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Enjoying the modern conveniences of life in a sustainable manner through technology, resourcefulness, and Zone 8a (North Texas) Gardening.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Gardening has Changed Me

As most of the US, Texas is in the midst of a mild winter. Northerns probably laugh; saying that all of our winters are mild. Me, being a Texan, I LOVE the mild winters. I enjoy the highs of 55 and lows of 46 that we usually experience. And if we can get a few days of 65-70 in the winter, I'll take it!

Until now.

What's different? Now I have a garden. I can't quite manage to fully enjoy the 70 degrees that it was today! There was a time when I would absolutely love these 70 degree days in January. A time when I didn't understand why it had to get cold at all. But gardening has changed me. Now I understand that cold temps sweeten carrots and lettuce. Cool temps tell broccoli that its time to show its head. Now I wonder, what will these mild winter days mean for my garlic; my onion? Will they skip the bulbing phase and go straight to a flower? Will I pay for these beautiful 'winter' days with inferior bulbs come late spring?

 Yes, I used to enjoy warm winters. But gardening has changed me. Now I can only wonder, will my garlic meet the same fate that some of my collard greens have?

Collard Greens in full bloom (BOLTED!) in January!!!!!

Monday, January 30, 2012

When having a Garden is Great

So this weekend I was cooking the family an Italian Vegetable Stew. It called for Swiss Chard; of which I had none and that isn't a popular item at local grocery stores either. So I decided that I would use spinach instead. I walked over to the freezer and panic soon followed. I didn't have any more frozen spinach! What to do? What to do? Do I exclude it? Run to the store and grab some?

WAIT. I've got some growing in the garden. I run out to the garden and a few minutes later; fresh, cleaned spinach is added to the stew. This is one of those times when.....Having a Garden is Great!

The Zucchini was garden grown as well
Check out more reason's why Having a Garden is Great over at Daphne's Dandelions Harvest Monday.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

State of the Union Part II

As promised (which we 'politicians' really shouldn't do), I am back with part II of the address.

What's to Come?

I have already planted our spring onion. I bought onion sets from the local nursery; Sweet Red, White Granex, and Texas 1015. Here is a pic of some of the planted onions. They look like really skinny sprouts of weeds right now. I put some organic bone meal in the holes with them.

I also bought some seed potatoes; those are planted around Valentine's Day here. I have Yukon Gold, Purple Majestic, and Russet. I also sprouted some Red potatoes from the grocery store. I've got to get their bed ready. My soil is 7.0 ph; much too high for potatoes, so I'll mix in something....don't know yet.

I have some sweet potatoes sitting in jars of water. I am attempting to grow my own slips, those are planted early April.

I have already started my spring garden. Right now everything is sitting in my windowsill. Next week, I will move all of this to a shelf with a florescent light over it. So here is what I have planted so far:

Everything was planted either 12/29 or this weekend.

The Lettuce is Four Seasons, Little Ceasar Romaine, and Red Sails. I hope to harvest it in early spring. The tomato is Cherokee Purple and I know it is a little early for tomato, but I am giving it a head start because I will be planting other varieties, but I want to save seed from this variety. I do plan to protect it in early spring. Next to the tomato is one row of Artichoke Imperial Star which is supposed to be a one year variety...we'll see. I have some King Richard Leeks and Sum Harvest Cauliflower; along with Salad Delight Cabbage, and Early Jersey Wakefield Cabbage.

I am also going to try to grow some Ventura Celery. I like celery and it is one of the EWG's dirty dozen; finding organic celery is difficult in this area, so I really hope these work. After reading more about celery and how hard it is to get started, I decided to plan some more...though its now 2-3 weeks late. I would also like to see if I can harvest some spring carrots. I know they don't like being transplanted, but our spring gets too hot too fast to start these later outdoors. So I planted them in those expanding peat pots so that I don't have to disturb the roots when I plant them outdoors.

This is my 3rd try at broccoli. I planted some last spring that never headed. This fall, I planted more and ost didn't germinate, but I did harvest my first every broccoli head and side shoots. We love broccoli, so I really hope that I get it right this time. Last year, I think I started it too late and it got to hot for head formation. As you can see above, I have already messed up the broccoli AGAIN. This time I forgot they were on top of the refrigerator and they got leggy. Soooo, I pulled all of those (that were too leggy) and started over. So maybe this counts as my 4th try.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

State of the Garden Address - Part I

In honor of the latest State of the Union address, I decided that I will give a State of the Garden Address.

The first part of my address will cover what is and the second part will cover what's to come. But unlike most politicians, my address will be all about the facts.

Like the state of our union, my garden has its bright spots and its challenges.

First the bright spots.

My sole broccoli plant is still producing side shoots!

The garlic looks wonderful

Another broccoli plant is producing a head

The Lettuce looks great
Some of the Onion is doing beautifully
The collards and spinach are still producing after many harvests and the garlic is doing very good as well.

For the challenges;
Well I don't have pictures of the challenges, but they are:
- All of the grocery store garlic in Bed 3 has died.
- My carrots didn't germinate as well as I had hoped and they don't appear very big given the size of their tops
- The following also did not germinate at all (all direct sown): turnips, onion, leeks, and most of the broccoli. I know some of this was due to bad timing, some due to watering issues, and some due to weeds....live and learn right.

Now, I know that most State of the Unions do not have commercial breaks. But I've gotta do this in two parts, so stay tuned for Part II --- What's to Come?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Harvest Monday

One of the perks of growing broccoli is that the plant produces side shoots after the main head has been harvested. I was never quite sure what a side shoot was or how many there would be, but thus far, I have been pleasantly surprised. From the one plant that I have harvested a head from, I have now harvested about another head worth of side shoots. This is pretty good given that its Dec/Jan; when things are growing quite slowly.

I also harvested some spinach this week that was used on homemade pizza and I harvested more collards that were braised with bacon (I didn't have any turkey necks this time).

Oh and last week I did harvest a carrot, but it wasn't useable. I didn't think they were ready, but I just had to pull one to be sure.

Check out more harvests over at Daphne's Dandelions Harvest Monday.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Who cut the Cheese?

For fun, we decided to try our hand at making mozzerella and ricotta cheese. The plan was to use the cheese in our New Years lasagna and to make a homemade cheesecake from homemade cheese.

You notice I said 'the plan was' right?

I followed all the directions and tips. I didn't use Ultra Pasterized cheese. I used rennet. I brought the temps up slowly. I didn't over stir.

After bringing the temps up slowly, the curds are supposed to form. Then you are supposed to cut the curds into cubes. Here is what my curds looked like as I tried to cut them into cubes:

So who cut the cheese? Not me! As you can see, I don't actually have any curds. More like a foam.
Anyway, this was my second batch so I pressed forward. I was able to get some cheese; if that is what you call this. It didn't taste like anything...really, it had no taste whatsoever. But it did at least have the texture of a soft cheese.
The Mr. and I can go take a cheese making class for $110 total or we can keep buying $2 gallons of milk until we get it right. Unfortunately, the only thing that I can find online are the steps to make the cheese. Nothing is out there (that I can find) that actually helps with troubleshooting or telling you how to do it with store bought pasturized milk. So I may invest a few more dollars into learning by try, try again. However, I would love some input from those who have been successful at this. Anybody got tips?

Friday, January 13, 2012

2012 Eating Goals

This is the conclusion of my previous post What is Food?

We've decided to stop allowing the food industry to determine what food is to us. We want food that is chosen based on taste and flavor, not shelf life and ship-ability. In 2011, we kind of played around with the changes we would implement to support the natural, organic, sustainable foods movement. In 2012, we would like to be more direct and consistent with our choices. So we decided to develop a list of SMART eating goals for 2012. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Reaching, and Timely. After much deliberation, driving around town to determine what is available, research, and soul searching, we have developed the following SMART Eating Goals for 2012.

Chicken and Eggs - we will purchase conventional all-natural chicken; giving a nod to free range and the occasional organic purchase. The reasons for this are: 1-because organic chicken is not guaranteed to be free-range; 2-the cost of going 100% organic is not Achievable for our family; 3-all chicken is restricted from being given hormones and any chicken that is given antibiotics cannot be processed until after a withholding period; 3-there is no nutritional difference between organic and inorganic chicken meat; 4-Free-range doesn’t necessarily mean the chicken ever saw the light of day or that they were cage-free 100% of the time. Bottom-line, the labeling allowed for chickens doesn’t really tell you much and doesn’t mean a whole lot when you look at the true definition of what is allowed. Organic chickens are not required to be cage free.

Beef - 100% organic/grass fed beef; preferably from local farmers. Reasons: 1-we don't eat much beef, so the cost is not prohibitive; 2-beef is given hormones and antibiotics; 3-nonorganic beef is also fed an unnatural diet of animal parts and grains; 4-grass fed beef has been shown to be nutritionally better (leaner) than conventional; 5-we have located various sources of purchasing this meat locally.

Lamb - purchase from local farmers

Turkey - Conventional - since we don't eat much beef, we actually eat more turkey than the average family probably does. We go with conventional because it is achievable. We have not seen terms like organic, or cage-free on turkey products in this area (except for whole turkeys). So, we really have no choice.

We also rarely eat dairy products (intolerance). So we aren't sure what to do in this category. On one hand, since we rarely use them, we could afford to go 100% organic. But on the other hand, since we rarely use them, they spoil quite often and I'd hate to spoil a $6 gallon of milk versus a $2 gallon. So we may stick with conventional here. We spend so little hear that our organic voice wouldn't be heard by retailers anyway.

Aside: Did you know that humans are the only animals that continue to drink milk after being weaned? In fact, the only reason we can still digest it is because of a genetic mutation that occurred from having contact with cows. This is why such a large percentage of the population has some sort of lactose intolerance; b/c we aren't supposed to still be drinking milk! Some cultures (like Japanese) shun dairy products (milk) as adults. That culture also has lower rates of hormone related cancers (like breast). Not tying any of these facts together, just thought they were all interesting!

This is the tough one because so few organic vegetables are available here and some are VERY expensive. For example, a pound of green bell peppers are $0.49 and one organic green bell pepper is $1.49 right now. You see the problem? So our plan is to vastly expand our home garden, we have joined our churches garden co-op (where they grow organically), and we have identified several pick your own farms to visit in the spring/summer. We will also frequent the farmers market at least once per month in season. So the above will be our first sources for produce (in order). Any additional that we need, we will purchase at the grocery store. The preference will be organic (without paying an arm for it). We will choose organic based on the Environmental Working Group's cleanliest veggies list. The dirtiest 12, we will definitely purchase organic or avoid. The cleanliest 12 or so, we will purchase conventional unless organic is similarly priced.

We already avoid these with a passion (except pasta, beans, and rice). However, there is the occasional need to purchase one of these products. Therefore our purchases will exclude all products that contain high fructose corn syrup / corn sugar. We will also prefer products that have labels such as low sodium, all natural, no preservatives, whole grains...you get the idea. However, we purchase these very sparingly.

Eating Out
This is the tough one, because sometimes you just don't feel like cooking or you just run out of time and need to eat NOW. So our plan is to: 1-cook and freeze some ready to eat meals ourselves, 2-choose restaurants that offer fresh, local, preferably organic products. We have identified a few in our area. I hate nothing more than eating out at a restaurant and they serve me warmed up food! I can do that at home. Serve me food that you actually had to prepare; not food that you thawed out and warmed up or processed food that you just added water to and warmed up. Why would I pay for someone to feed that to me? So the approved fast food joints are In and Out burger and Subway. There are also a few approved sit-down locations. We definitely need to expand our list though! If we have to go to an unapproved restaurant (with family/friends) we will limit our selections using the same rules we use for buying the food from the grocer (choosing only the cleanliest foods, no beef unless grass fed, etc...)

So I will keep you all updated on how we accomplish this, our first grocery shopping trip of the year is this weekend!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What is Food?

For Thanksgiving this year we attempted a 100% local and organic meal. We ended up with a 90% organic and 90% local meal. Maybe 70% was both local and organic. It was much tougher than we thought it would be. We found that organic food is not widely available in our area and some of what is available is prohibitively expensive. We also found that we could find almost everything we needed from local producers; however, this too was (at times) prohibitively expensive. The point of the exercise was to see what was possible in our area. We know that the availability in the summer would be much better; however, we have to eat in the winter months too, so a November test case was warranted.

How did we get here?

We've been slowly migrating to more sustainable standards over the last two years. We were alarmed by the number of food recalls and food related deaths that were occurring. This caused us to do more research into our food supply, where it was coming from, how it was being produced, and how it got from farm to plate. I must admit that we were totally ignorant! I foolishly believed that chickens ran around on farms and cows grazed wide open pastures. I had no idea what was truly going on in the food industry. Not only were animals being caged and never saw the light of day; they were also being pumped with steroids and antibiotics that ended up in the foods that we eat every day. Our produce was being drenched in chemicals to shield the farmers from crop loss and the produce available at local stores was chosen -- not for taste and flavor -- but for how well it survived transport and shelf life. We stopped eating food out of boxes and cans years ago, but I had no idea what was going on with the fresh foods that I was eating! I won't rehash everything that I found here, but a simple Google search will provide you with any details you desire.

As I looked into how we could adjust our eating habits to be more aligned with what we thought we were eating, I discovered that there is an American revolution going on. There is an undercurrent in America pushing food producers towards sustainable methods. Organic farming is one of the fastest growing industries; food producers now want to label their products with terms like Natural and Cage-Free; consumers are showing up at farmer's markets in mass; CSA and community gardens are all the rage; and the corn industry even wants to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to corn sugar because of the negative image HFCS has. Ha! Sure, that will fool us.

So I ask, what is food?

Our health teachers taught us that food is a way to nourish our bodies, to provide energy and fuel for our activities. Our doctor tells us that food -eaten improperly- can cause several health ailments like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, etc... Scientists tell us that food can actually be used to prevent diseases; that there are cancer fighting foods; foods that lower your risk for heart failure, etc. The food industry has basically told us that food is a business. It matters not how healthy it is or isn't for you. It matters not which tomatoes taste best (it's the ones with shelf life and travelbility that we will sell you). It matters not that grass fed cows have lower fat content and higher Omega 3's. It costs too much to allow cows to graze grass. But what do consumers say food is? We decide with how we spend our money. If there is a demand for it, someone will find a way to produce it. Americans spend less of their income (% wise) on food than most any other nation. So what do you say food is?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Last Harvest of 2011

The last harvest of 2011 was an exciting one! So exciting that I didn't weigh anything nor did I get pics of everything. I used almost the entire harvest in our New Years meal.

Broccoli side shoots. The one broccoli plant that I have harvested a head from has produced a handful of side shoots. I didn't get a picture of the after I picked them, but I did get a picture before. They were used in a salad.

I also had lots of lettuce and spinach to harvest.

These were used to form a tasty salad with the broccoli.
Collard greens were cooked with some chicken stock and seasoned with salt and pepper and they were the most delicious that I have ever had! I didn't expect them to be because I just made some quickly for lunch, but I guess it was the freshness that made them shine! After cooking, there was about 3 bowls worth of collards.
Lastly, a new garden first. I harvested CILANTRO from my herb garden. Well it will be an herb garden after I figure out which are herbs and which are weeds. But the smell of cilantro is unmistakeable, so it is easily identifyable. It has been handling the frosts like a champ; perhaps looking slightly limp in the AM, but bouncing back my afternoon. I used the cilantro in an homemade salad dressing that is absolutely delicious. I got the recipe for the Cilantro Vinaigrette from a Central Market cooking class that I took. It was fabulous and the recipe is on their website...you can make just the vinaigrette and use it on a basic salad, other than the cucumber salad shown with the recipe.
  Check out more harvest over at Daphne's Dandelions Harvest Monday!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

What's the Deal with Lettuce

Sometimes I have thoughts about what I see in the garden and how it relates to life or nature or nothing at all. I guess I'll start sharing those thoughts here.

There are times when I stand in awe of nature's beauty. How she keeps things in balance and how everything just seems to happen at just the right times. Tomatoes arrive just in time to make your 4th of July BBQ sauce and they stick around for pretty much the rest of the year either fresh or canned. Beans get you through the shoulder months. Nice plumb broccoli heads and potatoes arrive as the weather starts to cool making for some nice hot casseroles and soups. Strawberries joyfully announce the arrival of summer and apples the arrival of fall. And who doesn't enjoy a nice cold slice of watermelon just as the summer heat begins to wear its welcome.

And then there's lettuce.
What is the deal with lettuce? Nature seems to have gotten this one wrong. Lettuce is one of the few crops that must be eaten within a couple of weeks of harvest -- it doesn't take to freezing or canning like others do. Lettuce is also one of the few crops that is only eaten fresh -- there is no cooking or boiling involved. So I can't figure out why nature decided that lettuce should produce its harvest in the colder months. In the colder months, we like to eat warm foods that go down smooth. It's in the warmer months that we look for cold salads and light sandwiches. In those months, lettuce is no where to be found in the home garden or local farmer's market. How did nature screw this one up? Are we missing something about lettuce? Does lettuce have some use beyond what we know? I don't have many examples of where it seems that nature got it wrong, but lettuce seems to be one.

I'd much rather eat lettuce in the warmer months.