Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Arbequina Olive Trees....Finally!

For several years I had only to go to my local store to get the best olive in the universe. The tiny and perfect Arbequina.

They are like crack.

One taste and you're over with. Even the girls got addicted to them. When we got transferred and suddenly, no more true imported Arbequina olives were available. Believe me, I searched. It wasn't happening. Finally I had some imported myself at ridiculous prices. But they weren't the same and were clearly inferior to the previous perfection. A sort of anemic relative really.

After a few years of this I decided that enough was enough and if I couldn't get them, I would grow them. Yet after several months, I still couldn't find decent sized trees, with parental history of a compact height and excellent quality oil.

But now I found GrowQuest in Oregon. They were very prompt in answering questions via email, helping me to work out what size trees I should get and even working out the best shipment options for my wallet and the trees. Super fantastic. So now I have 4 trees on the way that should, if I care for them properly this spring and they adjust to the new weather, give me olives late this summer! Oh own olives.

Now, the trees aren't here yet so I can't give you a final opinion on the seller yet but I will as soon as they arrive. You can also be sure I'll post pictures of them throughout the year so you can see how things are going.

Wish me luck!

Seed Starting Status and My First 2009 Load of Dirt

Early seed starting is moving right along. I'm set to plant some things as early as the beginning of March (those things calling for planting before last frost) and I've started seeds for those things going in at the end of March. And as of today, even my tomato seeds have been started.

Here is a picture of my final seed starting setup with both Jump Start lights in place. I did find this system in other places and was amazed that the cost was 50-90% more than the place I got it. Gotta love a good deal.

This window is almost south facing, slightly south-southeast really, and I worried that it wouldn't get enough light on the seeds which is why I bought the lights. I may have actually been able to get away with less. As you can see, the seedlings are all leaning forward, towards the window.

While I am using the trays with peat cells for some, what you see below is actually my favorite way to start seeds. The containers are Beneful Ready Meal containers. I re-use them for the home made dog food but had so many last year I gave this a try and found it wonderfully effective.

I simply put 5 dents in the starter mix in the container and start five seeds for bigger items like peppers or tomatoes. For things like leeks and onions, I just sprinkle them on thinly and cover with a bit more soil mix. What makes it great is that I don't waste whole cells for seeds that don't sprout and getting them apart is a breeze. I just wait till I would normally water and pop the whole, slightly dry, hunk of soil and plants out onto the transplant area. Then I douse with water and it separates all by itself. Teasing apart over developed roots can be a bit of trouble, but timing is everything.

Don't the newly sprouted onions look lovely and delicate? I love the smell of them as I'm now thinning out the weak.

And now for my most recent bout of self-punishment via dirt movement. Here is my delivery of 6 cubic yards of topsoil. In the picture below, I've actually already taken off a bit of the back section so it isn't quite as tall as it was.

And here is what it looked like the next day. I did get it all moved on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, despite the hours of misting that made it get ever heavier.
I used this topsoil to create a level area for my 2 new raised beds to go on. So none of this is even garden dirt but rather a base. I'm letting it settle for a couple of weeks before setting up the new beds and then filling them with a further delivery of compost mix.

Great Heirloom Seed Sources

Here is a quick look at most of the seed catalogs I got this winter. Pretty spiffy, eh?

One of the only great garden pleasures one can get in the winter is drooling over the colorful offerings on sale for next spring. And making plans for doing more gardening, of course.

And despite what anyone may tell you about buying seeds being cheaper, my tally of payouts for this coming up spring is far...far...more than when I just bought plants.

But I don't want this to turn you off to seeds and seed starting because there is a good reason why I go overboard and you can avoid it.

I grow for beauty as much as food and I'm always experimenting with old and rare varieties that I've not seen before.

So, for anyone else it might be choosing a single eggplant variety that is right for you and then paying from $1.50 to $3.00 for enough seed to grow 300 lbs of eggplant. Or spending that much and having enough seed to grow 30 lbs for several years.

That would be the economical way to do it.

I choose the elaborate and totally spendthrift way to do it.

I chose 4 types of eggplant this year. I'll grow between 3 and 5 plants of each, leaving 90% of the seeds not used this year. But each is a beauty with distinct characteristics that make it attractive to me. I'm also growing 11 types of tomatoes this far.

Hence, the ridiculous amount of money spent.

Back to the point now: Regardless of whether or not you are doing the spendthrift method or the frugal method or some lovely happy medium, finding good seeds with good and trustworthy service is paramount.

I ordered from most of the catalogs above and have received a good part of my shipments. I've ordered everything from bare root trees to seeds to root cuttings to bulbs to various additives for my soil. Packaging, shipping and expertise are important in a company.

Nowadays, with the returning interest in open pollinated or heirloom varieties of vegetables (once people get a taste they tend to want nothing less!) seed companies are popping up all over the place and not all of them have a long history to google about.

Some of my most reliable favorites are Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I know people are going to start thinking I work for them, but I don't. They are just really that good. There are something like 800 varieties of heirloom seed and they don't just have a Safe Seed pledge, they also actually test for GMO contamination in some vulnerable seeds, like corn. That is something I don't think anyone else does. If you can't find it there, you probably won't find it! They also do something I adore. He pops in freebies now and again. You never know what and how many depends on the size of your order I think, but it is fantastic to get them. Some of them are quite rare also. Germination is fantastic and no one can say their seeds aren't strong, healthy and pure.

Another true favorite is Horizon Herbs. They are just that, herbs, but they also have some other items like basic vegetables, tinctures and herb processing equipment. Their herbs are often hard to find varieties and their service is next to perfect. Very personal. They also have something called LifeLine pricing on items or collections that are considered very basic in the herbal world. Sort of like WalMart gives low price prescriptions on things that are common and essential, so do they. Their LifeLine medicinal collection was one of my purchases this year and almost all of it is must for cold and flu season. Not to mention just great tasting teas!

Park Seed Company isn't a strictly heirloom purveyor, but they do offer some of them and they have pretty good prices on the accessories of gardening life. Their service is that of a larger company, so a little less personal, but they are also efficient and they do try to ensure you get the right product in good condition. Their prices on Sea Magic (great stuff) is excellent. Where they really shine for me is strawberries though. This year I'm trying hanging bags because I really hate snails and slugs. They just freak me out. They have a great deal on those with bare root strawberries to go in them. More than enough for my purposes.

Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden is where I got my seed potatoes this year and I'm not sure yet how I'll review them since this is my first year with them. But I will say they have a great selection of organic seed potatoes with some of the older varieties at superb prices. We'll see!

Prairie Moon Nursery is also a new one for me this year but I can already tell you that I love them. They aren't selling veggies or herbs or the like, but they are selling seeds for the re-naturalization of my little corner of the wetlands and riparian buffer zone. And the prices...whohee. I'd been quoted prices from $1000 to $15,000 for seeds and plants required. These guys offer them with no fuss, no muss and no markup and they are in the business of re-naturalization so they know their seed and seed purity. Love 'em! If you're looking to naturalize any part of your yard, whether wetlands or prairie, this is where you should go.

There are others I've ordered from but they can wait till I see how they sprout! Enjoy the last bit of your winter planning in preparation for spring.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

3 Sisters Method...A Great Way to Garden

Since I posted my tentative layout for this years garden, I've gotten some questions in particular over the 3 Sisters Method of gardening.

I won't usurp the wonderful things you can get from Googling, but I can clear up some of the particular questions.

Yes, it does work with square foot gardening. I've seen some wonderful results and been amazed at how much more efficient it was than either method alone. Combining the orderly nature of SFG and the companion gardening of 3 Sisters is a winner.

For a quick rundown, the 3 sisters method (3SM) is when you plant corn, then when it is six inches high, plant pole beans that use the corn as a trellis. Then, when those sprout, plant squash between the plants to shade the soil. They all work together nicely.

Now, for the biggest question I've gotten. No, spacing isn't set in stone! I went ahead and did some research and found that most of the confusion probably comes from getting multiple answers on the spacing issue. Here are some guidelines that can be made to work for your setup.

1. Corn spacing isn't set in stone at 1 per square foot or 4 per square foot. It is spaced according to the variety. When you see someone using 4 per square foot, they are using it with the short corn NOT tall corn. Likewise with 1 per square it is using very tall and slower varieties.

So check your packet of corn if you are set on a particular variety. Better yet, choose a variety based on what you want the outcome to be. If you're doing like me and trying to go with open pollinated, non-GMO and heirloom varieties, then you are looking at, generally speaking, the wider of the spacing.

I'm using True Gold variety so I'm going to be spacing at 1 per square foot, meaning I'll only get about 16 ears of corn from my 4 x 4 foot plot. That seems very little and it is, but it is a test plot so it is exactly what I need.

2. How many beans can a corn stalk support. Every single tribe seems to have had a slightly different version of 3SM. Some use 2 per, others plant several stalks of corn in a hole and then plant just one bean per risen stalk. The basic method is to planet two beans per stalk and modify that based on the height of your corn variety, the heaviness and vigor of your bean vines and so on. I'm planting big tall corn so I'm planting Chinese Red Noodle Beans and Kentucky Wonder pole beans. Half and half so I can see the effect on the corn.

3. Yes, definitely use Rhizobium Inoculant on your beans! The beans work with corn because they give corn nitrogen from the air and corn are heavy feeders. That will happen faster and with more vigor if you pre-prime the beans with inoculant.

4. What kind of squash and how many? I admit that this is a pure gamble for me because every tribe had their own varieties that they used. I'm going for the long season squash for sure because the last thing you want to do is have to root around the base of your corn and beans every day to find fast maturing summer squash. I'm probably going to do half Waltham Butternut and half Table Queen Acorn squash. They are long keepers necessary for winter storage and long growing season squash that won't need to be mucked about with and endanger my other crops.

5. And finally, how do I plan on keeping it all safe from wind and critters in a raised bed with very loose and rich soil? You are quite right that my rich soil means wind can knock it down easier. So I'm going to leave the hoop frame up! It will mean that most of the corn will be on the inside of the loop and have a bit of bracing that way. Not fool proof but no work involved really. As for critters, I'm going to take a watch and wait attitude. I don't want to put a giant ugly chicken wire box around the whole thing and I do have a lot of stuff planted that should be preferable to critters. Let's see.

So, I hope I answered your questions on the 3 Sisters Method and cleared up a bit of the mud!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Don't You Just Love Dystopias?

It being winter and all, I do a lot more movie watching and since I joined Netflix, I'm having a blast catching up.

Now, I'll make a confession: I adore dystopian and post-apocalyptic movies and books. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it makes me feel better about how the world is today in a "Wow, at least we aren't there yet!" sort of way. Maybe I feel just one little iota more prepared for anything. Maybe it is just good imagination overlaid with the normal human tendency to worry a bit over the future.

Whatever it is, I love 'em. Once I got on Netflix I actually got a few of the "best of" lists off the Internet and searched for all of them. My queue is quite long...

So, recently I watched "The Quiet Earth", a British offering and was pleasantly surprised. It was really quite good. I like the ending and when I listened to some of the DVD commentary on it, it was pretty impressive how they did the effects in a pre-digital movie industry. Give that one a whirl.

Now, I'm watching one I've had at the very bottom of my queue for a long time. I just wasn't that interested in it but it seems to be on everyone's list of ones to watch. "Day of the Triffids". I opted for the BBC, made for TV, version that is broken up into several small bite sized sections. That way it would be less painful if it was truly bad, I figured. Despite the fact that I have no yen for movies based on walking carnivorous plants, I actually liked it moderately. It is on the Instant Viewing list on Netflix if you're bored and want to get that classic out of the way.

Some of the ones on my queue that I'm looking forward to are Equilibrium, On the Beach and Code 46. All of them get horribly mixed reviews and that usually means I'll like them. I'm just so contrary!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

It's Dirt Time Again....::sigh::

I've been putting this off. No, that is too mild a statement. I have been putting it off out of sheer dread.

For those who read my blog last year in early spring, you may remember that I built my raised beds and then hauled 10 cubic yards of dirt back to them, one wheelbarrow at a time. It was cold, a bit rainy and my arm hurt for days afterwards.

But here we are again. I'm building more raised beds, more than doubling my garden space, so I'm going to need lots of dirt. I do mean LOTS of dirt. I'm also building a small bed all the way around the house. That means more dirt and even worse, nice heavy blocks of stone to build the beds.

Yehaww...can you hear the sarcasm?

The latest edition of Living the Country Life journal has a great head to head challenge of 11 small utility tractors. Well, not really small but smaller. The range in price from $28K to over $50K. When I think of that dirt and all the dirt to come in my life, I'm almost tempted.

I'm open to any offers of assistence. Bring a wheelbarrow. I'll provide lunch.

Dinner in Winter...Almost Like Summer

During the summer I posted lots of pictures of the results of my initial canning efforts. Jewel-like colors and so beautiful. Of course, I was excited to have done it and feeling very satisfied with the outcome. But how did it really turn out, you might wonder? How many exploded, rotted or otherwise didn't make it? How did stuff taste? Was it really better?

Not a single one went bad...not one jar out of all those dozens and dozens.

But...I'll admit that I was very dubious of eating my own jarred up food. I'd read so often of the dire dangers of doing anything even slightly wrong, that I'd surely die of botulism or at least get seriously ill that I had myself paranoid beyond belief.

It took a serious act of faith to open up the first non-acid food that I'd jarred myself. Tomatoes and things like that, acid foods, I didn't worry about since those aren't potential carriers. And those were delicious like you wouldn't believe. But corn, green beans...things like that?

Before I opened the first ones, I brought them up, examined them with every light on, held them up by just the little lid to be sure they were still in a vacuum, shook them and then held them up again. Listened for the pop when I opened them and then looked at them again.

It smelled just the same as the day I packed it, so fresh and clean. I added the corn to the goulash (sp?) I was making and then stood, paranoid but determined, until it was ready.

Oh my, how delicious it was! It has a texture, almost a crispness, that it does when it is very fresh and on the cob that no store bought version is going to give you.

After that, it was field day with the jars. Now, I still take reasonable precautions and check things like the seal and discoloration, but I do that with stuff I buy in cans too so there is nothing new there.

Currently, I'm starting to run out of things and am ever so sad to see them go.

As a step towards a greater sustainability in my life, I could hardly have done anything better. Growing your own food in season is great, but making it last after the season is the best.

Just think of this: Fresh food gets trucked an unknown distance to a factory where it is processed at high temps using large quantities of water and cleaning solutions, put into cans that use large quantities of metals, paper or plastics (for those single serve things). It is then trucked out, even right to the place it may have grown. Then you drive your car to pick them up at the store and then toss that can and paper right into the garbage, (or recycling if you have it). What a mess for a single can of green beans.

For my jar of green beans: I grow them, enjoying them right from the vine and having extra, I clean them, jar them in glass jars I'll re-use countless times, process them on my energy efficient stove and then open them whenever without going to any store. In fact, the only thing I use is one part of a 2 piece lid that has to be recycled and water. That's it.

You tell me which is the best one for our little green and blue planetary body?

But as I start new seeds for this year, I'm keeping all that in mind and this year, I'll have twice as much to go in the jars!

Heirloom Seeds and Another Grow Light..With Info!

After I posted a picture of my little grow light set up for seed starting, I got some emails asking about it, particularly in terms of price and how it is performing. I did some looking around and did notice that most grow light systems are pretty darn expensive. Bigger ones have the added disadvantage of not being very portable.

So it looks like I got really lucky and now that I've ordered a second one, I'll share the link! The one I got is the Green Thumb Jump Start System. I got it from and the price was only $65, which is about half the price of the same size system everywhere else. (No, I'm not getting a kick back so click away!)

It came with 2 48 inch bulbs of the full spectrum sort also. It is quite sturdy, easy to put together and very user friendly. So, yes, I do recommend it.

As I said, I ordered a second one today. I'll be putting it on that same table right in front of the other one. Then I can fit pretty much my whole seed starting operation on that one table. Pretty nifty, huh.

Seed orders are being made and rolling in now. I got my Baker Creek Heirloom Seed order in and have started quite a few of them just yesterday. Their catalog is just luscious and even their seed packets are adorable and ever so retro. Here are just a few from this order.

I'm thinking that a lot of people will think I'm awfully early with seed starting since I am in Virginia, but I'm not really. Last frost date is March 25th and on top of that, I'm on the tidally influenced river and the climate is moderated some at my house because of that big body of water coming by all day.

Speaking of my seed starting, some of my stuff is coming up and they look so tiny and perfect. My brocolli below.

And here are my spanish and red onions. Yes, I do know there are too many in a cell. I cull them some so the weak should tremble! I actually have pretty good luck with just tearing the cell off and teasing them apart to transplant. At least I did last year.

And even with my very hefty Baker Creek order in, I have loads more coming. I do love variety and I'm slowly switching to open pollinated heirloom varieties. This is what my collection to date looks like. Yes, that is a shoe

And just because we haven't seen him in a while, here is Boscoe saying how much he misses everyone after the holidays. It seems he put on a little bit of belly with the holiday bounty!

"Have-More" Plan - The Book I Should Have Bought First!

I don't know about you, but I have a lot of books about gardening, homesteading and other related topics. In fact, I counted them. It turns out I have 126 of them. Each of them has prices ranging from $9.95 (very few) to $49.95 (also very few) but most are in the range of 25 to 30 bucks. That means, just using the average, I have spent $3150-$3780 on those type of books.

Now, I don't know if I actually spent that much since a good portion of them came from Amazon, but even if I got a discount, that is pretty ridiculous.

What is worse, most of them are simply not that useful.

When an expert writes a book on say, gardening, they assume too much or they get too basic. It is difficult to fill a book up with material and it seems no one wants to write pamphlets that won't bring in good money.

Of course, there are exceptions and I do have a handspan of books I just couldn't do without. And almost all of them have their place and have been used for reference or to double check things.

I just got a new one though and I find it so wonderful, so awesome and well, so darn great that I've got to tell you all about it. It is a short book, more of an oversized pamphlet really and it was written in the 1940's. It is called the "Have-More" Plan by Ed and Carolyn Robinson.

I just got mine from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds instead of Amazon because it is one of the few books that doesn't have a discount and I like to support my favorite places.

Ed and Carolyn were city people who simply got tired of it, took their young son and went to the country. As total novices they managed to commute for work to the city and have a mini-homestead that supplied a truly amazing part of their support. And this was in the 40's!

The book is oversized and paperback and reprinted exactly as it was on the second edition, which had a few more lessons learned in it. It's written more like a series of articles, none of them meant to be the end all in how to for any subject, but more of a guide to how they chose and did it and all the things they wound up doing wrong in doing so.

Subjects range from Bee Keeping to home meat rabbits and even in setting up a Harvest Kitchen. These two are amazing...really.

It's told in a wonderfully conversational tone and is filled with those lovely pre-1960s assumptions on gender roles that will have you cracking up a bit. They included lots of family snapshots that aren't just cute, but incredibly useful. Even right to his little chicken guillotine, complete with chicken under the blade. (Don't worry, no gore and it is just before the ax fell.)

Some of the sections are pretty eye-opening. Under their food preservation section they do go on about using a freezer. These were very new to the market then and they actually paid more for their freezer in 1941 than I would in buy the same sized one today!

They do use actual money numbers in the book and while clearly we don't buy our homestead for 2,650.00 anymore, the use of relative numbers does work in many instances because we don't make 100 bucks a month anymore either.

Some of you may really like the goat section. I learned a LOT about goats here and have a lot less fear of getting those dairy goats than before. His were awfully cute too.

The tone of the book is such that you'd think you were talking to a city dweller today. The urge for sustainable living and a bit more control over our food and a happy and less stressful life appears to remain unchanged.

One of the most surprising parts of this book is the whole pre-1960's gender role thing. While it is clear their speech indicates they were raised with those views, like everyone else, their reality was far different. Once they got homesteading, they really did become equal with each relying on the other. They don't say it in so many words, but she is a far more powerful member of the household than she was before homesteading. I do like that!

Nonetheless, I find this to be the most enjoyable and useful of the books I've gotten since Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening. And it was the cheapest one too!

I did find it online however I'm not sure if it is a legal copy so I'm not including the link. It looks like a scanned copy of the original and since that one isn't copyrighted, but in 1978 it was, I can't be sure. I'll keep researching and update if I find it is a legal copy. Either way, the scan is a bad one and the lovely copy I have is a delight to own.

*Disclaimer: I do NOT have an Amazon store or any other concession for these links. They are the same links you'd get from google searching. I don't do ads or commissions and get no kick backs. Just passing on the good info....

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Welcome to 2009! The year of ???

To me it seems like each year develops it's own theme. It doesn't stick by a calendar or anything but a theme is there nonetheless.

For 2007, it was the year of the horrid deployment (which really wasn't that horrid once I got back and started forgetting how horrid it was).

For 2008, it was the year of getting started. I started my first large organic veggie garden. I started a social life. I started learning new skills like canning, dehydrating and other general food preservation skills.

So what is 2009 shaping up as? I think it started in December and I'm pretty sure it is going to be the year of "Get 'er dun!". Please pardon the play on a truly tasteless movie! But really, that is it. Pretty simple in concept, but oh so complicated in reality, don't you think?

I'll give you an example. Like many others out there I have my list of things to do. Some are small things like number 14: Examine all light switch and outlet covers for damage. Buy and install new ones where needed.

Okay, that one should take 10 minutes to look, 1 hour to shop and another hour to install. And yes, I do have some that need replacing. I really don't like those marks that get on them from plugging things in and out all the time.

Others are so much more complex. Take number 30: Rip out carpet and padding in FROG. Replace all subflooring and get rid of all creaks. Install new padding. Re-install carpet or buy new.

Yeah...that's gonna take a while, not to mention it isn't cheap. Yes, I know, my house is only a few years old but I really hate that floor and want different subflooring. And padding is nasty and should be replaced when you can.

Others just require hiring someone and a whole pile of moolah. Take 63 for example: Have solar attic fan installed. Or try 41: Have retaining wall installed along pathway behind house where everyone walks and fix the incline. Or perhaps number 3: Have hallway carpet replaced with same maple floor as downstairs.

Oh yes, I have pages and pages of this list. I am actually up to almost 200 line items remaining and that doesn't include the 50 or so I've marked off since my last iteration of "The List". I am constantly adding new things and it seems that I add 3 or 4 for every one that I mark off.

Some of them have been lingering around since the original list of 2005 simply because I really, really, don't want to do them. One of those would be number 1: Go through all Star Trek trading cards and trade, sell or give away duplicates and consolidate only one set of each series.

That may not sound so bad until you note that I have over 100,000 cards. Yeah, I love Star Trek though I haven't actively traded or collected or anything in many years. I am not a Trekkie, but a true appreciator of creative talent that changed TV and our everyday culture in huge ways we don't even notice nowadays. Okay...nuff of that.

I probably shouldn't have mentioned that one.

So how do I know that this is the year of getting things done? I think because I've been very restless about the list. I seem to trip over the list no matter what I do and I feel terribly guilty when I see the list. Since last month, I've been working on something from the list at all times. So, I think that this is the year.

Anybody want to work on some weekend projects?

Garden Season of 2009 is Starting Early!

Oh yes, the seed catalogs have been coming in and I've been a drooling over the bright and shiny pictures of rare and heirloom plants. I've got dozens of sticky tabs in the catalogs and literally hundreds of marks on pages indicating my "short list" of possibles for this year.

The gardener's dilemma is truly hitting me: How can I wait even one more day even when I know it isn't time yet?

Yeah, well, I didn't wait.

This winter I purchased some things from my List (previously posted about) and got set up for starting seeds with a little less trouble and a little more success this year. In the picture below you can see my initial set-up.

I bought a full spectrum flourescent grow light stand and a longer folding table to set it on. I put it in a large unused room with full southern exposure from those 2 big windows. When set longways, I can fit 2 large seed flats under it. If set shortways, then 4 will fit.

A little later in the season, when I just put seeds in a little dish with soil in it and transfer after they sprout, I'll be able to fit a fairly comfortable number under there.

On January 4th, I started a bunch of Red and Yellow Onion seeds as well as some eggplant seeds from the slowest of last years eggplants. I'm determined to get adept at growing onion from seed and last year I started them February 1st, which gave me only small onions to harvest.

According to my ridiculously complicated schedule, in two weeks I'll start seeds for a great many of my other veggies and that will make me very happy.

So now, I'd best get cracking on those seed catalogs. Stop drooling and start ordering is my rule for the day!