oil concern, this was inspiring! A little long but have a look:

Some notes about organic growing:

It takes approximately
1800 square feet (a manageable backyard garden) of land to support one human being living on grains
3600 square feet (just less than 1/10 acre) to support someone living on potatoes
13,500 square feet (.31 acre) for someone living on milk,
36,000 square feet (.83 acre) for someone living on pork
90,000 square feet (2.07 acre) for someone subsisting entirely on beef
"The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy" by Masanobu Fukuoka

Note that none of these is entirely healthy - a mix is needed. Also note than the biggest change that we need to make now (and that we will have to make by the end of the century) is to eat less meat.

On the islands of Java and Bali, approximately 1 person is fed per acre.

Somewhere (sorry - I haven't been able to re-locate it yet) it is claimed that a half acre (21780 sq ft) can fill the needs of a typical Japanese family. (A 35 year average household size of 3 means that each person needs 7260 sq ft or .17 acre)

John Jeavons has discovered that approximately 4000 sq ft can feed 1 person (with a little more in less than ideal conditions...like Wisconsin winters!!). This is about 10 people per acre, the same as in the video, and it is achievable because Jeavons uses the 'interplanting' methods described in the video.

For more on Peak Oil and it's impending fallout, click here, here, or here.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Fall and Winter crops

I mentioned a few days ago that we have had some pretty changing weather in the past few weeks. Last night, for example, temps dipped to the mid 50's. This coming Monday, upper 80's are projected! Despite the highs, I've been paying attention to the average temps. For the approximately 10-12 weeks of high summer that we have had, the average temperature was about 80 degrees. Now, for the past few weeks, the temperature has averaged 70 degrees. This drop is letting me know that it's time to be thinking of fast-growing fall crops.

I started some radishes about a week ago:

Radishes are really quick to grow - most take 28 to 32 days. I am planting a few every week os that I will always have a fresh supply. These are planted in place of the potatoes.

I seeded some lettuce a few weeks back as well:

On the right is a meszclun mix (see the different colors). This is actually not doing as well as I would like - there was a little too much heat during germination (I tried to guess at when the cooler weather would come) and the plants turned out 'leggy.' A few more weeks and it should be good, though.

About the same time that I started the lettuce, I put some dwarf peas in where the beans had been. Here's one just poking through:

I had some real luck with these in the early spring - I just didn't plant enough. I seeded about 25 this time. Because they are heirloom, we'll see how many sprout!

A the beginning of August, I seeded about 120 carrots for winter harvest. Here they are after 4 weeks:

I'm getting a little worried because I know that on about November 1st, growth is pretty much going to stop. That means only 9 more weeks (63 days) for these carrots to be finished growing. Given that they are 58 day plants, the 63 days that they have yet plus the 27 days that they have already had means that they should be fine, but I'm still a little apprehensive!

I do have to say that I am LOVING the cooler temps!!! The next 6-7 weeks will be busy ones, though. As the summer srops wind down, I will not only be prepping beds for overwintering but will also be seeding for cold frame cover. More to come...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Saving the Harvest

When your getting pounds and pounds of tomatoes and you have basil that is growing like a weed, what do you do? You find a way to preserve it, that's what!

I was complaining about too much basil last year already and a coworker gave me a pesto recipe which is AMAZING!!! It's great for those times when you have this:

Here's the recipe...

2 cups fresh basil leaves (packed)
1/2 cup olive oil
2 Tbs. pine nuts (option-roasted)
2 garlic cloves (minced)
1/2 tsp. Salt
1/2 cup Romano cheese
2 Tbs. Parmesan cheese
3 Tbs. Butter

Put basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and salt in food processor. Proccess to form pesto (i.e. past consistency). Add butter and cheeses and proccessed until mixed.

When all ingredients have been processed, you can freeze what you have made like this:
The great part about basil is that it grows like a weed so even if you chop it all down (ok - leave a little of the plant), it will regrow quickly so that you can make pesto all season for winter storage!

Now...about those tomatoes. I have posted before that I have a Super 100 cherry tomato plant that is producing like crazy. I did a little hunting and found some recipes for dried tomatoes. Notice that I didn't say 'sun dried.' It's too humid here in the summer to sun dry. If you are lucky enough to have dry heat, have fun sun drying! If not, an oven will work just fine.

I made three batches of dried tomatoes over the weekend. The first was simply the tomatoes cut in half (skin on), placed cut side up on a cookie sheet, lightly salted, and cooked at 200 degrees for about 4 hours. The salt not only tames the acid flavor of the tomato but halps to draw the moisture out. You've got to use low heat for this process because you can't let the tomatoes cook (212 is boiling and thus cooking temperature). You only want to have the water evaporate out of the tomato - NOT have it cook.

While that was cooking I mixed up the next batch:

1/4 cup Extra-vergin olive oil
2 Tbsp. Balsamic vinegar
2 Tbsp. Italian parsley finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Mix ingredients in a bowl (I used a food processor first) and stir in tomatoes which are cut in half (skin on). Allow to soak (the longer, the stronger the flavor and the longer the drying time).

After the soak, again, place on cookie sheet and dry at 200 degrees until leathery.

For a different flavor, I tried this:

1 tsp. Salt
2 tbsp. Minced Garlic
1 tbsp. Minced Fresh Oregano
1 tbsp. Minced Fresh Thyme
2 tsp. Cracked Black Pepper

Mix all ingredients (I, again, used a food processor) and spoon a small amount onto each tomato half.

Again, you guessed it, dry at 200 degrees until leathery.

Here is the finished product:
Storing them in mason jars would have been more authentic but I didn't have any so the bags will have to do. Oh well...function over form, I guess.

I should be able to make just as many again before the plant is done for the year (along with eating them fresh, of course)!!

Monday, August 23, 2010


Pfew!!! After 5 days of posts about dirt, I think it's time to get back to the progress of the kitchen garden! Mother nature has been teasing us for about the past week. On Monday the 16th, the fam and I left for a short vacation but were quite surprised at how cool the weather had gotten. Going from the mid 90's just a few days before to the mid 70's is quite a jump. Just when I thought that the fall season might be here, though, the temps jumped back up into the 90's! I checked the weekly forcast this morning - it looks as though Wendesday is supposed to be back down in the 70's but in the days to follow, the temps are projected to head back up. AHHHHH!!! I can't take all of this change!!

Anyway, the cool tems made me think about harvesting and I though that I'd pull these purple carrots that I planted for my brother-in-law:

The only thing that I have to say about growing these is that they are fickle!! Despite the 90 day projection, they are slow to grow and extremely sensitive to mother nature. Once they are done, though, they are kind of neat.

I was alos looking at what first the heat and then the cool had done to my zucchinni. A plant like this...

...is, to me, on its last legs. The yellow, and in some places dead, leaves tell me that the plant is just tired. I've been letting this one hold on for about two weeks, but now I just felt bad for it.

You might remember, though, that I mentioned that zucchinni are sneaky. Just as I was about to send the plant to the big compost bin in the sky, I thought that I should have one last look...

The darn thing is not only still producing but has actually rejuvenated in two spots. This one had a pretty good sized zucchinni on it already (which I picked). The other was actually growing three more (which will need about another week)! As tough as it can be to keep up with the constant flow of veggies, it is kind of nice to see the plant still producing because it's always a little sad when a plant dies.

Look for more tomorrow on how I kept with the tomatoes. As for most of the veggies, I actually owe the 'keeping up' to my wonderful wife. Although I might occasionally post that I think that something that I harvest will taste good, she is the true skill behind our wonderful meals. Let's face it - I can burn water. She, on the other hand, can blend all of the crazy combinations of things that I bring in from the garden into wonderful medleys of flavor (like roasted vegetable lasagna...who thinks of that??). So...thanks babe!!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Growing Dirt #5

Today marks the end of the 5 post series on dirt. As a last but not least, we are going to talk about poop!! Poop from animals is more commonly known as manure. Because some people don't like the idea of talking about poop (even though everybody poops), we'll call it manure from here on out.

Manure has been used as a fertilizer and soil maker for generations and it's still just as good as it was 100 or even 1000 years ago. Despite the fact that most poeple think of cows when they think of manure, all animals (yes, even people) make manure and different manures have different properties. Here you can see some of the properties of various animal manures:

You might notice that people are not listed on the chart. Human manure (or Humanure) needs to be handled very carefully because our bodies have critters living inside them (like e coli and salmonella) which help to digest our food but, when eaten, can make us very sick. Composting toilets can help. So can proper composting practices (read the Humanure book). Animal manure, on the other hand, can either be direcly added to dirt or can be added after a little prep.

This prep vs. no prep is the major distinction between animal manures. Manure that needs to sit for a little while before being added to dirt (it needs to finish breaking down) is called 'hot' manure. Chicken, horse, and sheep manures are considered hot. A co-worker had a little run-in with the effects of hot manure earlier this year. He spread chicken manure directly onto his garden and 'burned' his lettuce. The burning happens because the manure releases levels of nitrogen and ammonia which are too high for plants to process. Some manures are so hot that in the past their hot properties have used as an advantage. Horse manure was often put into a hotbed

which was basically a deeper version of a cold frame. Historical reports tell that the decomposing manure could easily heat the cold frame to as hot if not hotter than 90 degrees!

Cold manure (cow, steer, and rabbit, in this case) is not as volatile and can be added directly to a garden. It has been recommended, though, that plants grown in cold manure be allowed to grow for 90 days before handling. For hot manures, 6 months of composting before use usually does the trick. Both practices ensure that all of the nasties are gone from the manure and won't harm the humans who are eating the food.

As for the 'N-P-K' numbers in the chart up top...in addition to a good loam, water, and sunlight, plants need a couple other things to be happy. All trace minerals are good but the really important ones are nitrogen (N), phosphoric acid (P), and potash (K). Just about all retilizers are labelled this way. You may have seen a lawn fertilizer labeled 10-10-5, for instance. This refers to the ratios between the different ingredients. The numbers are important for a couple of reasons. 1. Different plants need different nutrients in different strengths. This knowledge comes in handy when rotating plants or when planting several varieties together. Your seed pack or a Google search should help you determine individual plant needs. 2. Different soils start out with different nutrient mixes and can be 'grown' to have better balances.

This brings us to the soil test. A simple kit can be picked up at just about any garden supply center. Most will test for N, P, and K, as well as ph, or acidity.

More on soil testing in future posts. For now, learn about growing dirt, test your own, gather some compost material, help it decompose, and feed your soil. After all, well fed soil means well fed plants!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Growing Dirt #4

When we left off, we were exploring the world of loam and were talking about organic matter (leaves, grass clippings, etc). I mentioned that a good idea would be to take whatever organic waste you might have and pile it up in a corner of your yard. While this is the most simple of compost piles, it is not neccessarily the most attractive. Today, then, we are going to talk about compost bins.

Compost bins come in all shapes and sizes. Many are now on the market ready for purchase. Typically, though, one might see a tumbler style like these:

or a tower style like this:

As with all things, there seem to be advantages and disadvantages to each. The tumblers are said to make compost faster than the towers but can only do so in 'batches'. That is, once the organic material is added and the door is closed, it has to stay closed until the compost is finished.

The towers, on the other hand, can have material continuously added (to the top) and removed (from the bottom) but, because of that, take a little longer to produce.

For some, the thought of spending a lot of money on a box that makes dirt just isn't rational (even though it is sooooo important to human existence). In that case, a wire bin might be for you.

To save even more (and be able to customize), the do-it-yourself option is always available. Whether a single bin made from recycled materials...
or a custom three-bin system, (click the pic for plans)

the do-it-yourself options are endless. Whatever bin you choose, make sure that the mix of ingredients that goes in it is right for composting. Remember: no meat, no cheese, no dairy, no fat. Old fruit, salad greens, and uneaten veggies are great! You can put kitchen scraps in a compost crock (which you can get in white, stainless, bamboo, or other colors) so that nothing smells.

Also good for the outdoor compost bin is lawn waste. This includes grass clippings and leaves. Twings and sticks will break down, but will take longer. One thing to note...the ingredients in compost are typically labeled either 'green' or 'brown.' Green waste is, well, green. Fresh lawn clippings fall into this category as do most kitchen scraps. Brown waste is waste that has dried out. Lawn clippings that have been sitting on the lawn for a few days and are then raked are brown. Dried fall leaves are brown too. The thing with compost is that too much green material, while it will decompose, will make the compost pile so nitrogen rich that it might smell and might be a bit mucky. Try for a nice blend of green and brown materials. Also, be sure to turn the compost occasionally so that air can mix in and help the break down process. Tumblers make that easy. For bins, use a shovel or digging fork.

Usually, you will have to let your compost 'cook' for a while before it is done. It should no longer smell like rot when it is done. In fact, it should have a rather clean, earthy smell and look like...dirt!!!

A little material that hasn't been broken down (as is visible in the pic) is just fine! Now that is something that your plants will love!!

For those of you who don't have yards (i.e. apartment/condo dwellers), check this out!!

Tomorrow we'll wrap up the dirt postings with some info on...poop!!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Growing Dirt #3

Yesterday we left with the question 'If I don't have loam how am I going to get it?' Well...here's the thing - one rule about dirt that is really important to know: you can't change what you have. That's right - if you have clay, you can't magically change it into sand. If you have sand, you can't magically change it into clay. Clay is clay and sand is sand.

What you can do is change the ratio of clay, sand, and loam.

I know what you're thinking...if I have clay and I want it to be looser like sand, I'll add sand and the balance should give me loam. NOOOOOOOOOO!!! Never add sand to clay or clay to sand - you'll get something like cement :-(

The way to adjust the ratios in your soil is to add organic matter. Loam is essentially a huge amount of organic matter with a little sand and a little clay in just the right proportions. Because of that, the best place to start changing soil is by focusing on the organic matter.

So...what's organic matter? Leaves are organic. Your left over veggies from dinner are organic. Bird poop is organic. The worm that died in the ground is organic. Pesticides...not organic. Fertilizer that you buy in a bag and looks like little pellets...not really organic.

What this means is that you should pile all of your fall leaves in a corner of your yard and not touch them for a while. Rather than putting them by the curb for the city pick up, let them turn into dirt! Throw some kitchen scraps on there too (no meat or dairy!) Every now and then, add some grass clippings. The weeds you pull from your wonderful flower bed - yup, add them too.

This pile that you are making is the beginning of a compost pile! Compost is one of the easiest and most effective tools that any grower has at his/her disposal. We'll talk about that more in the next post along with some other things that can be added to soil to make it healthy.

For now...find a corner of your yard and pile up some organic matter!!

*Note - despite popular belief, clay is not all bad. It has an interesting property in that it is rather electrically charged and can help draw certain key minerals into the soil.*

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Growing Dirt #2

Now that you've had a chance to listen to what some growers around the nation are doing, let't get down and dirty :-) with dirt!

Dirt basically comes in three varieties:

Sandy (on the left), Loam (in the middle), and Clay (on the right)

Sandy soil is just that - full of sand. It's typically a dry soil because all of that sand makes all of the water run out. Along with the water, all of the nutrients tend to wash out too. This makes it tought to grow plants. Also, because the soil is so 'loose,' plant roots have a tought time hanging on and, again, plants don't grow well.

Clay, on the opposite end, is a very wet soil because clay tends to hold water like a sponge (remember how moist the clay was that you made pots out of in grade school). All of this water added to the soil composition itself makes clay very heavy and very hard to push roots through. You guessed it - plants don't grow well!

Loam, being right in the middle of sand and clay, is just about perfect for plants. It has a perfect mix of organic material (peat) minerals (silt), sand, and clay. This is the stuff that plants want and it's the stuff that growers have to provide to their plants.

You can test your soil consistency with the 'squeeze test.' Pick up a handful of soil and squeeze it hard. If it looks like this when you open your hand...

... you've got sandy soil.

If it looks like this...

...you've got clay.

If, though, when you open your hand you find a rich, black, crumbly wonderfullness like this...
...you've got loam!!!

So, your probably wondering, if I don't have loam, how am I going to get it? Stay tuned...

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Growing Dirt

Sounds crazy, right? The truth is, many organic growers talk about growing dirt rather than growing plants. The next few days of posts are going to talk about growing dirt because it's something that I'm thinking about as summer winds down. More to come on that.

To begin with, it is important to know that plants get all of their nutients from three places - water, air, and soil. The sun is used to help convert these nutrients into 'food' for the plant (see here, here, and here and read more here) If that's the case, we have to help our plants out wherever we can. We can't really do anything with the sun (it's a little far away and it's been doing a pretty good job of making light and heat for quite a while)! If we use rainwater to water our plants, the only thing that we have to be concerned about is acid rain - a pretty big problem for you or me to tackle (but feel free to try - I'll support you)! All that's left is dirt. We humans actually have a lot of control over this little understood yet oh so important ingredient of life.

Jules Dervaes sums it up well when he says "all of human existence depends on the top six inches of soil."

While modern agriculture uses dirt more as a foundation for plants to prop themselves up on while harsh chemicals provide all of the 'nutrients,' organic growers actually nurture their dirt so that it can produce healthy plants and food.

Take a look at Punkle's Farm, Pete's Greens, and Dirt! The Movie to see how essential dirt is to growing plants & to human survival and what these people are doing about it.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I notice that I have focused on just a few of the veggies growing in the kitchen garden - pretty much the one's that are overwhelming me. There are many more, however, that are producing 'just right' which I would hate to neglect.

Last year, I planted two pepper plants in the lower garden and they did horrible. Knowing that peppers like heat, this year I planted two more close to the southern-facing house wall so they would get the x-tra puch that they hopefully needed. They are doing amazing!!

Here are the plants on their second round of production:

The peppers produced one round of veggies, took a short break, and then began producing again with what looks like about twice as many peppers as the first round.

These went on quesadillas last night

Yesterday, I also hacked off the chives (because they grow like weeds) and picked more tomatoes and a zuchinni. I think that I'm going to need to make some more pesto soon too - there's still enough time before winter for the basil to regrow again.

Monday, August 9, 2010


So...I missed a couple of days last week. My brother-in-law got married this weekend and the preparations took up a lot of time. The nice part about a kitchen garden...if properly planted, it doesn't mind a few days of neglect.

On Sunday, I did take the time to lift a few potatoes. A while back, I posted on a way to plant potatoes in small spaces. I actually conducted a small experiment this year. I planted two identical sized spaces but one was planted in the 'traditional' sense - put seed in ground and water - while the other was planted intensively - put seed in ground, water, add more dirt to cover almost all of leaves, water more, add more dirt to cover as plant grows, and so on until the plant is buried in about 36 inches of dirt.

Yesterday, I tested on of the the 'traditional' plants and this is what I got:

That ought to make a nice meal!!

8 potatoes from 1 plant means that I ought to get some nice fall and winter meals. Especially because the intensively planted potatoes should produce 2 to 3 times as much!!

We will have to be careful of this one, though:

Can you see the green tint? That means that I wasn't careful and that the side of the potato was exposed to the sun for a while. Don't want to eat that - when sunlight hits potatoes, an alkaline substance forms that makes people sick.

I also wanted to mention the fall salad greens that I seeded 2 weeks ago - here it is now:

On the right is a little mezclun. On the right, some starting head lettuce. In between is some arugula and some spinach. Should be ready for some tasty salad in a few weeks.

More to come on the potatoes soon...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Harvest Wisdom

Tip (read: lesson learned) number 1 - if you are planting in order to harvest a little every day, you have to harvest a little every day!!! Here is what happens when someone decides to not check on the garden for 2 days:

Seriously?!?! How am I going to eat all of those in 1 day? The little plum tomatoes are from a plant called a 'Super 100' which produces like crazy!!! I think that it would work well in a farmer's market garden but for the home garden...you'd better have a whole family that is crazy about tomatoes.

The four slightly larger tomatoes at the top of the pic are Sheboygans. It's and interesting variety to me for a couple of reasons. First, it's been in Wisconsin for over 100 years. Being in Wisconsin myself, it seems a no-brainer to grow what has been proven locally. Second, it's an heirloom. I was having a conversation yesterday about heirlooms vs. hybrids. I am always torn because I know that hybrids are tougher against weather, more disease resistant, and often produce more but I always get hung up on the fact that in nature, a hybrid would not last longer than one season. In other words, no seed saving. Also, I think that it's kind of neat that heirlooms give a grower tremendous variety as opposed to the few hybrid varieties that are redily available. What do you think?

Anyway, here is another example of why a gardener has to be dilligent about checking growth and harvesting regularily.

What am I going to do with that monster?

Ok - here is a little more managable harvest:

Those ought to make a nice veggie next to a pork chop or chicken breast!

Also...it looks like we'll have potatoes soon. The plants are dead/dying so I pushed them all down inside the boxes and now will have to let the tubors rest for a week or two.

More to come on the harvest as well as the prep for the winter garden!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Seeding for the Cold Months

Last week I mentioned that I seeded a mix of salad greens (mezclun, head lettuce, arugula, spinach) for fall. Because of the rabbit that I have spoken of before, I had to make some make-shift protection for the seedlings.

A simple window screen did the trick.

I also screened the 120 Napoli carrots that I planted.

These should be great for a winter harvest!

I also started these head lettuces:

I have them under the glass for protection from the weather that we've been having (i.e. lots of rain and flooding). I've got 11 heads of Winter Density and 11 heads of North Pole.

These lettuces will go in in the middle of September along with mixed salad greens that should, under coldframes, last most of the winter.

Watch for updates!