Monday, July 26, 2010

How long does it take? Can't believe we won

How long does it take to build a winning team?  My kid's summer swim team won for the first time since Regan was president (anyone else who remembers trickle down economics?).  Anyway, we were lucky to have a number of really fabulous young swimmers join the team this year probably because of our inspiring coach -- a one time Stanford and Olympic swimmer who trained with the legendary Richard Quick.   The program has been on the build for about four years.  Here's a fun look at the pre-meet celebration:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Square Foot Garden Update

In addition to the Great Wall of Lettuce and Rapini, the Mel's Square Foot Gardening method experiment is also underway in a 4x4x1 foot box.  Here are some observations:
  • 4x4x1' is a perfect size for convenient gardening.  Mel recommends a depth of 7" but the plants seem happier with 12" depth, although it requires more soil and hence more cost.
  • The Mel's mix soil recipe is great, although I made a few modifications to suit my eco-ethic and pocketbook. The original recipe calls for 1/3 compost, 1/3 peat moss, 1/3 vermiculite.  Mine is 1/3 compost, 1/3 lignea peat, 1/6 vermiculite, 1/6 red lava rock.  These modifications cut my costs significantly, increase the air and water retention of the soil and increase the local content of the materials.
  • The box is supporting fewer plants than Mel square foot chart would lead you to plant.  Mel suggested 8 bean plants per square.  I have more like 4.  
  • The beans were supposed to share the carrots, lettuce and chard but completely shut then out.  next year the beans go in the middle of the box, and the melons go on the outside
  • I over planted zucchini... a typical rookie supply mistake because last year's yield was so bad. 

Zucchini Bread

Right before I leave on vacation, the zucchini are coming.  Here's a great looking bread recipe... hope your zukes don't take over your life while I'm gone!

2007 Award-Winning Recipe!
Candace Dugan * Douglas, Michigan
There is nothing more deliciously heart warming on a blustery fall afternoon than a slice of this cake-like zucchini bread with a mug of steaming hot tea. Enjoy it warm shortly after baking or freeze it for use throughout the winter. Our staff here just adores it~we filled our freezer with it for afternoon breaks!

Candace Dugan's Zucchini Bread
  • 3 eggs

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1 cup vegetable oil

  • 2 cups sugar

  • 1 teaspoon salt

  • 2 teaspoons baking soda

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

  • 3 tablespoons cinnamon

  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg

  • 2 cups flour

  • 2 cups grated zucchini

  • Optional: raisons and/or chopped walnuts

  • Coarse baking sugar

    Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two bread pans. Mix together the eggs, vanilla, oil and sugar. Add the salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon and nutmeg to the egg mixture. Alternatingly in three parts, add the flour and the grated zucchini to the egg mixture~it will be thick. Hand stir in optional raisons and/or coarsely chopped walnuts. Fill each prepared bread pan no more than 3/4 full. Top with coarse baking sugar. Bake for about an hour until a cake tester comes out clean.

  • Saturday, July 24, 2010

    Noted: Pole Beans

    Pole beans in a wash tub
    The pole beans planted in early May have started to yield results almost 70 days later.  The 5-6 squares of beans planted May 6 have created 2 massive vine towers and 3 shorter towers.  Today I harvested about 1 pound of beans with more on the way.
    • The plants sharing the 4x4 box with the zucchini yield the most and grow most vigorously.
    • The plants growing around a study bamboo teepee are the easiest to harvest and the most pleasing to observe
    • The tower created around old tomato cages make a wobbly tangle.  
    • The beans planted in the homemade "self watering" container box yield the least and look spindly
    • Those in the wash tub and the watering trough containers also seem less vigorous although they were probably least densely planted as well.
    I  have met my goal of providing enough beans for our family for a few weeks.  The costs including one time start-up expenses were high.

    Ongoing costs
    • $100 water for 3 months over and above what we use during the off season
    • $15 seeds
    One time costs:
    • $150 for soil ingredients: vermiculite, lava rock, various composts, lignea peat
    • $140: 2 watering troughs
    • $20: recycled 2x4s for 4x4 planter box
    • $15 bamboo pole supports
    • $20 garden ties,bits and pieces for the drip system
    Stuff that was "free-cycled"
    • Drip watering system (re-purposed from other years)
    • Washtub
    • Worm compost
    • Hose
      The best part is finally having something to do with all the worm compost I've been generating over the past 2-3 years.... next I'll try to measure the effects of the various types of compost... but maybe next season.  For now I'm going to eat some beans.  

        Friday, July 23, 2010

        Replanting the Great Wall of Lettuce... and Rapini

        After our day at the beach I found the energy to replant and rebuild the GWL,  which by the way, now includes mostly rapini.  The new challenge becomes how to keep it alive during my vacation.  The people who are staying at the house don't seem like the type to fuss over watering schedules.

        The drip system is installed.  The next few days of testing will show if it can hold up on an every other day schedule.  Of note... while the seeds are germinating the water is best applied as a spray, after roots form, the drip works best from a water conservation perspective.  The micro bubbler sticks seem like the best bet for the task.  During the sprout season they can spray the surface of the pot, then after the seedlings emerge, the spray can be adjusted to more of a drip.  Let the experiment begin again!

        By way of random observations, we are living with function over form.  With the water and gutters installed, the beauty of the graceful straight lines of the bamboo supports contrasted against the repeating pattern of the round pots has been compromised.  Renewing the beauty will be a task for next planting.

        Thursday, July 22, 2010

        Frugle, simple and or sustainable living? Not even close

        Summer in suburbia.  Aside from a few tweaks to the Great Wall of Lettuce,  the rest of today was spent in typical suburban pursuits.  Or more accurately, aiding and abetting my children in their typical suburban pursuits.  Time poolside, breakfast out at a local hash house, water polo practice, seeing a friend off at the airport.  In all the kids and I logged about 50 miles in the car today.   I watered what is left of my lawn until I can  succeed at replacing it with something either more water wise, or more productive.  Nothing of what I did today was sustainable on a local or a global level and that makes me sad.  For all my bread making, and vegetable growing, and water wise gardening and re-purposing leftovers for the dog, I am still living an incredibly wasteful life and it's starting to wear me down. 

        Repurposing KFC leftovers: Dog Treats

        My dogs are loving me today.  It all started with a bucket of KFC.  Ewww... but it makes wonderful dried dog treats. To recap, I took my kids and the rest of the neighborhood to the beach yesterday.  In a mad rush to get lunch for 7 kids on a budget, we did a KFC drive through for a bucket of chicken.  Luckily it was enough food to feed everyone with leftovers. 

        The dilemma:  what to do with the leftovers.  I hate wasting food.  It's a combination of depression-era respect for the plenty of the American food supply (even KFC); a new respect for the work that goes into producing food (a lesson from my gardening and bread making experiments); and the fact that our local garbage service is both expensive and restrictive. 

        And so, necessity being the mother of invention, we made chicken jerky dog treats.  Eating the chicken didn't seem smart.  It was kind of disgusting when the bucket was new, and truly disgusting after the kids had pawed through, but it made really great dog treats.  (Hey! Dogs will eat much worse when you leave them to their own devices).  Here's how you can do this at home with any meat leftovers.
        • Set the oven to around 200 degrees.  
        • Slice the meat or chicken into thin pieces (1/2 to 1/4 inch). 
        • The size doesn't really matter as long as they are thin.  
        • You can cut with the grain or across the grain as you prefer.  
        • Set the slices on baking trays in the oven for about 1-2 hours until they are dry
        • Store in a container in the 'fridge for a few weeks or frozen for months.

        Wednesday, July 21, 2010

        Sport-Brella at the beach

        In lieu of gardening today, the kids talked me into a trip to the beach.  I gave in hoping that a break would help me over my gardener's block.  It was windy and cold but the kids loved the waves and the water and I devoted a few hours of my life to sudoku.  The Sport-Brella was perfect for a day like today.  It blocked the wind and gave the kids a great place to warm up and snack.  And it gave me shelter to enjoy my puzzles.  Tomorrow I'm back to work on the Great Wall of Lettuce.  See you then. 

        Tuesday, July 20, 2010

        Gardener's Block and Revisions to the Great Wall of Lettuce

        By now, you know that the Great Wall of Lettuce is my raison d'etre this summer.  Aside from a few ADD meanders through sourdough bread and sunscreen, it's the only purpose I have (unless you count loading and unloading the dishwasher, the washing machine and the dryer).

        But I'm stuck people.  Stuck.  Gardeners block so bad I can hardly lift the hose. 

        To date we've learned through our first crop that the gallon pots are too small to support a salad-worthy lettuce crop.  So, the soil (Mel's mix of Square Foot Gardening fame) has been dumped into 2 and 5 gallon pots and refreshed with a little worm compost.  And the pots are ready for planting but I'm hung up on how to redesign the watering system. 

        The problem with watering the Great Wall is channeling the runoff to reduce waste.  The original idea was that the water from the top-most pots would drain into the pots below then run into a gutter to water the peach and raspberry bushes.  This worked pretty well with the gallon pots, but it's not so neat with the larger sizes.

        The problem lies in maintaining a sun-shade balance.  When the pots are stacked for drainage, the plants below don't get enough sun.  Even lettuce.  When the pots are offset, the drainage system doesn't work.  Once the drip system is in place, it gets harder to move the pots around.  So we're stuck.  Back to the drawing board.  Unless I figure this out soon, I'm going to lose another hour of life to sudoku.

        Monday, July 19, 2010

        Natural Sunscreens

        Many of my correspondents have asked for recommended sunscreens.  Here's a list from EWG ... you can also find them on
        Search for natural sunscreen

        Sunday, July 18, 2010

        Worm Compost

        The Great Wall of Lettuce has finally provided a use for my worm compost. I've been feeding those little guys for almost two years now and haven't been willing to use the "black garden gold" they reportedly produce. But now that I'm mixing my own soil using Mel's Mix, the worm compost has become invaluable. The only question is how much nitrogen does it really contain.

        Here's the worm forum from GardenWeb:

        Gardeners: Get the Lead Out of Your Soil

        Your garden looks great, but is your soil contaminated with lead? The answer might well be yes if you garden is near a house or fence that was painted before 1970. But never fear... once again compost is the gardener's best friend.; it can render lead inactive. Here are highlights from the Cleveland Plain Dealer article "Getting the Lead Out" (by Michael Scott, July 18, 2010):

        Reduce the risk of lead in the soil by using compost:

        "The science behind it is actually quite simple.... In short, any time you mix a phosphorous material -- manure, food scrap compost, mulch, bone meal -- any dangerous lead in the soil attaches itself to that material.

        'The problem with lead is that it can be sitting in the environment indefinitely, but when it hits stomach acid after you ingest some dust, it dissolves,' Basta said. 'When it does, it essentially attaches itself to our bones,' he said.

        But by simply mixing compost materials into soil, we force lead to make that attachment before it goes airborne -- rendering it harmless to our bodies if we do end up breathing it in."

        The effects of lead are well known. The article also discusses the problems. Basically, lead is a poison that affects brain functioning. In the garden you breath in the dust and the lead gets into your blood. By composting and using raised beds the lead in the soil is essentially rendered harmless.

        Does Sunscreen Really Prevent Cancer

        Lately the sun has been fierce--even angry. After just 10 minutes in the garden my bare toes sport a sun rash.

        But. Before you buy another tube of sunscreen, read the Environmental Work Group (EWG) 2010 Sunscreen Report. EWG reviews a mindbogglingly comprehensive body of sunscreen research to create recommendations for best products.

        Their most interesting findings:
        The BAD Stuff?:
        • Oxybenzone (a synthetic estrogen that's absorbed by the skin)
        • Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) (it's good to eat but bad to rub on the skin)
        • Added insect repellent
        • Sprays
        • Powders
        • SPF 50+
        The RIGHT Stuff:
        • Zinc
        • Titanium dioxide
        • Avobenzone or Mexoryl SX
        • Cream
        • Broad-spectrum protection
        • Water-resistant for beach, pool & exercise
        • SPF 30+ for beach & pool
        The BEST Stuff:
        • Hats
        • Shirts
        • Shade
        • Sunglasses

        Thursday, July 15, 2010

        Sourdough bread update

        The sourdough bread was great. Sour and soft and full of nice even holes. Hooray for the yeast ranch! I wish I could send you a picture but it's almost gone. If I find my camera before it's entirely gone, I'll post!

        Wednesday, July 14, 2010

        A New SPIN on Growing Food Locally

        Those Canadians! While we've been down here moaning about finding sustainably farmed local produce, they have been up there in the north country inventing boutique food production methods that give people the courage to grow produce sustainably in their own backyard.

        The program is called SPINfarming and involves using harnessing sub-acre plots of land for money-making farm production. They claim that by using intensive gardening techniques SPIN farming overcomes the 2 big hurtles to farming: land costs and capital. Here's the link to learn more about this innovative idea for food production. and

        Great Wall of Lettuce Update

        (The Great Wall of Lettuce today after the first harvest of Rapini and Lettuce)

        It's been a few weeks since the start of the great wall of lettuce project. Here's an update and a long overdue thanks to my GM friends for offering up their empty 1-5 gallon pots for the experiment ... and to MM for the chocolate mint plants: they love their new home on The Wall.

        The wall supports about 16 1-gallon pots and a few 3 and 5-gallon pots. Here are some observations:
        • Keeping the plants hydrated is easier than expected. The plants get enough afternoon shade and are protected from the wind. they only need water 1x per day.
        • Getting the water onto the pots is harder than expected. The best method has been hand watering with a hose. The line drippers don't spread the water well enough and the spray dippers just don't angle properly allowing too much water waste and runoff.
        • The 1-gallon pots are too small for more than one plant at a time. There just isn't enough nutrient in the soil to grow truly useful plants.
        • The 5-gallon pots grow enough leaf lettuce for a nice dinner salad and the shoots regrow after harvesting.
        • The baby bok choy seeds weren't planted deeply enough. The plants are spindly
        • The mint loves it semi-shade exposure (about 4 hours of sun a day)
        • The bigger pots have a tendency to topple over. The container cuke was damaged by a bad fall.
        • Lettuce and Rapini have worked the best. Both were in 5 gallon pots. Maybe the baby bok choi will be better planted deeper.

        Sourdough Recipe: Working the yeast farm

        Today we make bread using our yeast. Here's one recipe for sourdough (from John Ross:
        • 2 Cups of sponge (proofed starter)
        • 3 Cups of unbleached flour
        • 2 tablespoons of olive oil or softened margarine
        • 4 teaspoons of sugar
        • 2 teaspoons of salt
        Actual measurements vary. I would have made a good apprentice because I like to learn the feel for things rather than reading the book about them.

        Farm in a Jar: Soughdough Ranching

        Here in suburbia the lot sizes are small, so today let's scale back our yield expectations. This week we'll grow our livestock in a jar with the hopes of producing a perfect loaf of sourdough bread. The story so far: We threw out that last batch of sourdough starter because it was a dud. It was such an early experiment we didn't even bother to tweet about it. Then we rolled up our sleeves and learned something interesting.

        Failure is really the mother of discovery: Who knew that yeast is a single celled creature known as a eukaryote cell? When my daughter was studying cells a few years ago she and I struggled with that vocab term, but today what was once a stupid obteuse vocab word is a living concept (... in my world anyway, not hers).

        Kidped has a great article about yeast and bread.

        Anyway, the key to making your own sourdough starter lies in getting the environment in your Masons jar to a PH level of around 6. Into my jar I tossed
        • 1 handful of flour (whole wheat is reportedly rich in yeast spores, but I only had white)
        • 1 cup of water
        • 1 squeeze of fresh lemon juice
        • 1 squeeze of fresh peach juice
        • 1 long dribble of carbonated passion fruit Juice Squeeze (the experts recommend 8 oz. pineapple juice but I didn't have any.)

        Here's what active yeast cells look like when they are replicating (thanks Kidped).

        Throughout the day I tossed in a table spoon of flour and a splash of water every now and then (now here's a recipe I can love... measurements for ADD people). It looks like the yeast cells have been replicating like mad because this morning we have a bubbly paste that smells like, well, like bread yeast. Do you think it's too soon to try a loaf of bread with it?

        Tuesday, July 13, 2010

        Chaos and Sourdough Starter

        If the kitchen were clean, you wouldn't be reading this blather about homemade sourdough starter because I would be doing something truly useful like unloading the dishwasher or mopping the floor. But seeing the kitchen knee deep in detritus just gives me the motivation to just keep moving. Lead with your strengths!

        In this case we are leading with something that is probably described in the annals of chaos theory. (Play with the updated powers of ten imagery and see how that works... )

        The need for constant motion has led us to the mystery of sourdough starter. You can buy the stuff ... you can make the stuff with a boost of dry yeast from a packet ... or you can hunt the big beast that is the capturing of natural yeasts found on the wheat flour.

        Think of this as uber-intensive gardening. There's a lot of tiny livestock in the jar along with the yeast and the key is to set up an environment that helps them all play nice together.

        My first batch was made with flour, water and a packet of dry yeast. The loaf was delicious but hard even after rising all night. So I tossed that batch out and started again. This new batch includes peach juice and lemon juice with the flour and water. The experts recommend pineapple juice to create the perfect environment for yeast to grow, but I didn't have any. Some people have tried raisin juice while others use grape juice.

        But in any case, the PH levels are important in balancing the atmosphere for the needs of the yeast. Following are some useful links if you want to try this at home. Let the chaos begin ... or in my case ... ferment to a new level.
        • The juice on pineapple:

        Tuesday, July 6, 2010

        Here's a new system for learning a new language. Fluenz. It seems like Rosetta Stone on steroids for about the same price. I've used Rosetta Stone on line and loved it. Live Mocha on line and loved the price. Haven't tried this yet, but the marketing is spectacular. Someone buy it, try it and let me know what you think.

        Sunday, July 4, 2010

        4th of July: Beans and Surprises

        The 4th of July has delivered us a handful of beans from the bush beans--a little too long and a little over ripe. And a zucchini still on the vine which is going to get very big at the request of my neighbor who wants to stuff it. The great wall of lettuce, as it turns out, is really the great wall of baby bok choi. Who knew? Actually, I did know there was going to be some bok choi, but I didn't remember planting it so generously.

        Thursday, July 1, 2010

        More Beans

        The 4 squares of bush beans bequeathed me a great big big handful of green beans, enough for a family dinner and also enough to share with my neighbor! Soon the zucchinis will arrive with a vengeance. I wonder if it will be as easy to gift them to others.

        Cold Brown Rice

        Breakfast today is cold brown rice. It's a kind of penance. And actually, it doesn't taste that bad. In an effort to get more fiber into the family diet I cooked up an enormous pot of brown rice, which turned out like mush because as we all know, instructions on the bag are no substitute for experience. It wasn't supposed to be enormous either but with the this and the that of making dinner in a household full of children sometimes it's hard to think clearly about quantities and especially when reading the instructions on the bag. Who tests these recipes anyway. You and me that's who. And there's no feed-back loop so errors are never corrected. Revisions are never published. Where is crowd sourcing in the food industry?

        At any rate. No one in the family would eat the rice probably because it was brown, and mushy and at the time it was still a little crunchy when we sat down to eat. Now that it's been sitting on the counter in the rice cooker for two days, in the summer heat, it's soft and looks a lot like oatmeal. I'm eating smothered in nuts and brown sugar. Maybe this is an attempt to prove that foods like rice that have been sitting out for centuries probably won't kill you. And maybe because so many people are hungry all the time. And I'm not. Not ever. Eating old rice porridge is a celebration of my relative wealth. And a quiet wish that I could share it with people are are hungry.

        Peas porridge hot.
        Peas porridge cold.
        Peas porridge in the pot,
        Nine days old.