Archive for July, 2008

Garlic Harvest, 2008

July 30, 2008

I went and dug up the garlic this weekend.  As mentioned in my last post, here in Michigan I have to grow “hardneck” garlic, as opposed to the California-grown softneck garlic available in the grocery store.  The difference is illustrated in the picture below:

Softneck garlic on the left, hardneck garlic on the left.  The central stem can be seen plainly on the hardneck garlic.  Hardneck garlic is more equipped to survive a Northern winter, apparently.

The garlic is ready to harvest when the leaves start to brown, as seen in the picture on the top below.  On the bottom is a shot of my garden fork lifting up my first set of bulbs:

After the soil was loosened up with the fork, I was able to pull up the bulbs by the stalk.  Here’s one fresh out of the ground on top, and a pile of ’em below.

After they were all out, I cut off the tops and set them out to dry.  With something like a 12′ x 1′ area for garlic, and 4 plants per square foot, I’ve got 50-60 bulbs piled up on the patio chairs.  I left them out there for a few days to dry and cure:

I don’t know if it was a bad year for garlic or what, but many of my bulbs were quite small this year.  The smallest of them only had 3-4 cloves per bulb.  The majority of the bulbs were quite a bit bigger than this, but definitely smaller than grocery-store bulbs.  This could be poor soil, strictly organic methods, incompetent gardening, or lower yields from the hardneck garlic.  My smallest and largest bulbs are pictured here side by side.

Someday, I’ll learn to properly use a camera.  Notice, though, how in-focus the grass is…

Here’s the total haul for a year’s worth of growing.  The bulbs in the mesh bag will be broken into cloves and planted in the fall for next year.  The cloves in the basket we’ll keep in the basement and cook with though the winter.

The Garden in July (pictures)

July 23, 2008

I’m not yet familiar with my new digital camera, and I’ve never been particularly spatially competent, but I’ve got a few shots of my garden.  This is on a regular lot in a rather large city, so I’ve had to tuck some food crops into the landscape outside of the vegetable garden.  For example, I’m using two rhubarb plants to frame the entrance to the back yard:

It’s a new plant (put in last fall), but it should fill out in time.  I’ve also lined the front walk with strawberry plants:

The white flowers are allysum, which re-seeds itself every year.  This planting looks moderately presentable from the street, but still provides strawberries on a daily basis:

They are day-neutral strawberries, which means they produce throughout the summer, rather than only cropping in the early summer.  Here is a typical day’s harvest:

That’s just enough for two people to eat out of hand, on cereal, or with ice cream in a day.  A few days after a good rain, there’s a bumper crop, so I have managed to freeze a quart or two of these for the winter, but for the most part, output is small and steady.  I could probably do better with more active watering and fertilizing, but I haven’t felt compelled.

I keep most of the vegetable production in the back yard.  I have some basil growing in the foundation border, and some onions coming up in a flower bed, but other than that, this is the vegetable garden:

The front 10 feet (covered in straw) started the summer as turf.  Next year, it will be vegetables.  In the interim, it’s a layer of cardboard covered with woodchips, compost, rotted leaves, and straw.  I poked a few plants in to make it look (slightly) more presentable, but this area won’t really be put to work until next year.  Here’s a close-up of the cardboard, etc., where it butts up to the garden proper:

For the past 3 years, I’ve expanded the garden with this method.  Counting the just-converted area at the front, the garden measures 24′ by 30′.  Next year, if I can gather enough cardboard, I’ll expand a final 10 feet, leaving me with a 24′ x 40′ space.  This method of converting lawn to garden is far easier than rototilling or digging, if you have the time to spare.  The cardboard smothers the grass, and the compost, leaves, and straw decompose over the year, and you’re left with a fairly fertile area and a one-year head start on weeds.

Here’s a close-up of the pole bean set-up, which can be seen in the picture above on either side of the garden, near the front:

My wife inherited about a half-dozen wrought-iron shepherd’s crook basket hangers, as pictured.  I spaced two of them about 4′ apart, hung a stick between them, and ran twine from the stick down to another stick, laid parallel on the ground.  Beans planted between the crooks climb up the twine, which allows for easy harvesting.  The traditional “teepee” setup for pole beans makes it harder to see beans that are ready to be picked.  I think my method also uses space more efficiently.

I’m very excited about this year’s garlic.  I planted it along the path down the middle of the garden in two 6′ by 1′ strips, allowing room for 48 plants, spaced 6″ from each other.  My household goes through about that much garlic in a year, but I’m at least a year away from garlic independence.  I’ll need several heads to replant this fall for next year’s harvest, and I’m giving a bit away to friends who are establishing their own garlic patches.  Here’s a shot of garlic, ready to be pulled:

In the North, I’m required to grow “hard-neck” garlic, which is different from the garlic typically sold in area grocery stores.  Two falls ago, I purchased two heads of locally-grown hardneck garlic, broke them up, and planted them.  Last summer, I pulled them, gave some away, used some for pesto, and saved all of the largest cloves to replant them as pictured above.  I’ll harvest this garlic as soon as the kale seedlings I’ve started are ready to fill the spot. 

Growing one’s own potatoes is viewed as a mark of a hard-core self-sufficiency nut.  I’m not yet at the level of devotion needed to give a huge portion of my vegetable garden to a food I can get for pennies a pound at the grocery store.  Further, it’s very easy to find Michigan-grown potatoes, so even local-food arguments are a stretch.  That said, I made a little room for potatoes in my garden this year.  Pictured below is one of two 2′ by 2′ structures I build to keep them contained:

This is a “two-story” potato tower.  I’ve got two 6″ deep, bottomless wooden frames stacked up to support the sprawling plants.  Typical potato culture requires digging a deep trench, putting the potatoes in the bottom, and back-filling the trench as the sprouts grow.  The tower method involves a bit less digging, and less square footage filled with dirt waiting to be shovelled back into a hole.  In each 2′ x 2′ area, I dug four holes, one shovel-head deep, put a potato in the bottom, and refilled the hole.  As the plants grew, I put the frames over them and filled them with rotting leaves, straw, compost, or whatever else I had on hand.  I had a bunch of used potting soil sitting around after a spring container planting went bad, so that went into the frame.  The potates were contained within their two-by-two area, and went about producing little baby potatoes underground.

I’ve already dug up the other potato tower.  I didn’t weigh the harvest, but out of a two-by-two area, planted with 4 little potatoes this spring, I had enough potatoes to nearly fill my 2.5 quart Pyrex bowl (the biggest in my set) with 1-inch diced red new potatoes.  They were young enough to scrub the skins right off, and they made for a lovely German potato salad with some fresh green beans and dill.  The area previously occupied by this potato tower is now devoted to fall turnips and carrots, and I’ll be knocking over the second tower next week, when we have guests over and I’ll need more potato salad.  I’m not at the point that I’m growing my year’s supply of potatoes and keeping them in the basement all winter, but this year’s experiment worked out well, and I’ll be digging more potatoes in next spring.

Local Water: Rain Barrels

July 20, 2008

One of the many blessing of living in the Great Lakes state is that water is never in short supply.  Nevertheless, I can’t resist a small step away from the grid.  My rain barrel is a point of peak interest among visitors to our home, so, despite not falling quite under the declared purpose of this weblog, I’m going for it. 

My first rain barrel, behind the house

My first rain barrel, behind the house

 I picked up this barrel, formerly used to store pickles, from a farm I drive past on the way to a friend’s house.  I don’t know why, but there are quite a few small farms that sideline in used barrel sales.  This one cost me $6, but this particular source has since raised their price to $8 for the 55-gallon model.  It’s tucked up against the back of my house, set on a few cement blocks to raise it off the ground.  Even without rain gutters, this year’s early-summer storms have filled the barrel to capacity.

To convert the $6 pickle barrel into a rain collector, I made two changes.  First, I removed the lid and covered the top with window screening, as shown below.

Screen-topped rain barrel

Screen-topped rain barrel

This particular model of barrel was especially suited to this modification, as it had a two-part lid.  Like an old-fashioned canning jar, the “lid” portion is separate from the rim.  To cover the top with screen, I removed the rim, pulled of the lid, and laid a screen over the top of the barrel.  I then screwed the rim back on, over the screen, and trimmed the excess screen.  I found someone throwing out an old screen door on my local freecycle group page, which, despite some damage, has enough good screening on it to cover several barrels.  The purpose of the screen is to keep the 50 gallons of standing water from becoming a mosquito bathhouse/nursery.  Some more enterprising rain collectors have kept fish in their barrels to eat the mosquito larvae, but I’m content with the screen.
The second modification needed was a matter of convenience, more than necessity.  I attached a spigot near the bottom of the barrel to provide ready access to the water.
Laundry faucet on a rain barrel

Laundry faucet on a rain barrel

This spigot came from my laundry sink.  When subjected to municipal water pressure, it would leak, but it seems to be holding up in this application.  I used a paddle drill bit the size of the spigot’s input pipe, screwed it in (usinga wrench for the last few turns), and was finished with it.  I read recommendations to caulk around the base of the spigot, but it hasn’t leaked on my yet.  The angle of the spigot makes it difficult to access, especially with the end of a hose, so I’ll eventually replace the spigot, but it is serving well for the time being.
Uses for Rain Water
I’m not brave enough to drink this stuff, but I have done a load of laundry in it.  I had to attach a hose to the spigot, run the hose through my dryer vent, into the basement, up to the washer, and stand by while the washer filled.  It worked, but wasn’t practical.  Should we ever upgrade to a more water-efficient front-loading washer, I imagine it would be impossible.  In the meantime, I’m comfortable knowing I can face an infrastructure collapse in clean briefs.
Aside from this experiment, I’ve used the water I collect for plants.  I occasionally run the sprinkler with city water (gravity doesn’t provide enough pressure to spin the sprinkler), but I’m moving away from this as I amass a collection of soaker hoses.  I have a slope from the house down to the main vegetable garden, so I can hook a hose up to the barrel and let it run out into the garden.  The soaker hose is perforated with tiny holes, and distributes the water along its length. 
More often than this, though, I’ll just fill a watering can from the spigot and hand-water my thirstiest plants.  By the time the hottest, dryest days arrive, I’ve got everything heavily mulched, so heavy watering is rarely needed.  When the melons are fruiting,  the lettuce is wilting, or seedlings are sprouting, rain water is applied by hand.  Houseplants and container plantings also get water from the rain barrel.  The water is ideal for plants, since it is at ambient temperature and free from chlorine, flouride, and anything else that is added to tap water. 
Future Plans
When we finally install rain gutters (there always seems to be a more important home improvement to make), I’ll need to be able to deal with a lot more rain water.  I’m not certain how I’ll collect the water from the front of the house–I’m trying to split the difference between serving the environment and pleasing my neighbors–but I have room for several more barrels behind the house.  Although they are not particularly sleek, the stout black barrels are attractive, at least as a conversation starter.  They will provide an excellent dark backdrop for some white flowers, so I may be able to line up three or four barrels before my wife starts complaining.  I’ll connect them in series to my current barrel, which will receive water directly from the downspout.  I’ll install an overflow hose from this primary barrel to the second barrel, which will overflow into the third, and so on.  The final barrel will overflow into the yard, well away from the house’s foundation. 

Black Raspberries

July 10, 2008

Following the unpleasantness of milkweed (see previous post), I needed a palate-cleanser.  Though the purpose of this weblog was to spur me into trying new local foods, I’m writing about a long-time favorite today.  It’s wild raspberry season in Michigan, and that’s a beautiful thing.  I’ve got about 4 patches around the city that are worth visiting, but one is within walking distance of my home.  It’s not far from a busy street, so I was treated to conversation with a few passersby who saw me waist-deep in the brambles.  The highlight was an exchange with a few sceptical youths, who asked me if I needed to wash them off before I ate them.  I didn’t give them the long answer–these haven’t been sprayed with pesticides, handled with improper sanitary measures, packed into crates, bathed in diesel smoke and road dust, and put on store shelves several days after being picked.  Instead, I said, “They should be OK.  It just rained.”

Finding Raspberries

Like the past several entries, raspberries grow in marginal areas between wooded areas and paths, rivers, fields, or roads.  I imagine the combination of fertile leaf-enriched soil with increased sunlight plays a factor here.  It’s not hard to spot raspberries visually, especially in the spring, when their arching, blue-grey-green canes are not yet covered in the greener, more nondescript leaves.  Raspberries are most easily found, of course, by accidentally wandering into the middle of a patch.  Most people with any experience in the less-cultivated areas of their neighborhood have had an intimate meeting with brambles.  When you find a patch that isn’t fruiting, remember it and return.  Some patches fruit heavily, and some will disappoint, so it pays to always keep an eye open. 

Harvesting Raspberries

The faint of heart can usually pull a decent harvest from the edge of a bramble patch, but the committed go in.  Scratches will happen, blood will be lost, and sweaters will be snagged, so dress appropriately.  I usually wear shorts and a t-shirt I don’t mind getting stained, as raspberry juice can leave a mark.  Most of the wild raspberries I’ve found are black; if you’re picking red raspberries, you’ll have to taste a few to find out what indicates ripeness.  In black raspberries, look for dark, plump, shiny berries.  I use a gentle three-finger grab and pull the berry off of it’s “plug”, so that only the edible part comes off. 

Harvesting is easier than transporting.  I have a few broad, flat tupperware (used for packing sandwiches, I gather) that are ideal.  If the berries are packed too deep, the bottom berries will get crushed.  Wild berries are a bit firmer than the store-bought variety, but I still don’t stack them more than two deep.

In an hour, including commute (on foot), I gathered a couple of pints.  Given the cost of a little plastic clamshell of over-ripe raspberries at the grocery store, raspberries may be the only foraged food that return a respectable per-hour value.

Preparing Raspberries

I’ve never gathered enough raspberries at one time to do anything with them but eat them out of hand or with cereal or ice cream.  I had a conversation with a gentleman today while picking who described a raspberry shortcake recipe that sounded delicious, but I’ve yet to find a method of preparing raspberries that improves on their natural state.

Eating Raspberries

Everybody’s eaten raspberries, so there’s not much to say in this section.  I will say that I can’t imagine the sales pitch raspberry breeders make for their latest specimen, because commercial raspberries aren’t really an improvement on the wild versions.  The may be a little larger, but that’s not really a selling point.