let it grow

I grew up on a series of 2-3 acre homesteads. The houses were handyman specials, the land was rocky, the animals were runabouts, and I’m pretty sure that no one knew what they were doing. Add in poverty and familial disgruntlement, and growing up “on the farm” was a miserable, chaotic existence that I gladly escaped when I moved to the city.

Fifteen years later, I dream of land. I feel like I’ve tried out every city stereotype, living in hot spots and running after my career. My fella and I currently own a house on nearly a quarter acre in a small town surrounded by an industrial city. There are two drugstores, a coffee shop, and a gas station within walking distance.

I thought a nice garden would cure the itch for land.This year, we covered 78 square feet of prime front lawn with compost and planted food and flora. We plotted out a blueberry circle and will be using an old hot-tub foundation frame as a permaculture potato bed. I have planters inside our living room window and onions sprouting in the kitchen.

I thought going to farms and canning produce for the winter would sate my longing. After gallons of applesauce and marinera, I’m still looking at the yard, seeing less grass and more corn. In the back yard, by brain superimposes a chicken coop (nice and tidy and urban), a greywater pond system and yet more plants. And I wonder if I’ll ever be able to sell the house with those changes.

I caught myself trolling Craigslist like a villain last week, looking at the ads for rabbits, goats, chicks and cattle. Chicks and a rabbit are definite additions for the next year. But why am I scanning for grazers? My neighborhood has a distinct “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, but I don’t have the property to do anything more. In any case, I don’t want to push at the neighbors’ tolerance for those “crazy environmentalists” next door.

The more I connect with the land, with the food cycle and life cycles of season and bug and beast, the more I must follow it. Observing yeast, the changes in a growing bean, the continual birth, growth and eventual passing on for everything to the next stage of the cycle – it feels right at the core of my soul. Perfect, salient, and I want to persue it.

Photo by Alecsandro Andrade de Melo

Photo by Alecsandro Andrade de Melo

Best if used by.   Use before.    Good until.

These little stamps on your dairy containers may feel like rigid expirations, but knowing how dairy changes over time will allow you to extend the use of it past the due date.

Sour cream: Sour cream sweetens when it ages. It actually transforms into regular ol’ cream cheese. At my store, sour cream is half the price of cream cheese, so I end up planning ahead and refrigerating the sour cream past expiration. It’s not so great for spur-of-the-moment cheesecake, but if you are a regular baker or just like your morning bagel, it’s a great way to have sour cream for stroganoff and cream cheese for later.

Yogurt: We’ve all opened an old yogurt container and found the top covered with a light yellow liquid. A lot of people assume the yogurt is expired. Mais non! As yogurt ages, the live cultures continue to multiply. These cultures make yogurt more sour, and the liquid that rises is actually whey that separates as the yogurt settles. Draining whey out of fresh yogurt is how companies make the thick European yogurt, often called “Greek yogurt.”

Pour off the liquid (or feed it to your chickens/hog in their feed), and use it for waffles or baking; the sour is an acid that will react with baking soda to make your batter rise. Sour cream coffee cake has a great flavor when sharp yogurt is substituted for the sour cream — which you’ll be aging for your bagels, right?

Milk: Ah, sour milk. Great to replace buttermilk in most recipes, and used in quick breads to react with the baking soda and make everything rise. There are recipes online for a multitude of foods that use sour milk, from pancakes to breaded chicken to cookies. Cook anything that has added sour milk.

Be sure to know the difference between sour and spoiled. Taste it to learn the flavor, as unpleasant as that may be.

In general, milk starts to sour within 6 days of the Use By date. However, this is not conclusive; there are many reasons milk can sour earlier. Use all dairy products before they thicken, curdle, and become discolored. Unless you have introduced special bacteria (cultures) to make cheese, the curdled dairy is not considered safe for human consumption.

As always, keep your dairy products refrigerated in the safety zone (lower than 43 degrees Fahrenheit) until ready to use, and never use anything that smells rancid or has discoloration. It is okay to warm the dairy in the microwave or on the stove just before adding it to breads.

If you have any favorite recipes for sour milk or yogurt, please share them in the comments below!

As you may know, I am a proponent of free and cheap gardening, a hobby and for anyone who wants to grow decoration and food.

Not too long ago, I came home to a beaming fella, who unveiled a new garden bed that he built at the front of our house. Hooray! It’s a bit rough right now, but it will be a nice landscaping point that we can continue to improve upon over time.

Items used:

  • Box boards, nails, stakes: Recycled from a rotten deck that we ripped apart in May.
  • Lining/weedblock: Extra-thick cardboard reused from appliance packaging.
  • Soil: Tagro, free from the city to anyone willing to shovel and drive it home.

Plants:

  • Nasturtiums: Gifted transplants
  • Gladiolas (hiding in the back): Gifted bulblets
  • Columbine: Split transplant
  • Lavender: Rescued from community garden compost pile

It adds a bit of color and fun to the front of our house. You can’t have enough fun.

photo by Phil Beard

photo by Phil Beard

According to Ron Phipps’ latest market report of the American Honey Producers Association, the greater demand for honey in the marketplace, matched with the declining bee population and harsh weather conditions, is fostering the concern that demand for quality honey is growing beyond the supply available. With the poor economy, the high price of honey, and “honey-laundering” (the illegal import of substandard honey watered down with HF corn syrup or containing harmful chemicals),  more people are turning to backyard beekeeping, and selling or buying excess honey at farmers’ markets and various local small businesses.

Many consumers (and even some beekeepers) believe that the grades for honey are unregulated. After all, no one can follow each bee to determine the type of flower where she is harvesting nectar. For all we know, she could be the one buzzing inside a littered coke can. But it is fairly simple to determine quality honey if you know what to look for.

Yes, all honey is not of the same quality, and in 1985, the US Department of Agriculture released the US Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey. Quality is determined with a points system. Points are awarded for the percent of solids, the absence of defects, and the flavor, aroma and clarity in the final product.

Honey ranges in color from water white to dark amber, depending on the age and the type of plants used for nectar. Honey can be darkened over time or with the application of heat. Lighter honey has a more delicate flavor; darker honey has a more pronounced flavor. Depending on the way that the honey is harvested and processed, it can be clear or muddy (with crystals, air, or other inclusions). You can also find honey that contains honeycomb in the jar, like the opening picture above.

All honey types have best uses. Lighter honey is great for adding sweetness in cooking, or to replace sugar. Darker honey is great for syrups and spreads that need a deeper flavor. Honey that is labeled “creamed” is actually muddy with air bubbles, and is great for spreads or candies.

Raw honey is the most common honey available from backyard beekeepers. It is simply strained and bottled, and contains the antioxidants, enzymes, vitamins, and other benefits that are lost when the honey is heated. Some people believe that it has a better flavor, and that small quantities of local raw honey will help reduce allergies. Raw honey does crystallize faster, but the crystals will not affect flavor, and will melt back into honey under a low heat.

The process for gaining a US standard honey grade costs a lot of money, and must be updated per batch, making the process prohibitive to small or hobby beekeepers that sell in the farmers’ markets and local businesses. Most small producers do not get their honey graded, but it does not mean that the honey is substandard. Often, it is even more flavorful because it is handled in small batches. In these instances, you can use the US grading guidelines to help you buy the best honey.

All honey should follow the following conditions:

  1. No defects affect the appearance of or edibility of honey.
  2. Flavor is at least reasonably free from smoke, fermentation, chemicals, and other additions.
  3. The appearance is not seriously affected by air bubbles, pollen, grains, or other particles (this condition is not applicable for strained or raw honey).

Grade A honey is practically free of defects, with a good flavor and high clarity.

Grade B honey is reasonable free of defects, with a reasonable good flavor and clarity.

Grade C honey is fairly free of defects, with a fairly good flavor and clarity.

Honey that has failed Grade C requirements is given a Substandard grade.

The next time you see a honey booth giving out samples, take a moment to try a bit, look at a jar through the sun, and ask the beekeeper about their bees and how they filter or strain their product. Beekeepers are fun and passionate about their bees, and tasting different honeys will help you learn more about the quality.

In general, if it looks good and tastes good, then it’s a good buy. You don’t need a government grade to tell you what tastes good.

Resources:

Seattle PI on honey laundering
Washington State Beekeepers Association
American Honey Producers
US Standards for Grades of Extracted Honey
Federal regulations governing inspection and certification:

In order to avoid building a garden bed during the heat of the day, fella and I visited Foxberry Farm in Puyallup. Tomatoes are in full swing there, oceans of red on the vine. We were given a couple 5-gallon buckets and told to go to town.

Foxberry farm is absolutely beautiful, lush and artistically laid out. Driving down the way to the farm is like entering a dreamy new land. The fence around the home is composed of trellised grape vines, which have been partially cut back to allow purple concord grapes the chance to ripen fully in the sun. Pears hang from a perfect tree in a perfectly-tended lawn that surrounded a white gazebo. A plum tree sits back behind the berry grove, and tomatoes and squash are planted simply, the tomatoes in rows with plenty of walking space between them.

Cindi Fox welcomed us and checked in as we picked early girl tomatoes, happily chatting and telling us why her and her husband choose various types of plants and how everything is tended. When I saw a honey filter, I asked if they kept bees. We were led to the back, where they kept their hives. They harvested honey, but they also keep bees to ensure heavy pollination.

Interestingly enough, the bees shared the chicken run, happily buzzing about while the handful of chickens came to the fence to see who we were and, most importantly, if we had grain.

The small farm is delightful, but here I was amazed. In backyard chicken keeping, chicken tractors are enthusiastically supported, because then you can move them about before the chickens tear up the landscape. I’ve always thought that a caged bird is a caged bird, never mind if the cage can roll to a new location. The chickens never seem happy in a trailer.

The chickens at Foxberry Farm have a small, wheeled shelter, and they have a run with a small tree. Yes, some paths and dust-bath areas were free of grass, but a large area was green and taller than the poultry. There was no smell, and the chickens were lively, pecking at weeds and making a little noise.

As we were driving away, I turned to fella and breathed, “That’s what I want.” The farm was well-tended, clean, and organized, displaying the bounty of nature in a well thought-out design.

Foxberry Farm is a tidy U-Pick farm with a harvest season from June through October, but since seasons are weird, call them at 253-926-8407 to see what’s ready. They offer:

* Honey
* Berries (raspberries and thornless blackberries)
* Plums (regular and Italian)
* Beans
* Squash
* Cucumbers
* Dahlias
* Tomatoes (canning)
* Peppers
* Potato
* Rhubarb
* Corn
* Pumpkins
* Pears
* Grapes (will juice on-site for raw juice and wine-making)

No weeds, no duds, no money spent.

I am a cheapskate. Not that I am content settling for less. Oh, no. I love the snazzy stuff, and I love it more if I can get it at a discount.

Many companies are cashing in on the trendiness of the Green movement. Right now, you can get special composts, biodegradable planters made out of bamboo, special hinges for building a raised bed, environmentally secure heirloom seeds, and technical gadgetry that will analyze your soil and light conditions so you know exactly what to plant, and where it goes.

It bothers me that gardening, organic foods, and being Green in general is being sold as a luxury that is not available to everyone. A garden is not an expensive landscaping endeavor. Raising organic vegetables can be done without spending money on expensive fertilizer or store-bought compost that is “Nature’s mix of 4 different manures.”

Gardening is for everyone, and anyone who has the desire can plant seeds and harvest food and flowers, outside of income. I am a do-noting, square-foot gardener, which means that I use a raised bed, built on top of the ground and filled with compost for planting. No weeds, no digging. Just planting, watering, and enjoying the fruits of my garden.

It’s not too late to plant for a fall harvest of potatoes and winter greens. Last week, I built another organic garden bed… for free.

Build the box for free:

Earlier in the season, I demolished half of my deck, removing the portion that was starting to rot. I saved the good boards and nails for building projects around the house. Part of this wood was used to make my front garden and my free garden boxes.

You can find free, reusable wood, brick, rock, or other materials to use for a garden on Craigslist. You can also call construction, deck, and fencing companies and offer to take some of the old wood. Do not use pressure-treated wood for food gardens, as it may contain chemicals that will soak into the plants.

If you don’t have a yard, you can still grow items in containers on windowsills, roofs, balconies, driveways, etc. Plastic boxes, large cans, crates, buckets and other materials can be lined in plastic and used as containers. When I lived in a small apartment, I grew beans and peas in painted milk cartons on the window sills — they made interesting, green curtains. Currently, I am using the cover method to grow potatoes in an old garbage can in a corner.

Line the box for free:

The box will be filled with delicious, nutritious soil. To keep grass, weeds, and roots from sneaking into the box, I lined the bottom of the box with two layers of cardboard.

Cardboard is available almost everywhere. You can ask most stores, or find it in recycling containers (don’t take it from racks or bales, though). Using multiple layers of newspaper will work, too. I’ve seen fabric, paper, and thick layers of wet leaves used to line a box.

Free soil:

This is the beautiful part, and one of the reasons that the Tacoma area rocks so hard for gardeners. Tagro is the city’s waste composting company. During the growing season, they offer a ready-to-plant mix of compost with composted wood. There’s a huge pile available at the Tagro site, and if you’re willing to shovel it and drive it away, it is free. No mixing, no soil testing. Fill and plant. Plants go crazy in this stuff. I took a truck down and filled the back with it. When I can’t borrow a truck, I use a couple 10-gallon plastic boxes with lids in the trunk of my car.

You can also find free compost on Craigslist, or contact the Pierce Conservation District Manure Exchange Program at (253) 845-9770 to receive a listing of area farmers and ranchers that have compost they need removed.

What do you say? “If you have to drive, it’s gas money and therefore not free?” In that case, make your own compost and save the drive. It will take nearly a year to get your compost a-cookin’ though, with a mellowing out time of a few months. Or you can try the “lasagna method” of gardening, which is layering kitchen and lawn refuse in your box in the fall and planting in the springtime.

For a ready source of garden filler and fertilizer, you can also volunteer at the Rabbit Haven. Rabbits need love, care and attention just like any pet, and their droppings do not need to be prepared or composted; you can fill a bed with them and plant and be done with it.

Free plants and seeds:

I’m fortunate to know a few gardeners, and gardeners exchange seeds or starts with their friends. I was given some bulbs and starts from my mother-in-law; Cine over-planted lettuce and graciously gifted greens and an eggplant for peace.

You can also get free seeds from the most obvious place: your groceries. Dried beans are ridiculously low-priced, and if you eat them anyway, there’s no extra cost to plant a few. Melons, tomatoes or any other fresh produce with seeds can be used, and potatoes that are sprouting can be peeled or cut and planted. When you slice the root side of an onion, you can plant it: the onion roots will re-grow into a new onion.

Every year, decorative flowers go to seed. Is there a neighbor that has a beautiful poppy patch? Ask them if you can harvest some seeds for next year. Go for a walk in a park or on a trail; moss and other wildflowers can be sampled and planted at home.

Birdseed usually germinates, if you plant it like any other seed. On the plus, you’ll have sunflowers and more seeds to feed the birds later.

Additionally, you can use Google to search the term “free seeds.” Many companies offer a packet of seeds for free. You can also join a seed exchange.

Plant a little extra, let the plants bloom and save the seeds, to help out another free gardener.

Free water:

We live in the Northwest. We get gallons of the stuff for free most of the year. You can harvest rain and save it with simple methods like leaving buckets out, or running your gutter into a rain barrel. If you use Square-Foot Gardening methods, you will save water as well.

Gardening is a way to build the soil, to lower the grocery bill for fresh produce, to reconnect with nature.

Humans planted food long before all of these amazing, plastic gizmos and “biologically enhanced” fertilizers and composts were invented to herald in the Green Age. No matter what your income, you can join in.

Do you have any other free or inexpensive resources for building a garden? Let us know in the comments below.

Earlier this season, my friend Cine and I came across a disheartening sight: a once thriving community garden in hilltop had been abandoned.

We wandered around, digging at the various beds and weeds. Silver dollar plants and mallow dotted the area, joined by fennel, sorrel, poppy.

17 of the 20 raised beds had been abandoned. Strawberries, lavender, rosemary, thyme, volunteer tomatoes, and all types of tiny herb and vegetable plants were struggling to grow through tall grasses that had taken over the beds, most of which were hidden in the same grass that covered the pathways.

Only a few years ago, this community garden was an oasis in Hilltop. I could see the former glory with every handful of grass I ripped up as we wandered the lot.

The pathways were once thickly mulched with bark, the beds filled with Tagro. Four rain barrels collected rain from the roof of a locked shed. A large, expensive, metal, rotating compost bin was rusted, the black gold it contained leaking from a split seam that had buckled open on the bottom. PVC pipe was stacked by the shed, perfect lengths for making cloches over the beds. It was heartbreaking.

For Cine, plants are to be nurtured and cared for, so they can in turn give back to us in beauty and harvest. They connect us to nature.

For me, land is everything. It sustains mind and body, provides a sense of peace and a space for quiet. We should steward the land and grow the soil, especially when we find it in a concrete community.

It is hard to see a community waste a space land in a thoroughly urban area. Environmentally-conscious items like compost bins and rain barrels become nothing but refuse when they are not used.

We wanted to become involved. But no one knew who was in charge. We talked to the few others that had rehabilitated a box or two, and the few who were willing to talk to us told us the history of the lot and confirmed that there was no contact. Everyone was ninja-gardening.

After digging for a month to find out who legally owned this land, Cine found the owners and learned that the land gift to the community had a hefty caveat: the land was given free to the community for gardening, but if it was abandoned and there were no gardens, the land would revert back to the owners.

At that point, we decided to join our ninja-gardening community, and care for two boxes.

We found out that we weren’t the only ones. While we were researching and asking questions and pointing out this community garden, others also were becoming interested.

Someone came through and cut down all the grasses and weeds. Strawberry plants were pulled from one box and placed into a freshly-prepared bed. Someone else had taken the old compost pile and bagged it for anaerobic composting. Tomatoes, zucchini and corn were sprouting from various beds that had been cleaned and composted.

One of the issues for this lot is water. There is no connection to a water line. But nearly every rehabbed bed had a bucket nearby to catch the rain. We saw a few natural deep watering systems.

So who is in charge now? No one. And everyone. In the middle of what is notoriously the roughest area of Tacoma, the community is slowly rehabilitating and redeveloping an abandoned community garden to former glory. There is no steering committee, no steward, no list. Little signs are posted: “This is composting, please call me if you have questions,” “This is grain, not weeds.”

It is truly a community garden.