Archive for March, 2009

So Much To Do

The last frost date for Chicago (according to the Botanic Gardens) is April 25th. I’ve been feeling good, because I’m getting ready early, right? Well, to quote Chandler from Friends:

“Not so much.”

Because I’m planting cool-season and frost tolerant varieties of lettuce, onion, carrots, etc., they want to be planted three to four weeks before the last frost date. Add to that time span is the week of acclimating seedlings to the outdoors, and suddenly, things need to be happening now.

But I’m not ready now.

I still have 2/3 of the garden to cultivate, the berry beds to start, the tomato ring to build, etc., etc., etc. It’s a bit overwhelming, and it somehow snuck up on me. Luckily, my parents-in-law will be here next weekend to help celebrate Eleanor’s 5th(!) birthday, and they always like to do projects. I figure I’ll dragoon them into helping me plant, because they have long years of experience working with bigger gardens than I’ll ever have.

But I can’t exactly leave the heavy digging to Melissa’s dad, so I’d better get busy.

Sigh. If only the task list was “not so much.”


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The Maginot Line

Well, the fence has been improved. A line has been drawn in the sand (or compost-laden fluffy soil, as you prefer). I switched out the flexible plastic fencing (seen in a roll in the center of the picture) for a coated steel fence, and doubled the number of stakes to support it.

So far, it has worked to keep unwanted paws off my beds. Note the unhappy dog in the foreground. Too bad, so sad.

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Let me start this entry by saying that I love my dog. I love taking her hiking, going dogsledding, and doing lots of other things. I love watch 2,000 years of Malamute instincts coming out when she’s on the trail. Recently, though, I’ve discovered a gaping deficiency in her instinctual knowledge:


One of the main purposes of raised bed gardening is to create light, aerated soil that is uncompacted by human feet…or the paws of an 85-pound dog. I put up a fence around the finished beds, albeit a temporary one. My daughters play in the backyard, and Milady roams freely as well, so I wanted a visual reminder to say Don’t Step Here.

The First Time It Happened: Didn’t see it happen, but I noticed pawprints in the beds. Told the dog “No,” put her into her dog run for a bit.

The Second Time: Saw her push through the barely-secured gate. Pulled her out, alpha-rolled her to emphasized my point, then confined her to her run. I thought I’d been abundantly clear.

The Third Time: I watched through the kitchen window this morning as she nosed at the (much more secured) gate, then padded around the perimeter probing for weak spots. I thumped on the window to warn her. She looked up, saw me, then squeezed her way in anyway through where the garden fence meets the yard fence. She trampled on both beds before I could get her out. Again the alpha roll (and some choice words) before I kenneled her.

She shall remain banished until further notice–at least until such time as I can erect a secure fence.Now I have to re-turn the soil she compacted. Sigh.

I guess trampling gardens wasn’t such a big problem for the Inuit dog breeders above the Arctic Circle.

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1/3 Done

No, they’re not graves…I got a start on my raised beds today. Each is about four feet wide and about eight feet long right now–which means I’ve only done a third of the full plot! The soil has been dug down and turned with a garden fork a full two feet below the natural ground surface, down through all the topsoil to the level of the clay substrate. Then, I’ve piled more soil about to mounds about 10″ – 12″ above ground level. The soil is so soft you can bury the garden fork and then twist it all with one hand!

I added a few bags of compost, but I think that’s merely a formality: the only visual difference between the compost and the soil was that the compost was a little more wet! There is so much life in the soil here: I saw several 6″ earthworms, centipedes, etc. I often wonder why settlers in the early days of America would stop in Illinois, which is so flat and boring and unpicturesque. That is, I wonder until I turn over a spadeful of black earth that is the envy of many Texans and Floridians.

I’m not sure if the tree cover around our yard and the neighbors’ will block too much sunlight, but I am sure that if things don’t grow in these beds, it won’t be the soil’s fault.

P.S. The French intensive method is a lot of work. I’m wiped.

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Garden Update

Wow, it’s been two full weeks since I’ve added an entry. Let’s update the status of the garden.

The seedlings are growing well. I’ve selected the strongest onion and lettuce plants and cut the others back. I think they’re going to be really ready for transplanting with just a little more warmth in the weather.

Melissa and I have figured out where everything is going to be placed. Our main plot is about 10′ x 25′, and it’s been cleared but not yet tilled. I’ve trimmed up the pine tree that at one end so that more sunlight reaches the ground, and bought the materials to erect a fence around the site to keep the dog and pests (and children) from trampling it.

I’ve decided to use the French Intensive gardening method. This involves “double-digging,” meaning the soil is hand-turned about two feet down (two spade depths), and extra soil heaped up to make a raised bed about 10″ above the surrounding soil level. Unlike traditional raised beds, these aren’t walled in (thereby saving money on timbers, etc), but have sides sloping at about a 45 degree angle. This allows planting on the slope, water runoff, etc. In this system, plants are sown in rows across the short axis of the bed, and they are placed a little closer together so that their leaves touch where they are mature. No thinning is used: the plants/seeds are positioned at their final depths. Lastly, several plantings of the same crop will be staggered every couple of weeks until midsummer.

The benefits of this system are manifold. First, it provides a wonderfully soft bed for the plants to send down tiny roots, which apparently really benefits productivity. Planting them closer together also increases the yield-per-square-foot ratio, and it creates a “living mulch” as the shade from the overlapping leaves blocks out sunlight below and retards weed growth. The successive planting assures a continual harvest throughout the growing season, and maximizes the use of ground, since there is a continual rotation of harvesting and reseeding.

Now, it also means I have a LOT of earth to turn and dirt to move…

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Well, we’ve officially embarked on our first CSA (community supported agriculture). For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a CSA is a system where you pay a monthly fee to a local farmer and then get a “share” of the products of the farm. This is most often a weekly box of vegetables, but in our case, it’s a monthly distribution of various meats.

Why do this? Here are our reasons:

  • We are getting grass-fed and -finished meat (meaning no feedlots or antibiotics or grain-fed animals), which is nourished by natural means and has better nutrition in the meat itself.
  • We are trying to limit the meat in our diet to a reasonable amount, and “rationing” our partions over the month will help that.
  • We are directly supporting local farmers rather than national meat processing companies. We like the idea of being able to shake the hand that feeds us.
  • We are supporting ethical treatment of animals, rather than using meat that comes from feedlots and animal “factories” that abuse their animals to increase profit margins.
  • Later in the year, we may likely volunteer an afternoon to help on our CSA farm, in order to help our daughters understand where food comes from.

So what did we get? A chicken (whole), some pork chops, a pork shoulder roast, a big rack of lamb, some Italian sausage, beef stew meat, and a nice beef roast. Several of these cuts will span multiple meals. It’s probably less meat than we have eaten in a month up until now, but see Bullet Point #2, above.

We’re going to try it for a few months and see how it goes.

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Because my 4-year-old had a craving, I made granola bars again today. Since every single commenter on this blog so far (OK, only 1 to date) has asked me to share recipes that I like, I will do so. These granola bars can be made quickly, taste great, are more filling than most store-bought varieties, and can probably be made with stuff you have around the kitchen.

(One is missing because Eleanor couldn’t wait until they were fully hardened)

2 cups rolled oats
1 cup peanuts, crushed
3/4 cup wheat germ

4 Tbsp. Butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 tsp. Vanilla
1/2 tsp. Salt

1-1/4 cups dried fruit of your choice.

1. Mix together oats, peanuts, and wheat germ and spread in a baking dish or a jelly roll pan.

2. Turn oven to 350 and place dry mixture inside to toast for 10-12 minutes, stirring twice during the toasting process.

3. While the mix is toasting, dump the butter, brown sugar, honey, vanilla, and salt into a medium saucepan. Heat thoroughly (but do not boil), until the butter melts and the brown sugar carmelizes.

4. Pull the dry mix from the oven, and dump into a bowl. Add raisins, dried cranberries, or your preferred dried fruit (chocolate chips work, too). Stir to mix. Pour the liquid mixture over the dry and stir completely. The liquid is the “glue” of the bars, so make sure all of the dry mix gets coated or it won’t stick together later.

5. Dump the sticky mass into a 9×13 glass dish lined with wax paper. Spread the granola out to fill the dish evenly. Top with another layer of waxed paper.

6. Press down HARD with a flat tool (I use the edge of a wooden butcher’s block). It is important to compress the granola firmly and evenly so it won’t crumble when you cut it.

7. Let the granola harden for a couple of hours, then remove the top wax papers and cut into bars. It is easiest to use a knife like a French chef’s knife (or an Ulu) that allows you to cut by pressing down, rather than cut by sawing.

8. Wrap the bars individually in plastic wrap, and enjoy!

Yield: about 12 6.5-inch bars or 18 4-inch ones.

If you try out this recipe, let me know how it went!

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