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Archive for February, 2010

If you want to get a jump on Spring, it will soon be time to start some of your garden plants growing indoors. Lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, and melons are particularly good for doing this, though onions,carrots, and other root crops are not. Starting seeds 4-6 weeks before the last frost (usually between April 25th and March 1st in the Chicago area) means next week is a good time to start. So what do you need to get started?
  1. Some containers. You can buy “seed greenhouses” at a nursery/Home Depot/Lowe’s that have clear lids and wicking systems to water from below…or you can go more low-tech like I do. I use seed-starting pots made of peat ($2 buys you about 30 cells) and foil roasting pans. Another good choice is to use restaurant take-out containers–the kind with the clear plastic top and the black plastic bottom. The clear plastic covering on top of your container helps to seal in moisture and make the environment more humid, which helps seeds to germinate faster.
  2. Some soil. The pre-made greenhouses come with compressed peat pellets that expand with water; you can also buy specialized seed starting potting mix. My best results, though, have come from my own mix. I use a ratio of 2/5 compost, 2/5 sphagnum peat moss, and 1/5 vermiculite or perlite. If you don’t like fractions, just take a scoop or container of whatever size, scoop up two containers full of compost, two of peat moss, and one of perlite, and mix. This soil has tons of nutrients (compost), trace elements and moisture retention (peat moss) and aeration (vermiculite).
  3. Some light. I grow my seeds in my basement. I got a $20 shop light from Home Depot, threw in a couple of fluorescent tubes, and put it on a timer that turns it on for 14 hours a day, off for 10. If you’re using artificial light, you need it to be about three inches over the top of your plants, so I rigged it up on ropes and pulleys to be able to raise and lower it to whatever height I want. Of course, south-facing windows also work too.
  4. Some seeds, some water, and some patience. Do I need more explanation here?
The picture above shows some lettuce seedlings that I planted on February 19th. Because lettuce seeds are so small, I just scattered them into a roaster pan filled with my soil. After they sprouted, I picked 16 of the strongest-looking seedlings and transplanted them into individual cells. This picture was taken on the 24th: 6-day-old plants.
Tell me about your seed starting adventures!
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Several people have asked me for the recipe for my basic sandwich loaf, so I’m going to post it here. This is the bread that I’ve baked every week for my family for over a year. The girls enjoy it–Ellie especially want the heels because she likes the crust–and I think it’s great for toast and grilled sandwiches because it’s robust enough to get crispy in the skillet and it really holds in the melted cheese and fillings.

This isn’t an artisan loaf or a the product of some complicated process. It doesn’t require expensive ingredients or specialized equipment. After the first two times you’ll make it, you’ll stop needing to refer to the recipe. I’ve tried a lot of other breads, but I keep coming back to this one. Give it a try, especially if you’re just breaking into the world of bread.
Ingredients:
3 cups water
6-1/2 cups flour
1-1/2 T instant yeast
1-1/2 T salt
Optional: 3 T flaxmeal
Directions:
Throw the flour, yeast, salt (and maybe flaxmeal) into a big mixing bowl and stir it around a bit. Let the tap water run until it’s a little warmer than body temperature (about 100 degrees) and add it into the bowl. Mix it up well. If you have a stand mixer, you can use that; if you don’t (like me) stir it until it forms a big ball and then knead it around a bit to mix all the ingredients. Shape it into a ball and put it in a lightly oiled bowl. Cover the bowl with a damp dishtowel or plastic wrap. Let it sit and rise anywhere between 90 minutes and 5 hours, preferably in a warm place.
Come back and divide the dough in half (a digital scale helps here, but it’s not critical). Spray some oil in your bread pans and then shape each half of the dough into a log that will fit into the pan. Move the dough into the pans and cover with a damp towel. Let this rise about an hour or so, depending on how it looks. You can slash the tops or brush them with butter or milk or something, but I don’t do either. It rises plenty and has a great crust without it.
Warm the oven to 350 degrees and put both loaves in the oven for 50 minutes. I check for done-ness and make sure it’s at least 180 degrees inside. Turn them out of the bread pans onto wire racks to cool.
Yield: 2 loaves
That’s it. It’s a really forgiving recipe, and it has FOUR (maybe five) ingredients. If you want to remember the recipe (and be able to scale it and impress your friends), remember the 6-3-3-13 rule: 6 c. water, 3 T yeast, 3 T salt, 13 c. flour. That makes four loaves. The dough, by the way, will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, after the initial rising time.
Anyway, if you try this out and like it, let me know. If you try and don’t like it, whisper it quietly down a well somewhere.

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Sometimes I feel like a cheating when I post entries that are really about other blogs or websites, but I recently ran across this site and suspect most of the people that read this blog haven’t seen this website but might like it:

F.A.S.T.

The organization name stands for Faith and Sustainable Technologies. It’s a Christian-based corporation that provides information relating to aquaponics, gardening, backpacking, raising poultry or rabbits, and many other green technologies. They have also undertaken projects like setting up a greenhouse and aquaponics system in Kenya to help disadvantaged people there.

I think it’s a good example of how showing God’s love for people and Christian stewardship of the earth can come together.

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Window Farm

When I talked about gardening at the Mom’s group last week, several people lamented their lack of growing spaces. When you live in a condo or apartment, often you can’t just till up the common space to plant lettuce.

Many people in New York City have the same problem, and they’ve come up with a clever solution: window farms. That link will take you to a pdf file that will explain everything you need to know about setting up a vertical hydroponic garden right in a sunny window, with no soil, no mess, no weeds, and no condo association curtailing your urge to grow fresh produce.
The basic component of this system is only empty water bottles! If your window isn’t sunny enough, you can add CFL bulbs to supplement the natural light. It would be a great project for your kids, too.
Let me know if you want to start this, ’cause I’d love to help!

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Some people collect stamps. Some collect whiskey glasses, or salt shakers, or garden gnomes. I collect windows:


This is my current collection after prowling alleys around my neighborhood. These are windows that people cast out due to remodeling or upgrading their windows to more energy-efficient models. My initial plan was to use the first few windows I salvaged (plus a 4′ x 5′ bay windowsash that I’d also acquired) to build a cold frame. A cold frame is basically a small box with a glass top that sits on the ground to provide a little extra heat to cold-sensitive plants, or to provide an intermediate zone to acclimate, or harden, young seedlings to the outdoors before transplanting. Cold frames can also extend your growing season by a couple of weeks in both spring and fall.
So far, though, I’ve accumulated a full dozen windows of various sizes, and now my thoughts are spinning up even grander projects…like a mini-greenhouse! Tonight I measured all the windows and noted the dimensions, and in the next couple of weeks I’ll be playing with numbers and drawings to see just what I can make with them. Combined with the discarded-but-fine lumber I also collected this winter, I just might have a tiny greenhouse for nearly zero cost! Reduce, repurpose, recycle!
More updates on this front later, dear Reader…

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This past weekend, the family and I flew out to visit my parents, who still live in the house where I grew up in Dixon, California. Mind you, they live in central California nearly 500 miles north of L.A. and, granted, were having a warm spell, but the weather averaged in the 60s and hit a high of 71 degrees while we were there.

It was a bit surreal to leave snowy Chicago (where we’d just gotten a foot of snow two days before) to go to a place where we were picking fresh, ripe oranges of our neighbor’s tree.
My daughter Eleanor (shown above with her prize) hasn’t ever been a real fan of oranges, but like with other garden delicacies, has a completely different attitude when she can harvest the fruit (or vegetable) herself. She went back to the tree several times for more. I include the picture of the orange tree to prove that we did, in fact, leave some for the neighbors! At one point, Ellie said, “Winters are better in California. We should maybe move out here!”
Sigh. Musher girl to sun bunny in four days flat…

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The Worm Inn

The Worm Inn

For the past several years, we have been a “traditional” compost family, meaning that we have a compost bin setup in the back yard, and regularly send most of our table scraps, lawn clippings, leaves, and other garden debris there. It’s a great way to reduce how much we throw away into the garbage system, and it provides great fertilizer for our garden. Some of our friends, though don’t have a big enough outdoor space to compost, so they have turn to vermicomposting, or worm composting. It’s a great way for people who live in condos or apartments to help reduce their garbage output, or to have pets if their building doesn’t allow cats or dogs.

This little device moves the vermicomposting from a plastic bin in the basement or under the kitchen sink to a more prominent, conversation-starting location, and may even make it easier to remember to compost. It also seems like it’d be easier to collect the worm castings from this setup compared to a regular plastic bin, and the less you have to handle your worms, probably the better for everyone.

As a side note: I’ve never actually used this product, and I’m getting any kickback from the company for touting the product. (Although, if they WANT to send me a commission, I wouldn’t turn it down.)

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