Thursday, September 24, 2009

Setback for Genetically Modified Sugar Beets

A federal judge has ruled that the government illegally approved "Roundup Ready" sugar beets in 2005, without adequately addressing the likelihood that wind-borne pollen would contaminate non-GM crops.

The full story is covered in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle.

What this means is unclear. The USDA will now have to conduct a review, including public input. In the meantime, sales of GM sugar beets have not been prohibited, but the plaintiffs in the case may yet seek an injunction prohibiting such sales.

Could it be the tide is beginning to turn against Monsanto's irresponsible and greedy practices? Let's hope so. This is at least a step forward.

Last year, I had to switch back to cane sugar after they introduced the Roundup Ready sugar beets. Sugar beets are a major crop in my county and it would be nice to support my local farmers. But I see the trucks going past town, all mounded up with sugar beets, heading to the sugar mill in Fort Morgan. And I know once they get there they get dumped into gigantic piles --and no one is sorting the GM beets from the non-GM beets. So even if pollen from the GM sugar beets isn't contaminating the non-GM crops (unlikely), it wouldn't matter because all the beets get mingled in the end anyway.

Hopefully GM sugar beets will eventually be outlawed. If the plaintiffs in this case seek an injunction the damage could be limited to just these first two seasons of use, while the case proceeds. And once the proper review has been done let's hope it will be glaringly obvious there's no place in agriculture for GM sugar beets.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lazy Woman's Guide to Composting

To compost:

Throw stuff in bin.

Keep throwing stuff in bin.

Dump used cooking water on top here and there, rinse compost bucket (aka sludge bucket) out and dump water on top here and there.

Allow strange and fantastic things to sprout out of the top. See how many strange and fantastic things show up. (That's a tomato plant sprouting out of the pile in the picture.)

Next spring sift the whole pile through 1/2-inch hardware cloth sifter, throw chunks back in bin, spread sifted compost on garden.

Tah-da. Composting made easy.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Maggots and Vinegar--My Learning Curve With Fermented Foods

Hew Boy, have I been having some fun learning how to ferment things! It seemed to be going well for quite awhile, but then I hit a few bumps in the road. I guess there are too many biological processes involved when you're not sterilizing your food to death. Things can go awry, horribly awry.

The beet juice thing was awesome for a few weeks. I kept brewing new batches and drinking a small glassful every morning. Note that in the recipe I've been using, it calls for placing a piece of sourdough bread on top of the beets. This introduces beneficial beasties as well as keeps the beets under the liquid, which is critical. So, there were the beets and the liquid, topped by a piece of sourdough bread (it was the top half of a sourdough bun, which fit perfectly into the jar), then the jar was covered with four layers of cheesecloth tied snugly around the rim.

I will never forget the morning I took the cheesecloth off my most recent batch of fermented beet juice. I had eagerly been anticipating the newest batch, but when I looked in--OH MY GOD!! (I've had a lifelong aversion to wormy things of all sorts)--the sourdough was crawling with maggots! Just crawling with them. I have NO idea how that could have happened. Four layers of cheesecloth! The cheesecloth was suspended at least an inch above the bread. Maybe the bread needed to be fully submerged in the brine (it wasn't) but still, how could a fly have gotten to it to lay eggs? And we haven't even had many flies this year. That week was the first time I had noticed any in the house at all.

It was so traumatizing I haven't been able to make more beet juice since then. When I get brave enough to try it again, I think I'll use something else to hold the beets under the brine. Something inert like a small cup or plate.

I am so glad I didn't totally freak out and drop the jar on the floor. That would have been great--glass shards, beets, blood red juice, a sloppy piece of bread and MAGGOTS EVERYWHERE. I would have just lost it. Luckily, I maintained control of my faculties enough to get the jar out to the compost bin and dump it before the worst of the willies set in. Bleck!

The next adventure had to do with my sourdough starter. I was making a new batch of ginger ale and had all the ingredients in the bottle except for the yeast. As I mentioned before, I've started using a tablespoon of my sourdough starter in place of commercial yeast, and have really liked the results. So I got the starter out of the fridge, opened it, and held it up to my nose. Instead of the pleasant yeasty aroma of sourdough, my nose was assaulted with the pungent smell of vinegar. My sourdough had turned to vinegar--Oh No! It's true I'd been abusing it lately. I left it out on the counter too long without feeding it one time. I think that's what did it. If you've never worked with sourdough you might not realize the liquid that forms on top of the starter is pure "hooch"--grain alcohol--so, yes, it's possible for your starter to turn to vinegar. In wine-making that's why fermentation is done in narrow-necked containers, to keep the vinegar-making beasties out. But I had left my wide round bowl of starter out on the counter (for a very long time) which was just a big ole' welcome sign for them.

So then I had another problem. Here I was with a three liter bottle of ginger ale all ready to go except for the yeast. And I didn't have any sourdough starter nor any commercial yeast. I decided to see what would happen if I just let it go as is. Would there be enough wild yeasts present on the ginger to get the process going and allow it to ferment? Well, guess what--it worked! It took about two or three days, instead of the usual one day, but it carbonated itself. Yay! I learned something really valuable--adding yeast was never even necessary. It just speeds things up a bit.

Aside from these lessons, my other fermentation projects are going well. I've made fermented chard stalks which are coming along nicely, as well as a fermented salsa that's not half bad.

Live and learn, though. These sure have been some interesting food adventures.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Grassroots Movement to Take Back Our Food A Must

Have you been following the Obama family's adventures (and misadventures) with gardening this year? And now the Farmers' Market they just opened near the White House?

Michelle Obama launches D.C. farmers market, touts White House garden

I love what they're doing, but at the same time I'm really bothered by the disconnect between their personal actions and what the Obama administration is doing to address the economic crisis.

We need to be moving to a steady-state economy. Yet no one in government has the courage to tackle this issue. Instead, all the measures being taken to address our economic problems represent business as usual, a continuation of our unsustainable growth economy.

In contrast to that, there's now a presidential garden and a presidential farmers' market. These are so at-odds with the concept of a growth economy. They perfectly represent the principals of a steady-state economy. I love it, but I just can't stand the contradiction! If everyone were to grow their own food and/or buy locally grown food at a farmer's market, the growth economy would implode. If everyone took back responsibility for their food, we'd be well on our way to having a steady-state economy and true hope for our future.

Do you think Obama realizes he's powerless to change anything through policy, so he's trying to show the public what needs to happen by personal example? Seriously, if we all followed that example, really profound change would happen. There's gridlock in government, but we the people can create a sea of change. So get out there, get busy. Plan next year's garden and start shopping your farmers' markets. It matters.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Zero Waste

How do we get the concept of Zero Waste to catch on with the general public? I've searched Google to see how this movement is catching on and the sad fact is it isn't yet. Not really. Not in the home at least. I see governments and municipalities trying to address the issue, but very few examples of families trying to address it.

As usual, the UK and Australia seem to be miles ahead of the US. Why are we such laggards?

How do we educate people that it's not enough to just recycle, especially if your pattern of consumption changes not one iota? Zero Waste is the concept that needs to be pushed, not mere recycling which can be a feel-good distraction from the real work that needs to be done.

Of course recycling matters. But it's not enough, not by a long shot. We need to be examining our patterns of consumption and making fundamental changes in the way we live.

If you're reading this, I challenge you to take a look in your trash bins, make an inventory of the things you're discarding, and seek ways to eliminate those items. Let me know what you learn. I'll post any tips that you pass along so we all can learn together.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Every available space covered with tomatoes! I can a big batch, then go out and pick some more and the counters are covered again. I'm swimming in these things. Help!!

What's In My Trash? Moving Towards Zero Waste

I did a little analysis this morning, picking through the trash cans. I don't create much waste, but I still have a way to go to get to zero waste. I wanted to see what was really in there, so I could see if there was any way to reduce my waste even further.

My largest form of waste is used cat litter. I have an elderly cat who goes through two 25-pound bags of clay litter per month. The other cats I care for (spawn of the local feral population) are mainly outdoor cats and do their business outside. For now there's no solution, but since my indoor cat is 17 and in the advanced stages of kidney failure, that will change all too soon.

Next are the cat litter bags and the dry cat food bags. Doing this analysis today I realized the litter bags are probably recyclable, since there's no glossy coating. I bet they can go in the paperboard pile at the recycling center. The cat food bags have a glossy outer and inner layer, but sandwiched in between is a brown paper layer that would be recyclable. So, at least a third of the bag material can be diverted from the waste stream.

The best solution would be to start making all of our cat food, but I don't see that happening with my elderly cat. She won't eat anything that's moist anymore and I don't want to force her to change at this stage. Maybe once she's gone I can switch the others over.

The kitchen trash doesn't build up very quickly, since we don't buy much processed food. It consisted mostly of used plastic wrap, meat wrappers, milk jug lids, cheese wrappers, cracker sleeves, butter wrappers, a brown sugar wrapper and ziplock bags that had held meat.

Here there's room for improvement. I need to buy more glass storage containers, so I can eliminate plastic wrap and ziplocks. I'll also need to buy some butcher paper to wrap the meat in, before placing the meat in the containers. I've been using those nifty ziplocks that allow you to suction the air out. It will be hard to give those up. Are there other ways to guard against freezer burn? Would some sort of oxygen absorber work? (Just thinking out loud here.)

Meat and dairy wrappers are a problem. Next year I hope to get some chickens and meat rabbits, so that will cut down on the problem but won't eliminate it, since we'll still be buying other types of meat. If I could find a meat market that still used butcher paper that would be great, although it's unlikely. Most of them use plastic-lined paper. The dairy issue will remain a problem until I can raise dairy goats. I'd like to get a milk share, but all of the raw milk dairies have waiting lists, and I don't know if any of those use glass containers anyway. But even if they didn't, I could just buy milk and then make all of our other dairy products from that. Then the only waste would be the milk lids.

The brown sugar wrapper. Sigh. I just need to give up sugar.

The cracker sleeves. Need to make homemade crackers--they're the last bread product I'm not making myself.

The bathroom trash was mostly tissues and Q-tips--things that could be composted but might be pretty ewww-y if they don't fully break down. I think I just need to get over that.

Not present at the moment, but still showing up in our trash too frequently, are candy wrappers and fountain drink cups. I don't finance such purchases but neither do I forbid them, so my son uses his own money to buy them from time to time.

Away from home, the only trash I create are used coffee cups. I don't know why I don't take my stainless steel travel mug. I need to fix that.

I'm not doing too badly. This was a useful exercise, though. I learned a few things. We'll see how much further I can take this. I'll keep you posted.

Edited to add:

I forgot about the other things--not in the trash cans--awaiting my next trip to the landfill. There are two lumpy old bed pillows with synthetic fill. I wonder if I could re-fluff the fiberfill enough to make it usable again and then make some new pillows out of that? Then I'd only be tossing the synthetic covers.

I need to make sure in the future only to buy 100% natural pillows.

There's also a bag of meat scraps, fat, and gristle waiting in the freezer. I talked about that issue in an earlier post (Waste Not, Want Not), although I haven't done anything about it yet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lessons from Another Year in the Garden

No stack of gardening books could teach me as much as I've learned by simply being out there in the garden working and observing. Here's what I learned this year.

My book-learning had already taught me that cucurbits don't transplant well (cucurbits are all the members of the squash family--cukes, zukes, pumpkins and other winter squashes, gourds and melons), so it's best to direct-seed them into the garden and leave 'em. This year I planted six zucchini seeds in a space that could support three plants, and all six of them sprouted. Since I had an empty spot elsewhere in the garden I thought I would move the three extra plants just to see what would happen.

The first one I sort of mindlessly scooped up and in the process didn't leave very much soil clinging to the roots. I knew it would be traumatized and probably wouldn't make it. I was more careful with the other two plants, scooping each up with a big ball of soil surrounding the roots. All three were very traumatized by the move for about the first week, then all recovered. The first plant however was always sickly and weak and the grasshoppers attacked it severely. Any zukes that formed were small and grotesquely deformed. I was afraid of them.

The other two plants did okay, produced some zucchini, but were never as robust or productive as the three plants in the original bed. In the past week or two, the sickly plant took to its deathbed. I had been leaving it in the ground because I thought it served as a pest decoy, drawing bugs to it and away from the other two somewhat healthier plants. But I finally decided to put it out of its misery. As soon as I did, the other two got sick and I had to pull both of them within a week.

Last year I had six zucchini plants all together in one bed. There was one that was sickly and all of the squash bugs flocked to it while leaving the other plants alone. I left it in the ground all season and the other plants remained healthy (and pest free).

Lessons learned: 1)don't transplant cucurbits and 2)sickly plants may offer pest protection to their neighbors (as long as their sickness isn't contagious, in which case you need to pull the plant immediately and destroy it).

The hail and grasshoppers made it a very interesting year in the garden. We had at least six hailstorms, two with golf-ball sized hail and larger (2.5" diameter). We got lucky though because one of the storms that dropped golfball-sized hail on us dropped grapefruit-sized hail on another town before it got to us.

Lessons learned: Gardens want to grow, life wants to happen. You can't keep life down. If there's any opportunity for it to spring back from adversity, it will. My potatoes were decimated by grasshoppers (and to a lesser extent hail). I'd say at least eighty percent of the leaves were destroyed. The plants never flowered, except for three or four blossoms on one plant before the hoards descended. The vines started dying back on the potatoes but never died completely. Now with the arrival of cooler weather the number of grasshoppers has decreased dramatically and all of a sudden I have tons of lush new growth on my potatoes. These were supposed to be a mid-season potato, but better late than never. We have harvested new potatoes here and there and they seem to be forming just fine, but it's all kind of weird. I suppose the frost will end up killing the vines. The potatoes probably won't store well, but at least we'll get some.

Also with the cooler weather and decreasing number of grasshoppers, my Swiss chard and basil plants are going crazy. The chard was so full of holes all summer I was only using it for making pasta. It was too ugly for anything else. Now I'm eating it almost every day and freezing a bunch for the winter.

Another lesson learned: intensive gardening protects against wind damage. The plants are spaced so closely that they support each other and create a biomass that the wind can't mess with as much. In conventional rows, each plant is out there alone, getting whipped around in every direction by the wind.

Which brings me to:
Lesson learned: very stiff cutworm collars on very tender plants can act just like actual cutworms when a ferocious spring windstorm is added to the mix. Note to self: toilet paper rolls and pepper plants do not mix.

I also learned that John Jeavons' estimate of yields for tomato plants is quite accurate. A hundred square foot bed should produce about 200 pounds of tomatoes for an intermediate gardener (as much as 418 pounds for an advanced gardener). I've got my tomatoes in a 100 square foot bed, but have 20-some basil plants in the middle, taking up some room. So far I've harvested 140 pounds of tomatoes and probably have at least another hundred pounds on the vine. I love that his charts really let me do some accurate planning.

I learned that fall crops come up much faster than spring crops and seem to get off to a much healthier start. (The cool summer probably helped.)


Tomatoes love soaker hoses and mulch.

Oregano makes a delicious tea (especially with some rosemary thrown in).

Coriander attracts ladybugs.

Clay saucers and wood scraps are very protective when placed under pumpkins, melons, and gourds.

Hail damages horizontally sprawling plants more than vertically growing plants, it damages broad-leafed plants more than narrow-leafed plants, and it damages succulent stems more than woody stems. Therefore, untrellised cucurbits are among the most vulnerable plants in the garden when it comes to hail.

A cool, wet year brings hoards of grasshoppers and mosquitoes, but also hoards of toads (who seemed to have kept the squash bug population in check this year).

Melons and gourds take over the garden, but their shading and biomass seems to be appreciated by the other plants.

Five cucumber plants never produce enough cukes of uniform size at any one time to make a decent batch of pickles. Well, maybe they would if they weren't hail-damaged.

Dill wants to mature long before the cucumbers mature, so plant dill continuously throughout the season.

A 500 square-foot intensive garden produces a lot of food, but bigger would be even better.

And last but not least--the number one lesson of the year-- I learned to always call before you dig.