Friday, December 30, 2011

Garden Planning and Records

       What to plant? Where? Where did the seeds/plants come from? When did I start the plants or set them out? What did I harvest?  These are some of the questions I ask myself every year. I struggled for years trying to figure out a planning and recording system where I could record the answers, a system that works because I actually use it. This is what I've come up with.
       It's that time of year. A library's worth of seed catalogs have shown up in our mailbox. My spouse busy checking our seed inventory, what we'll need for next year, and who offers the best deals for the items we want. Where in the garden will all that stuff go! Now's the time to figure that out.
       Each year on quarter-inch-square graph paper I map out what goes where in the garden. I refer to prior years' maps to check for crop rotation. If I make changes when the actual planting takes place, I change the map. The map itself becomes my garden diary, with notations to answer the questions above and more. This past spring and summer, the map remained taped to my kitchen wall, where I could see at a glance what still needed planting, or I could make notes on problems I experienced with insects and weather, or whatever. When I harvested, I recorded amounts, and how many packages of corn, green beans, carrots, etc. went into the freezer.  I can refer to that map to estimate quantities I will need next year, to see what problems might recur. All the information is in one place, and easy to find since I keep maps for all the years I've done this in a binder.
       I drew up the first map of this type six or so years ago, but it was only last year that I started making notes about more than planting dates. I keep track of the harvest on my wall calendar, then add amounts up when the entire harvest of a specific vegetable is in and record that figure on the garden map.
       This particular garden is "new." A few years ago it was an unused bull pen, overgrown with stinging nettle, poke weed, garlic mustard, brambles, other weeds and black locust saplings.
        These are photos of the bull pen garden area.  The one above was taken in 2003. At right is the 2011 edition, with strawberries in the right foreground. There's still ground clearing to do this side of that metal barn. That's on my to-do list for spring 2012. These photos are also a part of my record keeping as they remind me that I am making progress in my trials.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Victorio Grain Mill - Product Trial

       We've been looking for a hand-operated grain grinder for several years. We had looked at the Victorio Grain Mill but discounted it as too small. We decided recently to try it after reading that Jackie Clay of Backwood Home magazine fame recommends it. It just happened to be on sale at $54.99 through Emergency Essentials catalog.
       The company claims the mill grinds about one-half cup of fine flour or one cup of course flour per minute. Jackie says it takes her about twenty minutes to get enough for a bake.
       I started with five cups of wheat. Grinding took half an hour and produced eight cups. That's eight cups of fluffy, freshly ground flour, not equivalent to eight cups of prepackaged, settled flour, but adequate for most recipes that call for one hundred percent whole wheat flour. The crank was easy to turn, and I went for slow and steady rather than as fast as I could. I had no trouble using either hand even though I recently (Wednesday) had carpal tunnel surgery. The grain in the hopper seemed to take forever to go down. I suppose that's because I'm used to my Vita Mix, where the grinding action is apparent immediately. I use three cups of fresh whole wheat flour along with another four or so of unbleached purchased flour for three loaves of bread and am satisfied with the speed of the grinding process. Dismantling the grinder is easy too.
       Would I recommend the Victorio? Yup. It's so much quieter than the Vita Mix! More to the point, when we're without electricity (which happens all too often out here in the country) I can still grind and bake. It's not bad as entertainment for younger children who may be fascinated by the process while they're learning something about where food really comes from.
       The one caveat I would give is that the grinder must be attached to a stable, sturdy base.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Asparagus: Not Just Food

Asparagus planted last year from seed.
       I recall mentioning to another Master Gardener that I planned on starting an asparagus patch behind the rose garden. She responded with comments on how lovely that would look. Lovely? Asparagus? I'd never viewed this vegetable in that light. Only a couple of years later, and a little wiser, I now agree so much that I'm puzzled as to why I can't find asparagus in my encyclopedia of garden plants.
       Asparagus is a weed. It will spread from the pretty red berries produced abundantly on the female plant. I moved some seedlings to my apple guild. If I get usable stalks from there, that will be a bonus, but I don't expect much. Asparagus likes to be babied. To avoid self-seeding, you can buy all-male varieties, which are said to produce larger crops.
Ferns from stock originally planted over 30 years ago.
You can see a few red roses behind to the left.
       For something that requires babying, these plants are remarkably hardy. I found ferns still surviving from a bed my mother-in-law planted more than thirty years ago.  I dug these up and moved them behind the rose garden. I followed planting directions from my Master Gardener basic book, but not many of them survived. Turns out there was an error in the book. They should have gone into a trench eight inches deep, not eighteen. Goes to show, if it doesn't sound right, check it out before you do the work, regardless of the source.      
Asparagus ferns in November.
       Most people start asparagus from crowns, purchased mature roots, which they set in a trench about 16 inches apart. These are apparently heavy feeders and will benefit from compost added at planting and fertilizer added later. As the stalks grow, fill in around the plants, being careful not to bury the tips. Mulch and cultivate for a vegetable crop. Don't harvest anything the first year, and harvest sparingly the second year. Cut asparagus stalks at ground level and eat right away for best flavor. I never liked this vegetable until I tried it right-from-the-garden fresh.
       As tasty as fresh asparagus is, don't be blinded to the fact that this is an attractive plant suitable for use among ornamentals in you landscaping.

Chicken Cacciatore from Scratch

Home grown fixings: stewed tomatoes. pickled carrots,
strawberries, tomato sauce, chicken, onions.
 Oops! Forgot to include oregano and garlic!
       There are few activities more satisfying than providing well for your family. An example of doing this is serving a meal made (almost exclusively) from food you grew. I got such a kick out of gathering the ingredients and cooking this chicken cacciatore that I want to share the recipe.
       My recipe is a variation of one from a Betty Crocker cookbook. The first item on that ingredient list is two and a half to three pounds of broiler-fryer chicken, cut up. As I serve this dish over spaghetti noodles, I prefer bite-sized pieces of boneless, skinless chicken.
The Recipe: (Serves 4)
       8 oz boneless, skinless chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces
       1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (more if desired)
       1/2 cup all purpose flour
       1 cup thinly sliced onion rings (or half rings)
       2 cloves garlic, minced
       1 cup thinly sliced portabella mushrooms
       1 pint jar home-canned stewed tomato
       2 cups homemade tomato sauce
       1 teaspoon salt (or to taste)
       1/2 teaspoon oregano
       Wash the chicken and pat it dry. Coat with flour and cook over medium heat in preheated olive oil for a few minutes until brown on all sides. Set aside. Stir onion rings, mushrooms, and garlic into oil, Stir and cook until onions are tender. Stir in remaining ingredients. Add chicken. Cover and simmer for at least 20 minutes, longer if you're using an old bird. This is a good recipe to plan for a meal when you're not sure when dinner will be served. Just let it simmer until you're ready to eat.
       Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Do not overcook this! Two ounces uncooked pasta is considered a serving size.
       Serve the cacciatore over the spaghetti (or rice or noodles). If this isn't enough to fill your ravening horde, consider adding a salad or vegetable side dish, and/or cornmeal muffins. I'm generally cooking for only two, so the extra meat sauce goes into the freezer for a ready-to-heat-and-eat meal at a later date.
       I included the chicken in my homegrown photo because it was, by a relative. The onion, garlic, stewed tomato and sauce, and oregano were all homegrown. In the photo of the meal on the table, I also grew and pickled the carrots. If I served cornbread, it would be from homegrown and ground corn. I topped this particular meal off with homegrown strawberries from the freezer. This is so cool! I can't help but want to challenge you to go this route. Now's the time to start planning what you'll plant next spring so you can rise to the challenge! 
       A side note:  My hubby just called and pointed out that I didn't actually use Scratch in preparing this meal. "Scratch" is a kind of chicken feed. Why we use the term to mean starting with basic ingredients I don't know.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wild Strawberries Flower in November

       I'm fairly sure wild strawberries don't normally do this but there they are, flowers on the plants I started from seed this spring, but didn't set out in the Evergreen Garden until August.  How did this happen? No clue, really, except that perhaps they've reached the stage in their growth when they simply must reproduce.         Why didn't I transplant them sooner? Gee, that was months ago and I'm supposed to remember now? Hm, I believe I was waiting until I'd made more progress eliminating grass where I wanted the berries to grow as an edible ground cover. At about that time I acquired a flat of wild strawberries and transplanted them, so I did these too. Those plants aren't flowering, but they are spreading like crazy, as I was told they would. These that I started from seed are flowering, but the plant forms a nice, neat mound. Could it be that there are two (or dozens for all I know!) types of wild strawberries? Looks that way.
       Sad to say, I snapped off the blooms so the plants' energy wouldn't be wasted on forming berries that had no chance of reaching maturity. But, man, am I looking forward to a spring crop, as well as to seeing my green mulch spread over the Evergreen Garden!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wrapping Paper? Use Fabric Instead!

Fabric! Hundreds of choices in colors, subjects, seasonal.
       Too often Christmas is about spending money when it should be more about making memories. Here's a way to save money and make memories. Instead of buying expensive wrapping paper that will be torn to pieces Christmas morning and tossed in the trash, consider using fabric.
       You might argue that fabric is more expensive than paper. It can be, but not long ago I found two yards of new Christmas print at a thrift shop for two dollars. More often, thrift stores offer used items that can be used whole or cut up for wrapping. Sheets may be the best buy. Garage sales and in-store after-season sales are great sources for material.
       Even if you pay more for fabric than paper, fabric can be used again and again. Fabric pouches for holding gifts are easy to make. Merely cut out two pieces measuring a few inches larger than the gift, with right sides together, sew around three edges, turn the raw edges at the opening and stitch them down. Use string or a ribbon to close the package.
       Make memories by using the fabric that gifts came in to make a quilt. Don't let the idea scare you! Quilts don't have to be complicated or take years to make. Strip quilting is one answer to the quick and easy quilt top. Sew strips diagonally onto pieces of muslin measuring, for instance, eighteen inches square. Sew the squares together, after experimenting with their layout. Tape a backing piece (a sheet works) right side down to a flat surface, lay batting or an old blanket over the backing, then lay the quilt top down right side up. Working outward from the center, use yarn to tie the layers together. Finish the edges. Get more ideas and details on quilt making from a library book, the Internet, quilting store, local quilting guild, or a friend.
       I like the idea of collecting fabric over the years, noting on each piece the year, what it wrapped and who it was from and for, then later making quilts using the fabric. This would make a marvelous gift! Imagine the memories such a quilt would invoke. The problem is every family member will want one.
       One hundred percent cotton works best in quilts. You can find colorful, humorous, seasonal, nostalgic prints to fit any occasion, so consider using fabric year round. For my adult daughter's last birthday, she received a kitchen scale wrapped in a two dollar snuggy. I'm not sure which gift will get more use.

Winter Cage Protection for Special Plants

Pecan tree caged for winter.
       For me this year saw a change in direction in my yard work and, consequently, the addition of several trees and other plants that I had never before considered planting. To help these delicate young things make it through our tough Michigan winters without being consumed by hungry critters or damaged by a cute but rampaging puppy, I caged them.
       My choice for caging material is chicken wire. It's lightweight, not terribly expensive, cuts easily and as chores go, is right up there with cleaning the toilet. From a 50 foot roll of three feet wide wire I cut seventy inch lengths using old by-pass pruning shears. This makes a circle big enough for the plant to grow if I choose to leave the cage in place during the summer.  Working on a hard, flat surface makes unrolling the wire easier. So does having someone stand on the end while you unroll. I used the cut ends to secure the wire to itself to hold the circle shape.
Looking down at pecan tree base.
Note that the mulch does not touch trunk.
       To secure the cage in place around the plant, I dug a shallow trench in which to set the cage, then filled in with dirt and mulch. If your ground is firm, you can use stakes to hold the wire instead of the trench, but trenching makes digging under the wire a little more difficult for rabbits. Mulch is good, unless you overdo. Ever seen trees with several inches of mulch heaped around their base? Two inches is all that's needed. More can prevent water from getting to the plant's roots. More is also a invitation to damaging insects and mice. However much mulch you use, it should not actually touch the tree trunk as that makes attacking the tree so much easier for the critters that will inhabit it.
       To keep deer from browsing through the top opening, I cut another piece of chicken wire and secured this is place using small pieces of wire. I could have used the cut ends of the chicken wire again, but I want to be able to take the tops off with ease, and without too much damage to me. If you've worked with chicken wire, you know what I mean. Another option for holding the top on is small clamps.
      There are more than a dozen of these cages around my yard now. Fortunately, I like the way they look, almost like sculptures, so I may not take them down until the trees outgrows them.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

You Do Want Chickens. Really?

Chickens. To have or not to have, that is the question.
       My husband is trying very hard to convince me that I do, indeed, want chickens. I love fresh eggs and all sorts of chicken dishes, but the living birds are one of the few creatures I simply do not like. Why? Maybe it has to do with unpleasant childhood associations. Granted, some varieties are gorgeous, but this is counterbalanced by their stupidity. You don't agree? You could share stories about how smart they can be? I don't want to hear them. If we have birds, I'll be eating some of them. I'll feel guilty if I know I'm dining on an intelligent creature. I wouldn't name them, either. You name pets, not food.
       Riley tells me that in addition to eggs, meat, and guano, the birds could earn their keep by eating insects and seeds in the garden and by turning green areas into desert. Have you seen the movie Chicken Run? The lead hen laments never having felt grass under her feet. She doesn't mention that this is because chickens dig up anything green, either to eat or to search for something to eat. I get "irritated" at the thought of birds tearing up my carefully planned projects. But there is this big section of the bull pen garden that I want defoliated. I'm planning on using a shovel, like I have with the rest of my projects, but Riley insists on giving chickens a trial.
       So there you see them, chickens in the bull pen, "borrowed" from a relative to see if they can do the job. At a minimum, I'm hoping they'll find and eat overwintering tomato worms. Riley made sure I noticed too when he saw them dining on lamb's quarter seeds, I cannot really imagine them getting rid of the brambles and poke weed, let alone the quack grass. Naturally, at the moment, they're not doing anything. Well, sure,  it's night, but even this afternoon, they did nothing. Could be they don't like the several inches of snow on the ground. Riley claims they'll have plenty of opportunity for destruction come spring. We'll see. But, frankly, I think they'll have to have the garden plowed and ready to plant before I'll change my mind.
       Notice Sam watching the birds from the other side of the fence? Sam's intense interest reminds Riley of why his family "got rid" of chickens when he was a child. The dogs got them all. Nice imagery (not!) and yet another source of stress in dealing with dog/bird relationships.