Thursday, September 22, 2011

I have a kitten.  Her name is Chai.  (Well, technically, our family has three cats, but this one kitten I am speaking of, specifically, I view as all mine.  She doesn't realize this and instead favors my son.  Oh well.  You win some, you lose some.)    Her name is Chai because she matches, exactly, the color of my favorite beverage on the entire plant, Chai tea latte.  We tried on other names for size.  But, we kept coming back to Chai.  And, it's all good because her coloring is what landed her in my arms on the day I laid eyes on her.  She was all alone in her crate, patiently waiting for a home.  Her siblings, all bright orange, had been adopted months earlier.  I couldn't resist that lovely, creamy coloring and her eager little eyes and had to hold her.  Once I got her in my arms, forget-about-it.  Her lovable personality meant there was no question whether or not she would be going home with me to become my (son's) kitten.

My kitten, Chai

I am not going to go so far as to say I have a problem, but when you see a kitten and have to have it, in part, because it reminds you of your favorite beverage, there might be something just every so slightly amiss.  This was a bit of a light bulb moment for me.  As someone who aims to be self-reliant and detests paying retail for most things (killer shoes being an obvious exception), I realize I do have a problem.  The problem is how much cash I am shelling out, day after day, to support my habit.  And, that I don't even really know what's in their concentrate.  And, so, the research began...

Now, I should mention that this is not the first time I have attempted this.  My first attempt, where I read the ingredients on the back of a box of concentrate and tried to guess how much of each spice was included, was an utter failure.  G-R-O-S-S.  My second attempt was an herb mix assembled by my favorite herb supplier, Smith and Truslow.  It was definitely better.  More balanced.  But, not enough for me to break my habit.  It was still missing something.  It should be noted that before I used the mix, I actually opened the packet and counted each individual spice so that I could then make the mix on my own in the future.  I was not about to go from relying on one manufacturer to relying on another.  Then, I stumbled upon this recipe which led me to this recipe.  Bingo!

And, I was off!  Here's how it went down in my kitchen:

Chai Tea Concentrate
(adapted from TastyKitchen and A Wooden Nest)
  • 4 1/2 cups water
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 4 pieces of dehydrated ginger
  • 7 whole cardamom pods
  • 2 whole star anise pods
  • 10 whole cloves
  • 1 fresh vanilla bean, slice, separate the seeds from the pod and add both to the mix
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 10 bags of Darjeeling tea
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • pinch of kosher salt (optional)
Gather the spices and prep any that require prepping.  Combine the spices and tea bags in a bowl.  Do not add the honey to this bowl.  Bring the water to a boil.  Once it is boiling, remove it from the heat and add the bowl of spices and tea.  Allow this mixture to steep for 15 minutes.  After 15 minutes, strain the spices from the liquid.  Compost the spices.  Add the honey to the liquid and stir well.  You can store this mixture for 7 days in a jar in the refrigerator.  After 7 days, freeze any unused concentrate in an ice cube tray.  You can use ice cubes of concentrate in place of fresh until they are gone or 6 months has passed, whichever comes first.

With that, you have your basic Spiced Chai Concentrate.  What you don't have is the sweet component.  If you are a lover of Chai tea, then you know sweet is a critical component.  I wanted to be able to vary my sweet from day to day.  Therefore, I elected to leave a sweetener out of the concentrate.  This way, on any given day, I can add one of the following to my Chai Tea Latte to sweeten it to taste:
  • Agave Nectar
  • Honey
  • Stevia Extract
  • Brown Sugar (any variety, raw or otherwise)
  • White Sugar
  • Organic Maple Sugar 
  • Dulce De Leche (oh yeah!)
Really, the sky is the limit here, folks.  Another benefit to leaving sweeteners out of the concentrate is that you can use this concentrate to flavor baked goods, ice cream base, custard base, smoothies, etc., without resulting in something overly sweet.  However, if you decide you want to sweeten your concentrate from the  onset, I would start with 1/2 cup sugar equivalent and add more from there according to your preferences.

Chai Tea Latte
Mix 1 part concentrate with 1 part milk and sweeten with any of the above sweeteners to taste.  If you want a warm latte, you can heat it gently.  For a cold latte, just add ice.

I was really impressed with the flavor of this concentrate.  It was delicious.  And, the ingredients to make it cost me $20 and I have plenty left to make more concentrate.  Much better pricing than buying it from the store or Starbucks.  Best part about this concentrate, all of these ingredients can travel.  There have been times over the years where we have traveled to a place that did not have a Starbucks.  Because I was reliant on their concentrate, I would be out of luck and missing my favorite morning starter.  Well, free at last!  Now, I can package up a batch of these spices (I will aim for dehydrated orange peel in this case) and make it anywhere where I have access to hot water and fresh milk.  From now on, while away from home, the only thing I will miss is the kitten.  (Actually, I will miss all three.  They're so cute!)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Soil: If You Build It, You Can Grow and The Solution to the Mystery of What's Buried in my Plot

Soil.  It is the most important thing in growing a productive garden whether you are growing ornamentals or edibles.  Gardeners everywhere talk about it.  Businesses are built around it.  Entire books are dedicated to it.  But, how do you get it?

As with all things, ask 20 gardeners this question and you will get 20 different answers.  In my opinion, the truth is that there are many roads that you can take to lead you to the same destination.  But, the one thing these many roads have in common is good compost.  You have to keep enriching your soil with good quality organic material that will feed your dirt and the life within it.  John Jeavons, the master of biointensive planting, who has been teaching people how to make any land productive since 1972 and whose methodologies have been implemented in 141 countries to grow food for the hungry, says, "Develop soil structure so the plants will have a 'living sponge cake' in which to thrive."

Okay.  Got it.  Sponge cake.  And, then I got to asking myself how I could make my own sponge cake large enough to fill an empty raised bed which will require roughly 27 cubic feet or 1 cubic yard without compost and without spending a fortune?  And, have it be productive in the short term future?  The research began and The Lab, my plot at the Dunwoody Community Garden, was born.  I went to the bank and withdrew $130 of my fun  money that I earn from doing market research surveys or save from birthdays to accomplish this with.  Cash in hand, I was off looking for the road to soil traveled by those on a shoestring budget! 

In my research, I did not find one single recipe that I could use to make my own living sponge cake that would fill an empty raised bed.  There are many.  But, I did read about many methodologies used all over the world and many of them relied heavily on one very inexpensive ingredient - bales of straw.  At $4.50 a bale and with only three required, it's easy to see why this quickly became my plan.  But, I wanted this to be productive quickly and so I decided to follow the very basic and easy lasagna gardening method.  The idea behind lasagna gardening is that it is a no-dig, no-till, compost-in-place method where everything breaks down together over time and creates a very rich soil that will help your plants thrive.  The solution to my lack of compost that sounds a lot like a living sponge cake to me!  (You can read about it here and here and here.)  In short, it is the following:
  • brown material
  • fertilizer - equal parts bone meal and blood meal
  • green material
  • fertilizer - equal parts bone meal and blood meal
  • brown material
  • fertilizer - equal parts bone meal and blood meal
  • compost or soil dug in to the middle
  • plant
In my case, I chose to use the following because the materials where relatively inexpensive and available and because this was a combination I had read about that seemed to work.  To give you an idea, all of these materials together cost me about $100.
  • 4" shredded newspaper, no glossy paper
  • 4" alfalfa hay which equates to 2 bales purchased from my local, livestock feed store
  • 3 wheat straw bales broken up and spread across the bed
  • 2 bricks of coir which is not in the actual recipe but I decided to add it to help the bed retain moisture in the unbelievable southern summer heat.
  • 6 bags of pre-made soil spread across the top to actually grow in in lieu of compost because I didn't have any
  • 1 bag of bone meal
  • 1 bag of blood meal
So, I layered all of this in my bed and the truth is that it was waaaaay too much for that 10" high raised bed.  But, I knew it would break down and settle over time, so I stuck with it. At the time though, I had this large mound held together with burlap and twist ties.  I watered it well, tossed in some buckwheat cover crop seeds and the fun officially began! 

A photo of the bed upon completion, 6/15/2011

And, it has been fun.  All sorts of people have asked me what I've got going on in there, my overflowing, hugely mounded, raised bed.  One friend and fellow gardener, Farmer Bob, went so far as to ask me if I had my husband buried in there because he hadn't seen him in a while.  Rest assured, he's alive and well.

The buckwheat cover crop grew well and then I tossed in some cowpeas with the idea being that I could harvest them when they are ready and they will fix nitrogen in the soil for the next crop.  Here's a recent photo of how things are progressing:

No loss of productive time even though the soil is in progress.
Photo taken 8/252011

It's a little hard to tell, but you can see the outline of the big mound of soil ingredients in there.  I have not added anything else except water to this bed since I built it.  I pull back a corner every once in a while to see how things are looking.  So far, I have learned quite a bit by trying this method.
  1. There is an even thriftier way to do this.  Skip the alfalfa hay.  I am not convinced you need it and it was the most expensive ingredient of the bunch.  
  2. I still think you need newspaper if you plan to grow on top of anything that is already growing.  In my case, my plot had grass growing.  The newspaper is sufficient to suppress its growth so it doesn't come through.  
  3. I am not sure that you need the pre-made soil.  If you don't have compost, skip the soil and stick with the coir.  The coir is a perfectly suitable growing medium with the added benefit of retaining moisture.  The straw drains freely, so the coir helps balance that.  Or, if you have homemade compost available, by all means use that.
And, the experiment continues...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Great Friends, an Amazing Gift and Getting off the "Sugar"

I have the best friends a girl could ask for.  Really.  They embrace the special quirks about me that make me me.  And, they play along because they know how much it means to me, even if they are asking themselves, as my girlfriend, Lisa, often does, while shaking her head in disbelief, "You did what?  Seriously, how are we friends?"  (Sidebar- Lisa is probably not reading this blog because it's not her thing, but let me tell you, I love this woman.  And, you would, too, if you knew her.  You can't help yourself.)

Reagan, bright, beautiful Reagan, is another such friend.  I met her at my bootcamp.  She is an attorney, an animal rights activist and fellow blogger.  I read her blog when I want to be inspired and when I need a dose of sunshine.  That's what she is.  She's a warm ray that just makes you feel good.

Today, she gave me the most amazing gift.  In fact, it's a series of gifts that will come  about every week to two weeks.  It comes packaged like this:


Looks unassuming.  But, it's not.  Oh, the contents are highly prized in gardening circles.  It might as well be black gold.


It's poop.  Rather, manure.  From her bunnies.  Her healthy, well fed, indoor bunnies.  I intend to compost this.  Then, I'll add it to my beds once it has completely broken down into rich organic matter.  According to many, it's the best.  (Read here and here and here.  Or, Google it and read all day!)  Many say it is second only to manure from elephants.  That I do not have- yet.  I'm working on that. 

Really, though, I have thanked Reagan a bunch of times, but I am not completely sure she understands how much this means to me.  It's all part of my plan to get off the sugar.  See, I have this thing about gardening.  I love it.  It's my hobby.  And, it's made a lot easier by trotting off to a local boutique gardening store and buying their designer brand of soil and amendments- aka sugar.  You don't even have to think.  The stuff is so amazing.  Just buy and dump.  And, that's great.  For some.  But, that's not sustainable for my family.  This is not my career.  I don't make any money gardening that would justify such expenditures and I refuse to grow a $25 tomato.  We are trying to pay for life, save for college and prepare for retirement on one income.  I have to be self (and friend!) reliant.  And, I need the extra cash to support my experiment addiction!  So, I am working to get off the sugar.  And, this is one way.  The key to growing an incredible garden is the soil.  There's just no way around it.  Rabbit poop is one of the ways to good soil without spending a fortune.

So, Reagan, my husband (who would like to retire someday), my kids (who are looking forward to college) and I (as I embark upon yet another experiment) sincerely thank you from the bottom of our bucket!

Seriously, who else, but a great friend, would give you buckets of poop?!?

PS - In case you are like me and you want a kick-ass garden without the empty wallet, check out your local House Rabbit Society.  They might think you are crazy to call and ask for poop.  Then again, they might be in on this secret and think you are crazy brilliant!

Edited to Add:  WARNING!  DO NOT go to your local House Rabbit Society web page if you are a weakling for anything beyond cute and furry.  Oh em gee.  So cute.  Must not get bunnies.  Must not get bunnies.  Must not get bunnies...  (I would like to remain married and with three cats and a dog, I might be pushing my luck if I brought home a pair of bunnies!)...
Muscadine Wine Update and Info on an Upcoming Fermentation Class:

Well, it's been a week.  And, per Kirk's instructions, I am supposed to strain the muscadine ferment to remove the fruit and let it continue to ferment for another 6 weeks at which point it will officially be wine!  I hope...

I actually strained it yesterday and immediately became concerned, which, apparently, is my way when it comes to wine.  I am out of my comfort zone- but enjoying myself.  The cause for concern was the fact that it seemed still.  No bubbles or signs of continued fermentation were immediately apparent.  But, within a few hours, it looked like it was carbonated- lots of tiny bubbles and fizzing.  This, I am learning, is how this goes.  So, the fun continues!


Speaking of fermentation.  I have been hearing that word all over the place.  Within the past week, three separate foodie blogs/websites that I follow from across America have mentioned fermentation, in general, and more specifically Sandor Ellix Katz and how he is a genius.   Well, it just so happens, this master of fermentation, the guru of all things lacto-good, the brains behind Wild Fermentation is coming to Atlanta next weekend in an event put on by Slow Food Atlanta and he is willing to teach anyone willing to shell out the cash to learn from him.  That would be me.  Was there any doubt?  Will it be you?  

Here are the details:
Ferment with Sandor Katz and Slow Food Atlanta
Saturday, Sept 24, 11:00 am – 4:30 pm

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Remember those soil blocks and the seeds I sowed over the weekend?  

Here we are just a few days later and many, I might even go so far as to say most, of the seeds have sprouted!  Fall garden is in progress...

Monday, September 12, 2011

You know, while we are on the topic of endorsements and affiliations, there is something I want to make clear.  I would not endorse or recommend a product that I don't use and love.  And, I don't give things good endorsements just because they have been given to me or because I might get something in return. I have to really like and believe in it, whatever it is.  From books to tools, gadgets to gear, if I don't like it, I won't pretend I do even if it was a freebie.  Not that anyone is throwing freebies at me.  But, hey, if someone suddenly decides they want to start throwing freebies my way, go for it!  My husband thanks you!  He's got a family to feed and a habitually hobbying wife to support!
Exciting update from my bokashi wheat bran supplier, Bryan McGrath of Pro-Kashi!  
If you are local to Atlanta and are thinking about bokashi composting, 
you should stop by and check this out.
(FYI:  I have copied and pasted this from the Pro-Kashi website.  I am not affiliated with Pro-Kashi.)


Welcome to
 
Pro-Kashi
 
 
 
 
COME MEET US OCTOBER 1, 2011
At the DeKalb Farmer's Market between 11:00 am and 1:30 pm
"Go Green at DeKalb Farmer's Market"
Here is your chance to meet with us in person, see for yourself first hand what Bokashi Composting really is, ask your questions, and register for a chance to win one of our ProKashi Composting Buckets and one bag of ProKashi's very own Wheat Bran!!

You can check out Bryan's website here -->click me!<--
It is loaded with helpful information.  
Another Quick Muscadine Wine Update:

After I took the photo in the previous post and posted it online, I started to worry because the yeast was all clumped together and it didn't look active.  There weren't any bubbles visible or much movement to indicate that they yeast was still alive and brewing.  You can't make wine without yeast.  It's a key ingredient.  So, I was a little worried that I was on my way to rotten muscadines instead of muscadine wine.  But, after picking the kids up from school and wasting a little time in the garden, I came inside to find this:

See those bubbles?  Oh yeah!  The yeast is alive and well and working its magic inside this jar.  Maybe we will end up with muscadine wine after all!
Quick Muscadine Wine Update:

Not sure if this is how it is supposed to look for not, but this is how it looks today after I gave it a little stir and then poured it into a bottle to continue to ferment.  Per ironhead41, I will leave it like this for 6 weeks and we'll see how things go.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I have always wanted to make moonshine.  Really.  I know all the reasons why it doesn't make sense to want to try it.  I know it's dangerous.  I know it's illegal.  But, I sort-of view it as the ultimate experiment.  Chemistry class in the kitchen shed some-location-an-appropriate-distance-away-from-anyone-or-anything-for-fear-of-being-blown-to-bits-by-chemistry-gone-wrong.  I don't even know if I actually like moonshine, to be honest.  I have only ever had it once and it was in some already delicious eggnog and the whole thing was just dynamite.  The moonshine could have tasted like raw fuel and that eggnog would have made it palatable.  So, I will never know.  And, it doesn't matter.  It was good and that's what counts!  At any rate, this is one chemistry experiment that won't be happening in my yard, house, garage (I don't even know!  Where would one attempt this?) anytime soon.  

Unless I get the hang of making alcohol.  

And, so, when I went wild muscadine gathering today with some friends and we were discussing the many things you could do with the blemished ones, the ones that need to be used right away because they won't keep, and someone said make wine...  Well, you can imagine my excitement!  Oh, there are many other things you can do with them, too, but after "wine" I quit listening.  One of the fellow gatherers shared the fact that his first taste of wine -ever- was of wine that he and his brother had made themselves from this very fruit.  Forget about it.  Halfway through his story, I was imagining myself in an oak barrel, barefoot with my pants rolled up giddily stomping muscadines.  (It's funny, in my mind, I looked like Lucille Ball.  Exactly like this!)  Regardless, I am telling you, the moment I got home, before I even set my purse down, I was calling on my good friend, Google, for some guidance.  And, before you know it, I was on the path to turning this:

into wine.

Well, not all of that.  I went for a small batch recipe that will result in just 3 quarts of wine.  That way, if it totally bombs, and I don't mean that literally (I don't think-YIKES), I won't have missed out on all the other delicious things you can do with fresh muscadines.  By the way, who knew muscadines were so delicious?  This was my first encounter with them.  One taste and now I'm hooked!

Anyway, here's the handy dandy recipe I used:
(It had a whopping 3 reviews.  But all were 5 stars.  And, it didn't require any trips to any specialty stores.  So that pretty much sums up my rationale for going with it.) 

Ingredients:

  • 1 quart mashed fruit
  • 3 quarts water
  • 6 cups sugar
  • yeast

Preparation:

Dissolve sugar in water put mashed fruit in with water and sprinkle yeast on top. Do not stir till the next day then stir every day for a week. Strain off liquid and place in a container with an air lock of some type for 6 weeks to allow fermentation to complete itself. Strain off again and bottle; cap lightly for 3 days to allow for any more fermentation to cease. Cap and store in a cool place. This recipe works with muscadines, blackberries, even apples.....makes a good tasting old fashion type wine with less alcohol than the vodka mixture.
Kirk's notes:
The recipe for the one gallon jug will actually make three quarts unless after initial fermentation...when racked off to the air lock...you add the additional liquid to make the full gallon. What we used to do was use a 3 1/2 gallon pickle jug for initial fermentation and put a little extra liquid in it and rack to three one gallon jugs with air locks for final fermentation. Makes 1 gallon of muscadine wine. 

(I have literally just copied and pasted the recipe.  Some of it is confusing to me.  Like the entire Kirk's notes section.  Where the hell do the 3 gallons come in when I just learned we were aiming for 3 quarts?  What the hell does 'racked off to the air lock' mean?  It sounds like some sort of torture.  And, then, all of a sudden, we are making one gallon?  So, I just ignored all of that.  I watched the videos by ironhead41 on YouTube and just sort-of combined his method with Kirk's recipe. But, not completely.  We'll just see how this little experiment turns out.  This could be interesting.)

Here's what I did:

I used my Leblon muddler (this is seriously one of the best freebies I have ever received!) to pop enough muscadines to equal a generous quart.  That is exactly what it feels and sounds like.  Press... POP!  It was so fun!  Because some of my family members have no idea what a muscadine is, here's a close up of the popped fruit:
These are a type of grape, but they have a thicker skin.  So, you pop the flesh out of the skin and eat it.  The white things you see above are the flesh.  I guess you can eat the skin, but I am new to this, too, and really have no idea.  You're on your own there.

Then, I added the hot water, sugar and muscadines to a large food-grade plastic bucket to hang out and cool down.  When the temperature reached 100 degrees (thanks, ironhead41 for the tip!), I added a packet of yeast.  Then, I put the lid on loosely because, uh, well, I wasn't sure what else to do and ironhead41's trick of using a condom (or even a rubber glove for that matter) wouldn't work here.  If you are wondering how a condom is appropriate here, you need to watch ironhead41's videos.

A few hours later, I peeked in because I am like a kid in a candy store and really can't help myself and found this:
It's a little hard to tell from the photo, but can you see how the yeast has really started foaming up and doing its thing?  I hope that is a good sign!  It needs to ferment now for 6 weeks, so only time will tell how well this will turn out.  Who cares?  Right now, I am getting my chemistry fix.  And, as long as I am in the midst of this fun process, I won't be temped to try my hand at making moonshine in a shed in someone's backyard.  I call that a success!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Life is a blur.  Every single day just flies by.  Thank goodness for the falling leaves to serve as a reminder that it is time to get ready for fall.  Otherwise, it would all just pass me by. 

Having been gently reminded by Mother Nature herself, I have begun to prep (finally!) for the changing season.  However, I have a tendency to lean a little type-A.  I will let this photo speak for itself:

Yes, I love graph paper.  And rulers. 
(In case it's not clear, these are plans for two of my garden beds.)

Now that I know what I am going to plant and how many of each, it's time to get crazy with my soil block maker and start some seeds.  Oh yea!  Love this thing.  Here's what I love about it-  all you need is good soil.  Well, and the actual soil block maker and some trays.  But, once you invest in those initial supplies, you're set.  No more plugs or pots or fiddling with newspapers.  You just press, twist, depress, sow.  Done. 

Above, you see my soil block maker and blocking mix.  Now, the mix is key.  I have been using a recipe I found in Eliot Coleman's book, The New Organic Grower.  This mix works well every single time.  Here's the recipe:  (Use a standard 10 quart bucket and one cup measuring cup.  This is a very large recipe so I suggest either sharing with a fellow gardening buddy or be sure you have a place to store the extra.  It will store well if you let it dry out before storing and then keep it in a bin or a trash can with a lid.)
  • 3 buckets of brown peat
  • 1/2 cup of lime
Mix the ingredients thoroughly.
Add:
  • 2 buckets of sparse sand or perlite
  • 3 cups of base fertilizer.  (Base fertilizer is equal parts blood meal, bone meal and greensand.)
Mix these ingredients well.
Add:
  • 1 bucket soil
  • 2 buckets compost (I actually use 3 buckets of Farmer D's compost and call it a day.  That stuff is soooo purty.)
Mix all these ingredients thoroughly and add water until the mix can hold its shape when squeezed into a ball, but is not soggy.  Think of a snowball.  You don't want so much water that the snowball melts away when you try to squeeze it together and you don't want it so dry that it won't hold together at all.  To be completely honest, I usually make this the night before and then give it a good watering and a good mixing.  The next day, after sitting all night, it (miraculously) has the perfect texture for blocking.  Then, you just get busy!

Soil blocks ready for sowing.  The block maker creates a dimple in the middle of the block for you to drop your seed in.  Once I have all my seeds in place, I just go back with a little extra mix to cover the dimple.  I then give everything a good watering with a mister. 

Once you get the hang of this, you can knock out a tray of soil blocks in no time.  Being a planner, I knew how many seeds I was going to start of each variety, so I built all the blocks first and then brought them over to the table and just sat there dropping seeds in while the kids played water gun wars on the driveway.

At the end of the day, I had all 250+ seeds started in flats. 

Closer image of one flat with the seeds sown and the dimple filled in with a little more mix. 

Ahhh.  Now that I have slowed down just long enough to get this done, I will return to living life at what feels like warp speed.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Bokashi, Oh my Gosh!

Fermentation is all the rage.  I am hearing fellow gardeners and foodies discussing lacto-fermented salsa, sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kefir, les herbes salees...  The list goes on.  And, there are some serious health benefits with this method of preserving.  The claims range from reducing cholesterol to improving immune function and even fighting cancer.  A quick Google search on lacto-fermented foods will give you enough articles to keep you busy for a few days.  All good stuff.

I have decided to broaden our fermenting scope around here beyond my usual homemade yogurt.  But, I am not using it for preservation.  I am using it for decomposition.  See, I am still searching for that perfect composting system.  Bins are great.  Worms are great.  Piles are great.  But, I still have three big issues:
  1. Small hive beetle populations are known to be larger in bee yards that are in close proximity to compost.  I was warned about this over and over again by very experienced beekeepers.  And, I was encouraged to give up composting.  This I will not do.
  2. I am lazy about kitchen scraps.  I fully admit it.  I have a bin in my kitchen and the scraps end up sitting in there for days before I haul them out to the composter.  By the time I get around to it, it's a rubber glove event.  Frankly, it can be foul.  This becomes an even bigger issue in the winter due to the shorter days and cooler temps.  This means I have to trek out to the compost pile in the dark and in the cold.  Not likely.
  3. I have too many food scraps for the worms to get through.
The solution is simple, easy and oh so wonderful:  Bokashi

According to bokashicomposting.com:

"Bokashi means fermented organic matter in Japanese. Bokashi composting uses a selected group of microorganisms to anaerobically ferment organic waste. The microorganisms are applied using a impregnation carrier such as wheat bran. The fermentation process breaks the organic matter down in a process that is odor free. The process is very fast and usually takes less than two weeks. Once the fermentation has completed you can add the scraps to a worm bin or bury them directly in the soil. Since the process is done in a closed system you don't have to worry about insects and smells making it ideal for urban or business settings. Unlike more conventional composting systems bokashi systems can break down heavier items like meat, fish and cheese."

I have been using this system now for several weeks and I am happy to report that I am hooked.  I had my doubts about some of the claims, namely the claim that it would be odor-free.  (Especially once you smell the inoculant.  One whiff of that and you'll have your doubts, too.)  But, it's true.  In fact, my Mom was just here for a visit and she thought I had fashioned the buckets together to create a little sitting stool for myself in my kitchen.  She had no idea there's a week's worth of food scraps in those buckets.  Odor.  Free.

There are commercially made bins available for purchase to use in this system, but that's not really my style.  Why spend $50 when you can spend $10?  I set myself up with a bin for next to nothing and here's how you can do it, too:

These are the materials you will need:  two 5 gallon buckets and one lid.  Here, you see three 5 gallon buckets because I wanted to have an extra bucket on hand to start using when the first bucket became full.  I bought the buckets at Home Depot for under $3.  The lid was $1 or so.  If you don't care what color your buckets are or if you have a red kitchen, then you can buy recycled pickle buckets from Firehouse Subs for only $2 and the money goes to a good cause.  I care.  This thing is going to sit in my kitchen decomposing food scraps.  Call me petty, but I want it to at least blend


Turn one bucket over and and drill holes in the bottom of it.  I used a 1/8 inch drill bit and aimed for around 30 holes in an evenly spaced pattern.  I started in the center and worked my way out.  It took maybe 2 minutes.  This does not need to be precise for the system to work.  It can be completely random.  It really doesn't matter.  The evenly-spaced-pattern thing is just one of my hang-ups.  You don't have to make it one of yours.  At this point, you should have one 5 gallon bucket with holes drilled into it and one 5 gallon bucket with a solid bottom.



Now that you have drilled your holes, you are ready to use your bokashi composting system. First, you want to set the bucket with the holes in the bottom into the bucket with the solid bottom.  The goal is to create a reservoir to collect any liquids that leach from the decomposition process.  This liquid is good for a variety of uses including clearing and deodorizing clogged drains, feeding houseplants and activating regular compost among other things.  Now, based on some advice I read on the internet, I placed two coffee filters in the bottom of the inner bin to prevent food particles from falling into the drain holes and clogging them.  I am not 100% sure this is necessary, but it seemed like a good idea with sound reasoning and so I went with it. 

I then added a layer of shredded newspaper.  The idea here is to add an absorbent layer.  I forgot to do this the second time I started a bucket and have noticed no difference in either smell or amount of liquid leachate.  So, I would call this step optional.

Now, this is the step where this system goes from being an indoor waste bucket to a bokashi system.  The inoculant comes into play.  This is what makes bokashi bokashi.  This inoculant is made with bacteria, molasses and wheat bran.  If you perform a Google search for homemade bokashi recipes, you will get pages of hits.  Some recipes use shredded newspaper, some use wheat bran and others still use rice hulls.  I wanted to do this right the first time, so I bought this bokashi wheat bran made by Pro-kashi at Farmer D's for $14.00.  Going forward, I will make my own or buy directly from Pro-kashi for only $9.00.  Anyway, back to the directions.  You want to add a few tablespoons of bokashi inoculant on top of the shredded newspaper.

Now, add some food scraps and sprinkle more bokashi mix on top. Here's the great thing about bokashi- NOTHING is off limits.  Dairy?  It's fine.  Meat and bones?  Okay, too.  Oils and fats?  Toss 'em in.  We literally clear our dinner plates into the bin and call it a day.  A bokashi system reduces your household food wastes to zero. 

Put the tight fitting lid on your bucket and your system is complete and working.  At this point, you keep adding food scraps as you need to.  When you have a solid layer, you toss in a few more tablespoons of the bokashi inoculant.  When the bucket is full, you set it somewhere to let it decompose for 2 to 4 weeks.  Then, you can add it to a worm bin, bury it in the garden somewhere or add it to an existing compost pile where it will continue to break down even more.  Here's a great pictorial of the process -->click me!<--

As I mentioned earlier, I have been using this bokashi system for several weeks now and I don't think I will be stopping anytime soon.  It's so simple and convenient.  No more runs to the compost bin.  No more bins of rotting food scraps sitting on the kitchen counter stinking up the joint.  And, as an added benefit, I can take the buckets with me to the community garden where I have a plot and add my bokashi straight into my raised bed if I have an open space or am in between seasons.  It's portable like that.  Oh my gosh!  What else can I say? 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Sprout. What's Your Superpower?

In just a matter of days, these seeds will be sprouts.  Highly nutritious.  Highly delicious.  

I am going to come clean here.  I don't really care about salad greens- or any greens for that matter (save for the super yummy sweet potato greens which are so, so good and versatile)- in the summer.  Don't miss 'em.  Don't crave 'em.  I have a summer fling with sprouts.  Let me introduce you to them:


This jar is where all the magic happens.  This is a wide-mouthed one quart canning jar.  I bought it at Michael's for very little money plus a 40% off coupon.  Instead of the metal disk at the top, I have a few pieces of cheesecloth being held in place with the ring.  This is all you need.  The first thing you do is add sprouting seeds, cover with water and let sit for about 6 hours.  This is what you see happening in the photo above.

After that, you drain the seeds and rinse them well.  You will be left with wet seeds.  Technically, at this point, you should keep your jar inverted so the excess water drains out.  Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.  I would say it happens fifty percent of the time around here.  That's all you do the first day.

This is what you'll find the next morning.  See the tiny white shoots starting to grow?  Sprouts, baby!  At this point, you want to rinse and drain your sprouts twice a day.  Again, the jar should be inverted to allow the excess water to run out.  You can see I've done that here.  NOT.

This is what you will find the next morning.  It's a little harder to see.  As the sprouts grow larger, they hold more water around them and clump together clouding the photo.  Again, rinse twice a day and keep going.  By day three or day four, they will be ready for your favorite veggie sandwich.  Once they look like sprouts, they are sprouts and you are good to go.  At that point, I stop rinsing mine, remove the cheesecloth and replace the solid disk and store the whole jar in the refrigerator.  I use my sprouts or compost them by day 10.  I don't hang on to them any longer than that.  You know me.  A stickler for rules and all that...

A note about seeds:  If you are lucky like I am, you have a few places where you can buy organic sprouting seeds.  To me, organic is key here.  Most likely, you are eating these things raw.  You don't want to mess with anything that is not organic.  I bought Mumm's Sprouting SeedsBotanical Interests also sells sprouting seeds, all of which are organic.  Sprout People is also an excellent resource with lots of gadgetry available for purchase in addition to seeds.  You know how I feel about gadgets!  Bring it!  At any rate, a quick stop at a local health food store (not GNC) should put you on your way if you have any trouble.

Finally, you might ask why these are so critical for me during the summer.  For starters, it's really hard to grow salad greens in the Georgia heat.  They bolt or wilt.  Either way, they are unappetizing.  These are salad's understudy.  When the main performer isn't available, you can call on sprouts.  Secondly, these really work with our laid back summer routine.  The kids sleep late which gives me an hour or so by myself to fiddle in the kitchen, tend to the garden or lounge in my favorite chair.  Inevitably, I happen upon the sprout jar and remember to rinse them.  During the hustle and bustle of the school year when it is rush, rush, rush, I often forget to rinse them.  They are still edible and still delicious, but being neglected, I often wonder...

At any rate, get yourself a jar and some cheesecloth or one of those handy dandy reusable (bonus points!) screens and sprout yourself silly.  It's a miniature garden right in your window.  That's pretty super!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dog Days Dinner

They’re here.  It’s hot.  And, steamy.  It’s been this way for a while.  It’s natural to wish for a change in the weather pattern.  But, after these dog days, the weather will change and summer will officially be history.  I love summer.  I live for summer.  Unwilling to wish it away, it's time to dig down and find the good.  My silver lining?  The food.  The garden is flourishing.  Peppers are coming in daily.  Tomatoes are coming in daily.  Summer squash is gorgeous.  Melons are so ripe that my kids walk in the door and ask for a slice because they can smell it at the threshold.  What to do with all this produce?

As you may recall, I have had a love/hate relationship with cooking for most of my life.  As a result, I have a hard time classifying anything I make as good.  Well, this dinner changed that.  This meal was good.  So good, in fact, that my husband made me promise to write it down so I won't forget it and will be able to recreate it next summer.  Even I am willing to admit it was good.  And, I am a tough sell.  

If it is so good, why not whip up a batch this winter?  Well, this medley shines because of fresh, locally grown produce.  And, the ingredients won’t be available fresh during the winter.  Maybe it will be good with frozen vegetables, but I haven't made it (yet) so I can't say for sure.  Why take the chance?  Hit up your local farmer’s market, grab your CSA box or harvest from your garden and whip up a batch of this Dog Days Dinner.  Your taste buds will thank you. 



Dog Days Dinner
This meal can be served hot or at room temperature which makes it perfect for dinner at the table or for packing for a picnic in the park.
Serves 4

3 cloves of garlic, pressed in a garlic press
1 large onion (any variety), diced
Medley of peppers, diced (I used 2 banana peppers, 2 cubanelle peppers, 2 poblano peppers and 4 pimiento peppers.  You can use whatever you have available.  You can also add some jalapenos for added heat.)
3 medium to large sized summer squash and/or zucchini, diced
½ cup golden raisins
½ cup pistachios
Juice and zest of one lemon
1 tablespoon honey (preferably local)
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sea Salt
½ cup ground cherries, halved
10-15 leaves of lemon basil, torn

I realize this recipe calls for a lot of diced vegetables.  If you don’t have the time to dice this many, I highly recommend the Vidalia Onion Chopper.  Yes, it’s gadgetry.  It’s another thing to store.  Maybe you can do this with a food processor.  Or, are skillful enough with a knife that you can knock this out in no time.  I am not.  So, this baby is a time and life saver (literally, I am dangerous with knives) for me.  It allows me to quickly dice all these vegetables into perfectly-sized, uniform pieces. 

Here we go:
1.       Heat 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil on medium high heat in a large sauté pan.  Add the garlic and let it mellow in the pan.  You want it to lose some of its rawness, but not brown.  If it begins to brown, reduce the temperature.
2.       Once the garlic has cooked for about a minute, add the onion and sauté for 2 minutes.  If you have reduced the temperature, increase it to medium high again.
3.       Add the pepper medley to the pan and sauté for 2 minutes.  You want the peppers to sweat to reduce the moisture, but not brown.  If they begin to brown, reduce the heat slightly.   If the pan begins to get watery, increase the temperature.
4.       Add the summer squash and continue to cook.  At this point, you have two choices; you can cook at the same temperature for another 2-3 minutes.  Or, you can reduce the temperature and cook the mixture more slowly.  I reduced the temperature to medium low so that I could quickly make the sauce.
5.       To make the sauce, mix the juice of a lemon, the zest of a lemon and the tablespoon of honey.
6.       Once the squash is cooked al dente, remove the pan from heat and dress them with the honey and lemon mix.  Finally, toss in the golden raisins and pistachios.  Salt to taste.
7.       Plate the vegetable medley and dress each serving equally with halved ground cherries and torn lemon basil.
 
I served the vegetable medley over farro.  Farro is easily my favorite side.  I like it better than pasta, rice, quinoa, couscous, etc.  It has a wonderful texture and a delicious, nutty flavor.  It is the perfect complement to this medley.  I make it according to the package directions skipping any added fat and adding just a touch of salt. 

Stay cool!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Variety is the Spice of Life

And, it's inspiration in the garden and kitchen, too.  I love trying something new that I have never worked with before.  Unfortunately, when you have a penchant for variety, gardening can get expensive fast.  For instance, this is the list of tomatoes I would like to grow for fun:
  • Better Boy
  • Beafeater
  • Black from Tula
  • Black Plum
  • Paul Robeson
  • Japanese Trifele Black
  • Purple Calabash
  • Yellow Pear
  • Broad Ripple Yellow
  • Hartman's Yellow Gooseberry OG
  • Lemon Drop
  • Riesentraube
  • San Marzano
  • Cream Sausage
  • Green Zebra
  • Sheboygan OG (in honor of my sister who lives in the great state of chaos Wisconsin with her FIVE lovely kids and husband.)
  • Tasty Evergreen (reminds me of Colorado even if it's from Ohio.)
  •  Neves Azorean
  • Mrs. Maxwells Big
  • Vinson Watts
  • A variety of mystery heirlooms currently growing in my garden.
  • Anything else that suits my fancy at any given moment.  (Full disclosure: I have been known to go to Whole Foods and buy heirloom tomatoes just to save the seeds.)

And, this is just my tomato list.  You should see my pepper list and my squash list and my...  Well, you get the point.  So, frugal gardeners with a longing for variety have to risk breaking several laws get creative to get their hands on them.  That is pretty much what it boils down to.  Last week, Rick Callihan posted on his blog about his tomatoes, one of which is the much sought after Black from Tula.  That was his first mistake.  His second mistake was not only acknowledging my existence, but actually answering my post when I asked him if I could come over and take some cuttings.  He said yes. I know!  I still can't believe it!

So, this past weekend, I sharpened my scissors and made my way over to Rick's to take cuttings from his tomato plants.  Jackpot!  Rick is so crazy generous that he not only let me have cuttings, he walked around his garden packing me a to-go bag of tomatoes and peppers.  And, to think I came -->this close<-- to just sneaking into his garden in the dark of night for some cuttings. Big thanks to Rick for doing your part to keep me out of jail! My family thanks you, too!

Anyway, the timing of this is perfect because about this time every year, mid-July, I realize that my tomatoes, while still delicious, are getting smaller and the vines thinner.  They won't make big, tasty tomatoes for much longer.  So, I always take cuttings from my own vines and root them so I can have tomatoes well into fall.  Last year, I had tomatoes in December!  It's very simple.  All you have to do is take a cutting from a current plant, root it in a cup of water in a sunny windowsill and voila!  Once rooted, you have a new plant.  It's that easy!

And, this benefits the tomatoes on the plant, too.  It tells the plant to stop growing tall and work on finishing the tomatoes currently growing on the plant.  It sort-of forces ripening.  If you time it all right, then the new plant will start producing at about the time you are plucking the last ripe tomato off the old plant.  I really like this technique for extending the summer tomato bounty in my garden into the fall.

(We also used this technique at the Spruill Gallery garden when we realized one of the tomato plants was diseased but didn't want to sacrifice the tomatoes growing on it.  Within a week of cutting the tips off the plant, one of the young tomatoes was already turning.) 

Here are a few photos of the bounty from my cutting session at Rick's:

Rick's picks.  Black from Tula on the left.  Some other delightful orange variety that is soon to be a favorite on the right.
Black from Tula cutting I am rooting in my kitchen.  This will grow roots within about a week.  Once it does, I plant it in the garden at the end of the day and water it in well.  This gives it time to adjust to its new home before the heat of the day.  It will wilt a little until it gets used to its new roots and then it will flourish.
Cutting from Rick's other delightful variety.
Last but not least, Rick tossed a handful of these into my to-go bag.  These are tomato seeds Rick secured from a friend who recently traveled through Greece.  Apparently, this friend packed a bunch of ripe tomatoes as souvenirs.  Over time, the tomatoes rotted away leaving these seed clusters.  Since I have no idea what they are, they will forever be referred to as "Rick's Get 'em from the Greeks" tomatoes.
One final note, if you want to replicate a plant but are not sure if it is an hybrid, then a cutting is the way to go.  An hybrid will not grow true from seed.  In other words, who knows what you'll end up with?  So, if your neighbor is growing some delightful variety that you absolutely must have, I suggest you fire up the oven and bake some cookies to barter for a cutting rather than relying on seeds you dig out of their compost.

Happy cutting!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Saving the Past, Securing the Future

Yellow, cherry tomatoes not yet ripe.

In my garden, the future is now.  Literally, right now.
The fruit growing in my garden will provide enough seeds for my future garden.
And, maybe yours, too.

Last summer, my Mom's friend gave her a handful of yellow, cherry tomatoes that she swiped from a well-known grower in Indiana.  We'll just say that they might have been harvested swiftly and without the grower's knowledge.  Apparently, they have some pedigree and even though we didn't know exactly what they were, some research confirmed that they were, indeed, heirloom and desirable. 

Upon receiving them, my Mom called me and asked me how to preserve their future.  I tried to tell her how to save the seeds, but she felt more comfortable shipping them to me.  And, so, one day later, a tiny box arrived on my doorstep with the future safely tucked inside.  It had arrived completely intact.  The agreement was that I would harvest and save the seeds.  My reward would be in delicious, juicy tomato flesh as I got to eat all four tiny fruits.  In return, I would not only share the seeds, but I would grow transplants for my Mom and her friend.  That way, we would all eat the fruit.  Easy.  In the photo above, you see the result of that agreement - this year's tomato plant sown from last year's saved seeds, dripping with the future. 

Here's how to save tomato seeds:

A yellow, cherry tomato ripe, full of seeds and ready to eat.

First step, cut through the tomato close to the top but far enough down that you expose the seeds.

The seeds are secure in that gel.

Remove the seeds, gel and all, from the tomato and put them into a fine mesh strainer over a bowl.  Here, I have a very small strainer set inside a ramekin.
Add water to cover the seeds.  In a few days, the seeds will separate from the gel and reveal themselves.  When that happens, you will want to drain them on a coffee filter, paper plate, paper towel, etc.  When they are dry, place them in a paper envelope for storage.  Done!

You may be asking yourself why I go to the trouble of saving seeds when you can easily buy seeds.  Well, for starters, it's cheaper.  In some cases, like that of the yellow, cherry tomato, it's even free.  I happen to be a variety junkie and that can get expensive.  The other reason is that the seeds are readily available until they aren't.  And, then, it's too late.  This happened with my favorite beans.  Up until very recently, they had been out of stock to the public for nearly a year.  But, it was a non-issue for me.  I had been saving those seeds for two years and had plenty for this year's garden and thankfully, I have plenty for next year's, too.

I love securing the future by saving the seeds of the past.  And, while it does take a little thought and a few extra minutes, it is not complicated.  So, give it a try!  After all, you never know what the future holds!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Unruly plants, I will cut you.

Like everyone, I happen to love a good laugh.  Oh, I really do.  One thing that is sure to bring on the laughs is Anjelah Johnson's Bon Qui Qui character.  You can and should witness the funny here.  I love the line, "Girl, I will cut him."  Followed by, "Oh, girl, yes I did, girl!"  

Sometimes, while in the garden, I am saying this out loud in my head as I am tackling suckers or diseased leaves.  I fancy myself the Bon Qui Qui of the garden.  In fact, I have elevated this to a verb.  "I need to go out there and Bon Qui Qui some stuff."  

Well, now, I am armed with a new tool and not only is it sharp (read- perfect for Bon Qui Qu'ing some stuff), it is mighty.  My friend, Keren King, turned me on to this beauty while planting at the new Strong4Life Teaching Garden at Scottish Rite.  Once I witnessed her ability to dig through heavy clay mixed with rock with this HAND tool while I had to keep borrowing big guns from the landscapers, I knew I had to have one.  (Sidebar:  If you have not been there to view this garden, you should.  It is gorgeous.  And, my friend, Regan Cox, the amazing, loaned her husband out to do the woodwork.  Again, gorgeous!)

Here it is in all its shiny glory:

One serrated blade.  One smooth, sharp blade.  Notch for ripping twine.  And, measuring increments.

See how it shines?  That would be the rust-resistant Swedish Stainless Steel.

Technically, the tool is an A.M. Leonard Soil Knife.  It should come as no surprise that I have named mine Boo and will, from here on out, refer to it accordingly.  In all honesty, Boo is not just sharp.  According to the label/website, it is the perfect gardening tool for a variety of tasks including:
  • Dig weeds out of your flower beds and lawn
  • Scrape out cracks in your drive, walk, patio, etc...
  • Loosen compacted soils
  • Chop the greens off of your root vegetables
  • Saw through roots, and divide perennials and grasses
  • Dig a shallow furrow for a row of seeds
  • Mix soil when adding amendments
  • Dig out stones, rocks and other debris
  • Measure for accurate planting depth
  • Cut twine and ties quickly and easily

All this in one tool!  And, after witnessing this beauty in action, I believe it.  Hey, it has 53 perfect 5 star ratings.  That is no easy feat!  And, we all know, its sharp!  And, IT'S ON SALE right now!  Listen, you don't like this?  "Do NOT get loud wit me! Oh NO!   Sacurity!  Saaaa-curity!"

Monday, June 6, 2011

Deal of the Day

You won't believe the bargain I found today!  I found myself at the Kmart on Buford Highway at Buford Highway and 285.  Actually, this Kmart is right up the street from Angler's Corner of red wiggler fame.  I was on the hunt for an Earthbox and an earlier Google search led me to believe that it might be possible to find one at Kmart.  No such luck.  Bummer.  But, in the meantime, what I did find was this:

Bucket Organizer
Now, I have been looking at these at the big box stores and they sell for somewhere in the neighborhood of $15.  That's actually a lower price.  You can get boutique ones for more.  It would be nice to have, especially for my beekeeping supplies, but I am a little on the frugal side and $15 felt like a lot when what I was using was technically working, sort-of.  And, they are usually made in dark colored fabrics.  Not ideal because the bees are attracted to dark colors.  I don't need them buzzing around equipment I am trying to get to.  Or, hanging out in a bucket I am about to plunge my hand into. 

Well, at Kmart, they were selling them for $9.99.  Oh yeah.   Under 10 bucks.  I can swing that.  And, they are my favorite color of blue.  I know.  Does this really matter?  No, not really.  But, it sealed the deal.  I'll take one of those, please!  I also grabbed a bucket for $3 and I was feeling pretty happy.  I starting making big plans to organize my beekeeping equipment after the kids went to bed.  I got to the register and as the lady was ringing it up, I noticed that it was on sale.  SUPER DUPER sale.  This baby was marked down to $2.50.  I practically leaned across and hugged the poor woman ringing me up, asked her to put that transaction on hold and made my way back to the gardening center to get another set so I could better organize my gardening bucket.  Now, I am the very proud owner of two organized buckets, one for gardening and one for beekeeping.  And, I got it all for under $12, the cost of ONE of the organizers at the other big box stores.  I just had to share this in case anyone else is in the market!

My beekeeping supplies all tidy and organized.  No more digging in a reusable, soft-sided grocery bag with a frame of bees in my hands.  Yay!  It even has pockets and elastic on the inside of the bucket.  And, a velcro closure pouch that I put the Epi-Pens in.