Archive for May, 2010

Well, my cantaloupe seedlings are officially gone. RIP, cantaloupes, we hardly knew ye. I don’t know if they got too cold in the last couple of weeks (remember the cool weather we used to have), or if there was some other factor, but they are kaput. On Saturday I direct-sowed some seeds in their place; we’ll see if they do any better.

I also planted some more butternut and acorn squash seeds, since those plants looked to be struggling too. Don’t know what it is with me and squash/melons.

In the win category, I went to turn my compost pile and found it steaming…in 85 degree weather! I used a probe thermometer and found that the pile was holding a steady 140 degrees. That should make some compost pretty fast, eh? Hot composting, indeed…


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There’s been a couple of new developments in the urban farming aspects in the Chicago area, and I’d thought they needed some attention called to them.

The first is the nation’s first certified organic rooftop farm, right here on Devon Avenue! Uncommon Ground has built it, and also offers a weekly farmer’s market during the summer and is trying to set up community orchards in Logan Square.

The second stride forward is a proposed aquaponics vertical farm in the south loop. Here’s a related video.

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New Bread Success

I’m a big fan of fresh-baked bread, as should be no secret to any regular reader of this blog. I like fresh bread with dinner, and bread still warm from the oven is so much better than bread that’s been sitting around for days. Some of my friends follow the advice of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day which is a great book that advocates keeping live bread dough in the refrigerator, than pulling out a hunk and quickly shaping it into a loaf. After 30 minutes of resting time and 30 in the oven, you have fresh bread.

That is actually great advice, but the dough bowl takes up a lot of refrigerator space, and we don’t have that many dinners per week that suggest a bread side, so I was looking for another shortcut. Enter the brown and serve dinner loaf.

The loaves above were made with my Italian bread recipe, but instead of making two big 2-lb loaves and baking them for 50 minutes at 400 degrees, I made small 8 ounce loaves and baked them for an hour at 275. The result is bread that is fully baked but not browned. I then wrapped the loaves and put them in the freezer.

Tonight, to accompany a lovely white cheddar pasta bake that Melissa made, I pulled one loaf out of the deep freeze, let it thaw briefly on the counter, then popped it into a 375 degree over for 15 minutes, It turned out soft and delicious, and you couldn’t tell that it wasn’t baked fresh on the spot. The 8-oz size was perfect for a family meal with neither leftovers nor indulging too much.

I look forward to the rest of the loaves waiting in the freezer…

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A flower-like romaine lettuce plant.

Wow, I see it’s been a full week since my last post. Didn’t mean for this to be a Sunday blogging thing; will try to do better next week.

At any rate, I received no less than three questions from friends today who were asking me about various gardening-related questions. Apparently, they have me confused with some kind of knowledgeable person, but I answered two of the questions anyway and have done research on the third. I thought others might be curious about similar things, because you know the teacher’s adage: if one kid asks a question, that means two others had the same question but were afraid to raise their hands. So, here’s what I was asked:

“The seeds I planted said they were spinach, but the things that sprouted up look nothing like what they’re supposed to.”

Take heart. Everything is proceeding as normal. The first leaves of a seedling are called cotyledons, and are present in the seed before germination. In fact, they contain the stored food reserves of the seed, and can sometimes stay with the maturing plant for some time, or wither soon after the true leaves appear. The true leaves of many plants do not appear until the post-germination phase (meaning after the seedling has sprouted). Shown on the left is a juvenile spinach seedling with both the cotyledons (the long thin leaves) and the first pair of true leaves. Later, the spinach plant will grow and its true leaves will expand to their more familiar shape, and begin to look like the right-hand picture as the plant matures.

“My compost bin smells awful. Is it supposed to do that?”
Sure, that’s what’s happening to a lot of things while they decompose…remember that “composting” is little more than a euphemism for “rotting.” Want your compost bin to not smell? Make sure you have a good mix of  “greens” and “browns.” “Greens,” or items high in nitrogen, are things like kitchen scraps (remember to keep any dairy or meat products out of your compost mix), grass clippings, coffee grounds, chicken manure, or weeds you’ve pulled. “Browns,” or high-carbon items, are things like straw, dry leaves, dryer lint, shredded paper (avoid colored paper or paper with colored inks), eggshells, coffee husks, etc. The most common culprit for foul-smelling compost is a mixture too high in nitrogen caused by adding too many kitchen scraps without covering them with some kind of carbon or “browns.” Also, remember to keep the pile a bit damp–like a wrung-out sponge but not sopping wet–and occasionally add a shovelful of garden dirt. The dirt will add millions of microbial bacteria that are the prime movers in the composting process. When your mix is right, you will find the pile will heat up, sometimes to as high as 140 degrees or more. Today, for example, my bin was steaming in 60-degree weather! This ‘hot composting’ means your nitrogen/carbon mix is right, and the only thing you will smell is the lovely scent of fresh earth.

“My potatoes are growing and I know I’m supposed to add dirt to them…but how much, and when do I stop adding it?”
The two main things that potatoes hate are inadequate water and excessive soil heat. Both problems can be solved easily, and there are many viable ways to do it. Perhaps the easiest is mulching. When your seedlings first appear from the ground and get a set of true leaves, mulch around them with an inch of compost and then cover the entire bed with a foot of clean straw. The plants will grow right up through it and the soil will stay cooler and retain moisture longer. This method can even be used at planting time; just set the seed potatoes right on the ground, cover with compost and straw, and water well. What could be simpler? Another way is to use a hoe to mound the soil up around the plants every few weeks. Don’t worry about covering up the stem and lower leaves; the plant doesn’t seem to mind. I’ve even heard of people who grow potatoes in raised beds using a “potato collar.” This is another wooden frame (without a bottom) that sits on top of the raised bed and, in effect, raises it still further. This second bed is then filled with compost and straw, or just plain dirt, and the potatoes keep right on growing. In short, cover them with something to keep the ground moist and cool, and don’t stress too much about the particulars.

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Well, actually, gardening with a mother happened today–not my octogenarian mother, of course, but the mother of my kids. Melissa and I were home together and both healthy on a free day with decent weather; a perfect storm that hasn’t happened in quite a while. She worked on building out a new flowerbed along the dog run, while I finished building three other vegetable beds and disassembling my drip irrigation system in preparation for installing the greenhouse. Then, Melissa planted a variety of flower seed (specifically designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, apparently) while I transplanted cantaloupe, acorn squash, butternut squash, lettuce seedlings, and planted about 15 more onion sets.

Both of us cleaned and straightened the patio within an inch of its life and reorganized where we stored things to make the backyard look a great deal neater and less cluttered. We marveled at how large our patio seemed after all the stuff around the periphery was stowed in more efficient places.

There are still things to do. I need to direct sow many more rows of carrots, and I need to get topsoil to fill one of the new lettuce beds and the second container for my tomato plants, which will probably be filled next week with my six 8″ seedlings that are happily growing in the basement. And then there is the weeding, and many things will soon need composting/fertilizing and mulching.

But, a good day!

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E-Coli in the Lettuce. Again.

This kind of thing comes up about twice a year. Any wonder why I prefer growing lettuce in the backyard?

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Since we moved into this house in 2000, there’s been a little shed attached to the back of the house. Not quite tall enough to stand up in, not quite big enough to store the lawnmower in, and not terribly eye-appealing made of aging plywood, it’s been on our list to demolish for some time.

This weekend, I started on the project, mostly because I noticed there were at least six 2x4s that framed the shed, which I could subsequently use for finishing the edging around one of the raised beds in my garden. As I started to unmake the little structure from the roof down, I found that sandwiched between the peeling plywood outside and the pegboard inside, the shed was completely clad–on all four walls and the roof–with 1×6 planks.

And the planks are made of cedar.

Someone spent a pretty penny for this shed back in its day, and then they or subsequent owners went on to completely hide the best parts of it. Anyway, I got my 2x4s and finished my raised bed, and now I have piles of beautiful straight cedar planks that have been seasoned for decades but protected by the weather the whole time. A list of possible projects is scrolling through my brain…

I love finding buried treasure!

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