Sunday, April 26, 2009

Every Day is Earth Day in the Kitchen Garden:
How Do You Make Yours Even Greener?

I Make Free Plant Markers from Sour Cream & Cottage Cheese Containers

This Earth Day post is a little late (although I did miraculously get one up on time on Farmgirl Fare called Every Day is Earth Day-and I'm Eco-Chic Who Knew?), but every day really is Earth Day if you're a vegetable gardener. Is there any better way to connect yourself to this amazing planet than by getting down on your knees and wallowing around in the dirt and then gobbling up your efforts? Not while you're still down in the dirt, of course—though I do admit to enjoying a nibble here and there when I'm working, especially if there are any cherry tomatoes to be had.

Growing your own food is a great way to 'go green,' but during all of the recent Earth Day hubbub, I started thinking about the many simple ways you can make your garden even greener. Using organic methods to deal with pests, fertilize, and care for the soil is the obvious big one, and that's really important to me.

I think the sometimes extra effort and loss of bounty is worth it, and I'm thrilled that the White House now has an organic vegetable garden and even a honeybee hive on the lawn (thank you, Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International for your tireless efforts toward making that dream a reality!). Of course the pesticide industry has already complained to Michelle Obama that they're offended by the Organic Garden at the White House. I'm still shaking my head in disbelief.

Not having any garbage pick-up on the farm (you can read more about what that's like here) means that we go out of our way to reduce, reuse, repurpose (don't you just love that word?) and recycle—which often has the added benefit saving money as well. Here's a short list off the top of my head of some of the other simple ways—beyond putting food on the table—that my kitchen garden is extra eco-friendly:

Fertilize with manure from the sheep, donkeys, and chickens.

Keep five compost bins full of kitchen and yard waste, though when you have ravenous chickens, the food scraps are usually just eggshells, coffee grounds, and orange peels. Tried composting before with no luck? Don't give up! Amuse and inspire yourself by reading about my early composting trials and tribulations.

Grow open-pollinated heirloom varieties so I can save seeds for planting the next year. If you save seeds from hybrids, you won't always end up with exactly the same variety, plus I love the idea of growing vegetables that have been around for 150 or more years.

Mulch, mulch, mulch! This is probably the most important thing I do in the garden. Mulching vegetable beds with something as simple and handy as grass clippings—or even the weeds you just yanked out—keeps more weeds from growing (which saves tons of future weeding time), helps the soil stay cooler during summer, helps keep roots moist after watering, and eventually breaks down into an all natural soil amendment.

Repurpose unused indoor stuff for outdoor use. Forgotten metal strainers become compost sifters (more on this in a future post), while old bedsheets and blankets are perfect for throwing over plants in cold weather.

Shop yard sales, flea markets, junk and thrift stores, and even antique malls for garden goodies. The vintage shovels and pitchforks I've amassed over the years not only appeal to my sense of design, but they also work great, were mostly real bargains, and didn't require the outlay of natural resources that manufacturing new ones would have. These are also good places to stock up on old bedsheets and blankets, as well as pretty garden pots.

Think creatively when it comes to unrecyclable household trash. Cracked plastic buckets that no longer hold water can still carry weeds, rocks, and compost. Rusted (hello, humidity!) baking sheets make handy trays for seedlings and other things, and old metal pots not nice enough to be donated to the thrift store can be used as planters or for carrying soil amendments, compost, etc. Yogurt, sour cream, and cottage cheese #5 plastic containers become weatherproof seedling markers when cut into strips.

Those annoying blue styrofoam containers that fresh mushrooms are sold in make great seed starting containers. (It's almost impossible to find containerless, bulk mushrooms for sale in Missouri, which unfortunately means I probably have about 100 of these stupid things by now.)

Use things beyond their expected life span. Just because something isn't still 100% perfect doesn't mean you have to toss it out and replace it. Floating row covers are advertised as lasting only a season or two, yet some of mine, which I don't treat all that well, lasted over 10 years (though I have to admit the new stuff I bought last year doesn't seem to be nearly as tough and tear-resistant).

The covering on my homemade greenhouse (which I first used on my greenhouse at Windridge Farm) has lived a dozen years beyond its supposed life expectancy, thanks in part to throwing an inexpensive poly tarp over it during the summers (which also keeps it much cooler inside) and because I don't mind a few rips and tears here and there.

I'm also still using the same black plastic seed starting plugs and trays (some are pictured above) that I bought in bulk in 1995 (including these cheap little containers from a restaurant supply store that each have their own mini-greenhouse snap on lid); when they tear or crack, I simply double them up.

With its broken buckets, peek-a-boo greenhouse covering, and weed-mulched beds, my garden may not be picture perfect, but you can't tell come harvest time. I know there are more things that I'm not remembering because they're so second nature to me by now, but I'll add to this list as I think of them.

In the meantime, how do you make (or hope to make) your garden greener? Please share your eco-friendly thoughts, tips, and ideas with the rest of us!

© 2009, the frugal foodie farm blog where we've discovered over the years that using less and doing without means you actually end up with more.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Direct Seeding Lettuce in the Garden and How to Thin Lettuce Seedlings: By Picking the First Salad of the Season!

Baby Tom Thumb Lettuce in the Greenhouse

Back on February 20th, I scattered a spot about two feet square with Tom Thumb lettuce seeds leftover from 2008, sprinkled a thin layer of compost over them, and watered well. Because lettuce seeds don't seem to keep well for me, I sowed them more thickly than I normally would. Next to it, I scattered the rest of a packet of 2008 Winter Lettuce Mix in about the same size area.

On the other side of the Tom Thumb I direct seeded a small patch of mache (corn salad), which is one of the most (if not the most) cold tolerant salad greens you can grow. I've had volunteer mache sprout up in the greenhouse in the middle of winter. I figured I was probably pushing my luck planting in the greenhouse in late February, though, because mache doesn't like the heat, and it will quickly warm up to 100 degrees in there when the sun is shining. No matter—the 2008 seeds were a no show anyway. I've ordered more and will try again in the fall, probably sowing half the seeds in the greenhouse and half outside in a raised bed. I adore mache's nutty flavor and delicate rosettes of leaves.

I had much better luck with the lettuce seeds. It was a slow start sprouting (as of the
February 28th snowstorm there was no sign of anything coming up yet), but that wasn't surprising given how cold the soil was. A lot of times you're actually better off planting early spring crops like peas a week or two later than you think you should because they'll sprout faster and then catch right up to the earlier planted seeds, which is very good news for gardeners like me who are perpetually behind with everything. This is probably what happened with the lettuce.

As you can see, the Tom Thumb lettuce came up nice and thick, and on April 6th I picked enough tender baby plants to make a small, simple salad. It was wonderful. I'm a sucker for any butterhead variety, and while I've grown this type before, some quick fact checking in my seed catalogs has made me realize that I need to give it a little extra attention this year to find out just what this stuff does when given the space.

Pinetree Garden Seeds (where these seeds are from) says that Tom Thumb (47 days) "actually produces a full butterhead in a relatively short period of time. Six to seven inch heads have firm structure and compact habit. Leaves are dark green and the entire head wil make a large salad for one." This year Pinetree started labeling all of their heirloom varieties, but Tom Thumb isn't marked as one.

The Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalog, however, describes Tom Thumb as an heirloom lettuce that dates back to the 1850s and "makes small cabbage-like green heads, only 3" to 4" across." They say it's very tasty and "a winner for classy markets!"

I don't recall the leaves ever being particularly dark green, but maybe I just never paid attention. And now I'm curious about the size. In order for these plants to form those soft butterheads and reach maturity, though, they'll need a lot more space. Instead of thinning out lettuce plants when they've barely sprouted, I wait until they're big enough to eat. Then I pull some of plants up, gently tearing off the roots as I go, which means no dirt in the kitchen and tasty snacks for our foodie chickens—which have been multiplying for spring.

This gives the remaining plants some elbow room, which they quickly grow into. Two days after that first picking I took the photo above, and you can hardly tell we've already started eating the spring lettuce crop. A week later it was time to harvest again.

Great Greens in the Greenhouse, Including an Overwintered Swiss Chard Plant

The Winter Lettuce Mix, also from Pinetree Garden seeds, is to the right of the Tom Thumb in the photo above and is looking pretty good, too. I think we'll thin a little bit of it for tonight's dinner.

Are you enjoying spring salads yet? And have you ever grown Tom Thumb lettuce?

Related posts:
How To Easily Grow Your Own Gourmet Lettuce From Seed
Sublime Salads for Those Short on Time, Space, and Sunlight
On Loving Lettuce & Eating Salad for Breakfast
5/24/06: Mixed Baby Lettuce in the Garden & Eating Local
11/13/06: Petite Rouge Heirloom Lettuce in the Garden
5/8/07: Big Boston Lettuce in the Greenhouse

© Copyright 2009, the going green foodie farm blog where we're looking forward to hopefully being able to enjoy freshly picked lettuce three times a day in the next month—because overindulging in spring is the only way to survive the hot summer and early fall without any!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Garden Journal 4/12/09: No Bonnets, but Plenty of Blooms

Our One Clump of Tulips Almost Always Blooms for Easter

Want a bigger bouquet?
Easter Greetings to You
Dogfoot Tiptoed Through the Tulips
Time Lapse Tulips
And you'll find lots more flower photos
here and here and here.

© 2009, the flowering foodie farm blog where there are four different types of no maintenance flowers blooming in the yard today (tulips, the last few daffodils, the one small but reliable cluster of grape hyacinths, and my favorite flowering quince) and everything from the greens in the garden to the grass in the fields is loving the light rain that's been steadily falling for hours. It's been a quiet but thoroughly enjoyable Easter here on the farm.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Garden Journal 4/6/09: Don't Count Your Lilacs Until They're Actually Blooming

I'm Not Holding My Breath (or should that be my nose?) for These Beautiful Little Buds

I'm crazy about lilacs, but I know better than to count them before they open up, even if the bushes are loaded with buds. Unfortunately they usually only make it to the full flowering stage every few years here because of our crazy weather—and the fact that our low lying location (as the weather people refer to it) 300 feet down in this little valley means that we have colder temps and later freezes than they do 'up top.' Tonight it's supposed to drop down into the low 20s, and there were light flurries blowing around in the bluster all day.

I don't have a whole lot of hope of these and the dozens of others holding out during tonight's freeze, but you never know. You've gotta be tough to survive here in Missouri.

Do you love lilacs, too?

More about my lilacs:
4/5/06: The Lilacs Are Coming! The Lilacs Are Coming!
4/5/07: Lilacs! (and dozens of your lilac memories and stories)
3/22/08: Leaves on the Lilacs (and lots more lilac memories)

© Copyright 2009, the budding foodie farm blog where it's always a good year for something colorful out there, and with over 400 flowers blooming at once the other day, it was definitely a banner spring for the always cheerful daffodils.