Monday, January 25, 2010

Using Soil Temperature to Gauge Planting Times

Okay, I know it's only January and I'm already obsessing about gardening. But seriously, it's only a few more weeks before I can get started again, at least with seedlings in the house. And if I'm really on the ball I'll be able to get some plants in the ground soon too.

John Jeavons includes a chart in How to Grow More Vegetables that shows the optimal soil temperatures for germination of various vegetables. The earliest, most cold-hardy plants will germinate at soil temperatures as low as 35 degrees F. They certainly prefer somewhat warmer temperatures, but if your goal is to get things started as soon as possible it's good to know which plants don't mind the cold. You're taking a chance, obviously, by planting ultra early, but if it doesn't work out you simply plant more seed a bit later and if it does work out--terrific!

Here are some minimums for you (remember this is soil temperature, not air temperature):

35 degrees F: lettuce, onion, parsnip, and spinach seeds

40 degrees F: beet, cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, celery, chard, parsley, pea, radish, and turnip seeds

50 degrees F: asparagus, corn, and tomato seeds

60 degrees F: bean, cucumber, eggplant, okra, pepper, squash, and melon seeds

Where I live (in Colorado) soil temperatures are hovering somewhere around 32 degrees F. right now. I don't yet own a soil thermometer but luckily the local water conservancy district posts soil temperatures daily. The closest testing site to me is about 4 or 5 miles away, so it's only a rough estimate but good enough until I get my own thermometer. If you check with your area cooperative extension they may have this sort of data for your area or may be able to point you to an organization which does. Our water conservancy district compiles a lot of really useful data--soil and air temperatures, wind, humidity, solar radiation, precipitation, and more (if only I knew how to interpret all of that!).

Last year our soil temperatures started consistently hitting 35 degrees in mid-February, and 40 degrees in mid-March. I've never tried planting that early but I might experiment this year just to see what happens. I haven't decided if I will take the lazy approach, just planting some seeds and forgetting about them (except to water) or if I'll be more involved and offer them some protection, keeping an eye out for hard freezes, covering and uncovering and otherwise coddling them.

I've never been good about getting anything planted early, but it would be so nice to have those early greens and peas and radishes this year.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reducing Our Recyclables

We're told to reduce, reuse and recycle, but it seems to me that when recycling becomes too easy people forget the first two principles almost entirely. Recycling becomes automatic, especially in places where curbside recycling is the norm and little thought is required other than remembering to drag the bin to the curb every week. When it's that easy people get complacent. They're doing the right thing, and the right thing is easy, so why bother to think about it?

The problem is that recycling isn't enough. Have you ever driven through neighborhoods on recycling day and seen the mountains of stuff set out? It's appalling. When recycling is that easy there's absolutely no impetus for reducing our use of resources. If those resources come in recyclable packaging, and dealing with that packaging is as simple as kicking it to the curb, why even give it any thought? It all gets recycled. It's not as if we're creating waste now is it?

But we are creating waste, mountains of it, but because it's hidden from view (in the factories and slag heaps and poisoned waters) it's not real to us or relevant. Recycling, of course, is important, but it should be an action of last resort. We should be working towards not only zero waste in our homes, but also zero recyclables. Reducing and reusing are the strategies that matter most and have the greatest environmental impact.

One of my goals this year is to reduce my recyclables to as close to zero as possible. That means not buying anything in cans or plastic, and saving glass for reuse (which I already do). Paper is actually the bigger problem for me, which seems a bit ridiculous since it biodegrades. I could simply shred it and add it to the compost pile. My concern there is the bleach, ink, and possible heavy metal contaminants. Instead, I 'm working to reduce my use of paper. I've gone paperless for all of my bills, I get very, very little junk mail, and no newspapers or magazines, but I'm a hopeless note-taker, scribbler, doodler, and disorganized jotter-downer. I have ideas, instructions, mathematical equations, website links and a million other bits of information scattered about on fifty million pieces of paper around the house. Breaking that habit is going to be a tough one.

In most families though a great place to start reducing the amount of recyclables would be with beverage containers. That seems to be the bulk of what gets placed out on the curbs. Instead of buying cans of soda, buy two liter bottles, or better yet kick the habit entirely. Making your own beverages at home makes the most sense both financially and environmentally, since you eliminate the need for packaging and you're not paying to have water shipped all over the country. What can you make at home, using your own filtered tap water? Coffee, teas (regular and herbal), ginger ale, root beer, beers, wines and other alcoholic beverages, yogurt and kefir-based drinks, and fruit and vegetable juices. In other words, what beverage can't you make at home?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

School Lunches Getting Healthier Here

At the end of the holiday break I got an email from my son's school saying that all of the fresh fruits and veggies on the lunch menu, including the salad bar, are now organic. This is awesome news in itself, but then last week I got an email from the district listing all the changes they've made district-wide and together it adds up to some really positive change.

Here's part of the email from the district:

Now on to our other exciting changes and successes!
We've been doing tastings, working with students, changing recipes, meeting with parents and working hard to serve the best possible food.
In January we are surveying all of the middle and high school students, as well as parents and caregivers.
We have eliminated all high fructose corn syrup from the food that is served to students in BVSD schools. We have also eliminated all added trans-fats (hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils) from our food.
We have reduced or eliminated highly processed foods, refined sugars, refined flours, chemicals, additives and dyes.
All schools now have full salad bars that include meat and vegetable protein and fresh produce.
We are serving bulk organic Colorado milk at lunch and hormone and antibiotic-free milk at breakfast.
We instituted Universal Breakfast in the classroom at five schools and are in the process of adding breakfast service to all schools in the district.
We now serve fresh fruits and vegetables every day at lunch.
We also serve at least one vegetarian entrée everyday at lunch.
All of our bread and bakery products are whole grain.

I'm impressed!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Homemade Yogurt is Easy

I started my first batch of homemade yogurt last night before I went to bed. I followed Sally Fallon's super easy directions in Nourishing Traditions.Instead of obsessing about keeping the temperate at an even 110 degrees Fahrenheit, you just leave it comfortably warm and forget about it. It worked. I left it overnight in the oven (I had initially preheated it to warm, then turned the oven off before adding the yogurt mixture). By morning it was fairly well set but still a little too watery so I turned the oven back on for about five minutes (I didn't even bother to take the yogurt out), then off again, and in a few more hours the yogurt was ready.

Lately I've been eating tons of yogurt, in the form of yogurt cheese drizzled with a little honey and topped with some crumbled walnuts. It's my latest favorite snack, but I've been going through a lot of yogurt. This is great now to know how easily I can make my own. And all the whey left over from turning the yogurt into yogurt cheese can be used for more experiments with lacto-fermentation. Another win-win situation.

To make homemade yogurt:

Heat a quart of whole milk slowly on the stove until it reaches 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from the heat and cool to 110 degrees. Stir in 1/2 cup live-culture yogurt. Preheat your oven to warm, then turn off. Pour yogurt mixture into a shallow baking dish, cover, place in oven and leave over night. In the morning you should have yogurt (or, in my case, in a few more hours with a little more heat added).

To make yogurt cheese:

Line a strainer with dampened cheesecloth, and place over a bowl. Add yogurt. Fold excess cheesecloth over the top of the yogurt, then place a weight on top (I usually just stick the quart-sized honey jar on top, precariously balanced). Wait about an hour for the whey to drip out, then fold the yogurt cheese into a bowl and eat. I add honey and walnuts, but it can be used for savory things as well (i.e., adding minced garlic to create a soft cheese spread for veggies or crackers). Save the whey for other uses--it should keep in the fridge for about 6 months.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Homemade Laundry Detergent

This post has nothing whatsoever to do with food (although it does involve some cooking), but I wanted to share it with you anyway. Making your own laundry detergent is a great way to save money and it lets you be in control of what goes into the final product.

This is the recipe I've been using for nearly two years now. One batch makes a 5-gallon bucket, which in my small household lasts for 6-months and costs just a penny per load.

I need to note that the Fels Naptha soap is, in my opinion, a rather questionable ingredient. The makers of it (the Dial Corporation) seem to go out of their way on the label not to tell you what's really in it. I'm assuming there are some fairly nasty chemicals.

Here's the ingredients list: "Cleaners, soil & stain removers, chelating agents, colorants, perfume. CONTAINS NO NAPHTHALENE."

Reassuring, eh??

That being said, I've used it for all of the batches I've made, except for the very first one. For the first one I had purchased the Fels Naptha soap but was so put-off by the strong chemical scent that I couldn't bring myself to use it. So for that first batch I used a bar of Ivory soap. The problem was that by the end of the first bucket our clothes seemed noticeably dingy and--I wasn't sure--but I thought maybe I detected a very faint sort of funk developing, something oh-so slightly malodorous. In other words, the Ivory soap just wasn't cutting it.

Now I definitely strive to make the most environmentally-sound choices, but in this case I caved and have used the Fels Naptha soap for all the subsequent batches. It does work very well. It gets our clothes clean, and until I can come up with a better substitute, I will continue to use it. I suspect that it contains a fairly high concentration of lye because it is quite harsh on the skin (if you get the detergent on your hands--not from merely wearing clothes washed in it). This probably isn't a good recipe for people with sensitive skin though.

Here's the recipe:


1 cup washing soda
1/2 cup borax
1 bar Fels Naptha laundry soap
few drops essential oil of your choice (optional)


an old cooking pot
an old cheese grater
an old wooden spoon
**Do not use any of the above items for food anymore.**
a 5-gallon bucket
stirring stick of some sort (I use a yardstick)
an empty detergent bottle

Grate the Fels Naptha soap (or other soap of your choice) into your cooking pot.

Cover with water and cook over low heat, stirring to dissolve, until completely melted and blended.

Pour the melted soap mixture into your five gallon bucket, add the washing soda and borax, and fill the bucket with warm water. Add essential oil if you're using it. Stir thoroughly and allow to cool. (Notice how the detergent has washed the numbers off of my yardstick.)

Fill your empty detergent bottle with detergent (rubber gloves recommended if you're dunking the bottle into the bucket like I do). Use 1/2 cup of detergent per load (the cap on the bottle I use holds a half-cup, but I'm not sure if that's how all detergent bottles are sized).

Once the detergent cools it will become a thick gel. You will have to stir it up very well each time you need to fill your bottle, and you'll need to shake up the bottle before each use.

If you have a lot of whites to wash you probably want to buy some liquid bluing (like Mrs. Stewarts) since homemade detergent doesn't contain any optical whiteners.

**If anyone out there has an effective detergent recipe which they know to be environmentally friendly, please post it in the comment section below. Also, if anyone knows the real ingredients in Fels Naptha soap, please share that with us as well.**

Food Goals 2010

My goals for the new year:

  • Expand the intensive garden from 500 to 800 square feet.
  • Get the soil tested and amended.
  • Grow 100 square feet of oats.
  • Get 3 or 4 hens.
  • Get meat rabbits.
  • Eat only home-cooked meals--no restaurants or convenience foods at all.
  • Start ordering bulk grains and beans.
  • Get a pressure canner, oat roller, and grain mill.
  • Build a multi-purpose warming box for: food dehydrating, seed starting, yogurt incubating, and bread rising.
  • Finally clean out the storm cellar to use as a root cellar.
  • Get more experience fermenting foods.
  • Make sure to pass along my new skills to Collin.
  • Get better acquainted with the other gardeners in town.
  • Sell excess produce at the farmer's market.
  • Expand the herb garden.
  • Finally build a cold frame and create some hoop tunnels.

What I accomplished in 2009:

  • Expanded the garden from 100 to 500 square feet.
  • Grew 241 pounds of tomatoes.
  • Got a tomato strainer.
  • Canned 3 kinds of pickles, 2 kinds of ketchup, 2 kinds of tomato sauce, tomato juice, tomato paste, beet preserves, salsa, and hot sauce.
  • Fermented beet juice, salsa, chard stalks, and a tiny batch of sauerkraut.
  • Froze green beans, zucchini, chard, butternut squash soup, and tons of pesto.
  • Sun-dried a batch of tomatoes.
  • Went into the winter with plenty of garlic, winter squash, and beets, plus a few potatoes and some (pathetically small) onions.
  • Grew 34 different kinds of fruits, veggies and herbs.