29 March 2012

Seedling Problems & Starter Containers on the Cheap

Ok, so still learning here! Just a disclaimer that I'm no expert. But I hope you and I can both learn from my mistakes. It will save someone time and money. Just not me. I have run into 2 seedling problems.

Some of my seedlings are “damping off,” which is a fancy way of saying I over watered. I didn't think it was likely, as the soil never looked swamped are pooled. However, a lot of my sprouts just fell over one day, leaving the roots under the dirt. I don't know if they are able to come back from it, but I'm hoping. I have pinched off some of the sprouts, hoping it will force new ones to spring forth from the roots. The others I left alone to see if they will fix themselves. If not, I'll have to buy tomato plants and try to squeeze in a second round from seed.

The other problem is lack of light. The seedlings were quite tall and spindly. They did not have access to light through a window, but a light was left on most of the day. The way to fix this is the set a light right on top, no more than 1” away. Obviously, this is for serious gardeners with grow lights. I used a lamp from the craft room and moved them to a sunny window.

Another tidbit I will be keeping in mind is not to start in containers too small. I started all the seeds in egg cartons. This would be fine if I was immediately transplanting to the garden. My tomatoes have still got awhile though. It would just be easier to have started them in their current containers. I'll save the egg cartons for flowers and herbs that can go right into the dirt after sprouting.

I have had trouble actually getting to the garden. With two kids, a full-time job, and house to care for, I'm a bit stretched on time and energy. If I could go back, I would have already had a tiller and hoe the day they turned the dirt. We have had a lot of rain, and the dirt has settled and compacted. I'm having to go back with the hoe to dig out the rocks and hack up those weeds. I am going to try the landscaping fabric. I intend to put mulch or something on top of the fabric just because it is so ugly. I was able to find quite the deal, a roll of 200ft with 50 staples for just under $34.

Beets are doing well, but no sign of the peas or beans. I suspect they were carried down an ant hill suspiciously nearby. Good news is that even if they are gone, I can do another round. Tomatoes are iffy, but half the broccoli looks good, which is 6 plants. I started the peppers.

I have Fort Laramie strawberries on order. You should check out Gardens Alive! They always have a $25 coupon with each catalog, so I got 25 plants for free including shipping. They sell seed, fertilizer, composting items, and other related things.

A project I'll be looking into is how to use the creek as a water source for the garden. It is probably 75 yards away and down hill. I don't have any experience with pumps or plumbing. I switched out a toilet once, and that's as far as it goes. If nothing works, I can haul it up in tanks I guess and use one of those sprayers.

This is a great way to have free, or pretty darn close to it, starter containers. I found this through Mother Earth News, a great magazine that leaves me coveting after every issue. They linked the idea to the cleverly-named blog, Mr. Brown Thumb. He lists other cheap ideas as well, so you may want to check it out.

First, I snagged some free local papers from the grocery store. I don't regularly buy the newspaper, but if you do this would be a beneficial way to get double duty out of it and recycle at the same time. Fold a full sheet in horizontally in half. Wrap around a can, cup, or tube of some sort. Don't go too tight, or you'll have to wrestle the two apart. I made four folds to make a bottom. Just push an edge in towards the middle until it is closed off. Slip the can out and tuck the top edges in all around. You can label each pod right on the paper.

A bonus is that the paper shows you how moist the soil is. The starters can go in a roasting pan, like I used, or you can use a cardboard lid or box trimmed down. Line with a trash can bag to prevent leaks. I have stuck with watering right into the pan and the other trays. I like this method much better as it takes less time and prevents over watering.

The last frost is approaching soon, so I gotta run. I got a date with a hoe.

22 March 2012

The garden is slowly but surely coming along. We have had a lot of rain recently, so hoeing is no fun at all. Not that it was ever rumored to be. I purchased some of the weed-blocking landscaping fabric to help stave off the grass and weeds from overtaking the plot. I think I should have done this immediately after tilling. I am unsure if I will keep the fabric through the season. It is tempting with all the promises of a weed free garden.

I started the seedlings in egg carton flats, which I got from work. I set in a South-facing window and watered throughout each day. They dried out way too quickly, so I set two of the flats on a baking sheet and poured water onto the sheet. One flat I transferred to egg shell halves, and they worked well, yet only about half sprouted. I kept the tomatoes on top of the dryer. I read somewhere that the heat helps them sprout, since they love warmer climates. The broccoli are on top of the refrigerator, because they like cooler weather.

Today, I transferred my seedlings to larger containers. I have done the Romas, and about half of the Black Seamans and a few broccoli are ready as well. I have set them in another South-facing window, which has the covered deck as a buffer. I'm hoping the sunlight and heat will be enough without scorching. I used store bought containers and rinsed out cartons from work. Next I'll start the bell peppers.

Last year, I scored on some zucchini, shredded, and froze the surplus. Over the year, I have chiseled off a corner and tossed it in with pasta, sauces, or soups. It is a great way to sneak in some veggies undetected. And, of course, zucchini bread.

Shred til you have 2 cups zucchini. Mix with ½ cup sugar, 2 eggs, and a splash of vanilla. Stir in ½ tsp cinnamon, ½ tsp nutmeg, ½ tsp baking soda, ½ tsp baking powder, 4 Tbsp cornmeal, and 4 Tbsp bran. Stir in 1¾ cup AP flour til combined. You could fold in a cup of nuts here if you like. Bake at 350 for about 45 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean.

This bread is so good even my veggie-hating husband ate it. Within 18 hours, this was all that was left!

15 March 2012

Why A Garden?

Growing up, my great-uncle Virgil had an impressive garden, and he and my great-aunt would can any surplus. That is, anything that was not already shared with us. I loved their pickle tray at family gatherings. My mother also had a small summer garden, which usually included peppers, squashes, tomatoes, and a few herbs. I have had little success with containers, but I consider myself to have a black thumb. That is the extent of my exposure and experience with gardening.

I got to this point by taking more interest in the life of our food before consumption. It wasn't until a couple years ago, when I was making fruit tarts in January for Provence, that I really understood why eating in season pays off. The fruit was tart, bland, or watery, even though it was being shipped from warmer climates. One of my favorite things to do now is smell food. Strawberries are the ultimate, a mixture of flowers and honey.

There are other factors, of course. Being in the food industry, I considered a difference between food grown and harvested by machinery versus hands. The added cost and footprint of food transported across the globe. Ultimately, it's not really knowing what has happened to that food since I didn't witness it for myself. We've all heard the horror stories of the meat industry. Now information is coming out against GMO's, pesticides and other sprays, and even sketchy seed companies. It's one of those things that can consume you with fear. I think it will be a good source of exercise and entertainment. A great teaching opportunity for my kids. Plus, there's a swelling in the ego when sharing homegrown and homemade goods.

There are lots of options if you are considering ditching the grocery store. Farmer's markets offer a wide variety of products, usually restricted to a certain region or distance. You still need to ask questions and build trust with your farmers. Not all of them are farmers; some simply distribute. I have even busted a stand or two for reselling produce bought from the grocery store as local, organic, or homegrown. Bananas won't grow in Tennessee, mister. Another option is a CSA or Community Supported Agriculture. We participated in a CSA in Nashville and had a great experience. The farm is located in North Tennessee and is all organic. For $25 a week, we could get half a bushel of produce, and there usually was a surplus of at least one item to pick from for free. There were a couple optional selections, such as eggs, cheese, fruit and jams for sale. It was a great way to force us to eat in season and introduce some new items to the family. Please check out localharvest.org to find these options for your area. You can even order some items through the mail.

So if these options are so great, why grow your own? Well, it's simply a yearning for independence. Buying directly from the farm is awesome, but I'm still paying someone else to do something I can do myself. And there's the desire to be prepared for the worst. If all hell breaks loose, and we are unable for one reason or another to reach a food source, I'd like to be capable of creating my own food source. My choice to only grow from heirloom seed is directly linked. Buying seed every year is not self-reliance.

I know this is a kind of dry post, but I wanted to write down why I'm doing what I'm doing. Please check out localharvest.org for food source options; I'm a big fan of this site. I'd encourage everyone to try at least a couple things this year. I've heard mustard greens are a sure thing, and I know from experience mint takes care of itself. Just try it out. You'll find that that tea is a little sweeter with mint you grew in it.

11 March 2012

I ruined a wedding cake and survived.

I wrote this last summer but never got around to posting it. Partially because I forgot; partially because I was so embarrassed. But we all fail at times, and I think it's important to examine our mistakes.

Last weekend was my cousin's wedding, and she asked me to make her cake. The design was simple enough. 3 stacked tiers of red velvet with, you guessed it, cream cheese icing. To make it even more sinful, she wanted chocolate ganache oozing all over. Simple. Beautiful. Delicious. However, as the date drew closer, I started to fret over the heat. The forecast called for thunderstorms and a high of 98. I really don't know how this got to be a Southern tradition if our weather is this cake's arch nemesis!

The morning of, I decided to try transporting the cake assembled. Usually, I transport the layers and stack on location. But I was feeling ballsy! I made a kickass cake, and everyone would marvel at my mastery. I didn't think twice that a pedestal stand wasn't the most stable platform. I didn't think about driving alone, and the cake sitting shotgun. I was going to be so careful, go slow and take a straight line the whole way. I was so careful with my speed and even weight distribution that I wouldn't pay attention to the actual road and hit a tree. Really?!? Who hits a tree going 15 mph?

I pulled over to investigate. After a mini freak out, I decided that I did, in fact, have to show up.

When I arrived, I could see the doubt in everyone's eyes on how I was to fix it. I will eternally be grateful for my cousin's carefree grace as she insisted she was only happy that I was safe. I let the cake chill for 20 minutes and smoothed out the icing for about the same amount of time. It looked decent enough, but crumbs were everywhere by now.

Here's where the chocolate saved me. It covered almost everything! Yes, the tiers were lopsided now. No, I was not pleased with the results. No, it did not look like the inspiration photo. Yes, the photographers did take shots from every angle, looking for the most picturesque side. Silly photographers, there wasn't one. In the end, it was great cake. Everyone loved it. I received compliments all night. Almost every piece was gone by the end of the night.

It was then when I got a little sad for all the cakes and treats, and really everything that we do for others, that takes a lot of effort and thought. The creator is really the only person who can fully appreciate it. Everyone oohs and ahhs, then the masterpiece (or disaster) is devoured in minutes. No one could know the roller coaster of emotions I endured that day. Enthusiasm, determination, pride, fear, panic, dread, insecurity, then relief.

It's strange. I think this cake had a personality. I knew something was going to go wrong. I knew it. It was doomed before I baked the first layer. But it kept on going. It got beat up, melted a bit, and then patched back together. It did its job well. It made people smile and enjoy the moment. It made some people laugh. It made me cry. But I learned to laugh at myself as well.

After all, it's only cake.

05 March 2012

Is this thing on?

I am returning to the online world. After a move 40 miles north of Nashville, we discovered to our dismay that while our new home fulfilled almost every desire, easy internet access was not one of them. At least not without a hefty bill to bury cable down our quarter mile driveway. Thank goodness for tax returns!

There have been a lot of changes in my life since we last saw each other. I have discovered the woes of working for a large corporation, particularly in a severely under-staffed restaurant. I see my current position as the equivalent to a fry cook. Don't get me wrong, I am grateful. It is steady work, overtime is available, and the bills are paid. I just feel that my potential is wasted, and my skills go unnoticed. However, in this economy, anyone should be so lucky to get a paycheck.

I have rediscovered my passion for reading. Oh, I cannot tell you how much time and money I have spent at McKay's! Our bookcases are overflowing. There have been several books that have impacted my views on food, and I cannot wait to share some reviews with you guys! The fiction section has not been neglected either. March 23rd is reserved for The Hunger Games. I cannot wait to see the Capitol inhabitants in all their garish glory on the big screen.

Since we now live in a rural area, the social life has dwindled. But that leaves more time for hobbies! I have tackled canning and preserving. I have knit half of a poncho. I learned how to make wreaths and dream catchers with wild vines on the property. Me and the hubs have been sewing. Well, I mostly fumble around until I request his help. I picked up the viola. And, of course, turning our house into our home has been an ongoing source of enjoyment.

The current project is THE GARDEN. It is huge. Really, much too big for a beginner. But I am stubborn, and my eyes are always bigger than my stomach. The plot is tilled, and a quarter of it is hoed, raked, and seeded. Seedlings are scattered about inside. I am nervous and thrilled at the same time. On the agenda is beets, carrots, peas, green beans, tomatoes, cukes, bell peppers, okra, watermelon, pumpkin, onion, lettuces, and a slew of herbs. I initially resisted zukes and eggplant, because I am the only one who will indulge in these toothsome veggies, but I think they will make their way in at some point. If I can handle it, some berries will join in as well.

As you can see, my passion for baking has expanded. Maybe fine-tuned itself is a better way of putting it. Cooking and baking good food is not enough anymore. I want to raise it, or at least know how it came about, hopefully receiving it from its caretaker. This has really expanded to everything. I told my mom yesterday that I really just wanted to live out Little House on the Prairie. Ultimately, it is more about ownership. This is my life. I am going to enjoy it, dammit. I am going to make mistakes and triumphs, and they will be mine! I will take responsibility for my body and what I put in it, what I surround it with, and what it creates and destroys.

There is this huge homesteading/survivalism movement going on. I really just want to dive right in and submerge myself. I hope you readers can enjoy this rebirth of Fuin Around. I will be baking, oh yes, but so much more. I hope to share my journey. Share information, whether it is a failure or victory. And I hope to learn from you, too. I am certainly no expert. I don't think novice or even amateur even come close. Stumbling, stubborn dork, covered in dirt and flour. That's me.

So let's have it!