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
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.) 


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


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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.