Friday, January 30, 2009

Deciphering Your Seed Catalog

Ok, you've gotten your seed catalogs. You're excited by all those gorgeous pictures but then you get down to the descriptions and you're not sure it's in your native language. Don't put the catalog down in frustration, just read the following definitions to those foreign words. You will be an expert before you know it.

Heirloom - means the plant is open-pollinated (non-hybrid) and the seed source goes back at least 50 years. These plants are very popular right now, and rightly so. Generally speaking, they are tastier, fun to collect and you can save their seed. So many of the hybrid varieties have been bred for a specific purpose, often smaller plants, durability when shipping, almost anything but flavor. The old heirloom varieties have been passed down from generation to generation because they performed well in gardens and because they had great flavor.

Open-pollinated - are varieties that grow true from seed. This means they are capable of producing seeds from this years plants, which will produce seedlings that are just like their parent plants. Hybrids are a cross between two varieties, which means if you were to save their seeds you could not be certain how those seeds would grow.

Determinate - this is a designation most often used when talking about tomato plants. It means their size is determined. They will only grow to a certain height and then they will stop growing. This is an advantage to some gardeners, especially those growing in small spaces or who container garden. They will also set most of their fruit at the same time, which will give you a large harvest all at once.

Indeterminate - these tomato plants will grow indefinitely, limited by the weather in your area. They can become very tall, although you can control this by pinching off the growing tip of your plant once it reaches the size you desire. The plant will then invest the rest of its energy bushing out and setting fruit. One of the advantages of indeterminate plants is they will continually produce blossoms, thus you can have fruit over a longer period. In general, indeterminate plants will start producing a little later than determinate plants but you will get tomatoes over more of the season.

organic - in the gardening world, organic means that no artificial chemicals have been used to produce the plant that gave the seed and that no chemicals have been used on the seed. This has become a contentious word for some. Since growing in popularity, the term has almost been co opted by the corporate world. There are many great farmers out there that grow in an organic manner and don't use chemicals but are not able to get their farm certified due to the extreme cost and red tape it takes to now a days be certified. Buy or trade seed from a source you trust. Thereby guaranteeing a seed that will germinate well and be free from pesticides and herbicides.

perennial - are plants that grow for 3 or more seasons. This will depend on your growing zone. If your winters are too cold, this plant could die over the winter and not return the next year. There are a lot more plants that are perennial in Florida than in South Dakota. I live in Kansas City, Missouri and often will find plants that are labeled perennials at my local nursery. When I look closer I realize they are only perennials up to zone 7. Since I'm a zone 5, they will not survive the winter where I live. Be careful of this term because it could be used misleadingly. There are only a few true perennials in the vegetable world, asparagus, artichoke, walking onions, and horseradish are a few. There are quite a few perennial fruits and herbs. Which brings up another thing to think about, some perennials will produce and live longer than others. Often you will hear the term short lived perennial, strawberries would qualify as a short lived perennial.

annuals- these are plants that grow from seed, set seed, spread their seed and die in the same season. Most of your vegetables fall under this category.

biennials - these are vegetables that will grow for two seasons before dying. They will produce and distribute their seeds in the second season. There a quite a few vegetables that are true biennials, although we treat them as annuals in our garden. They produce whatever it is we like to eat the first year. If you were to want to collect their seeds you would have to wait until the end of the next growing season to be able to do so. Onions, carrots, turnips and beets are biennials.

One word of caution, it is not really a definition, however, it is something to watch out for when buying seeds. If you want to get flower seeds and in the definition it says something like naturalizes easily, vigorous grower or self sows readily. Be prepared for a plant that will quickly take over your garden. This is the catalogs politically correct way of saying the plant can become weedlike. This could be a desirable trait in the right condition but it is definitely something you should be aware of.

Armed with this new knowledge, grab a highlighter and your catalog and pick some great varieties that are sure to be your new favorites.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Vermiculture - Yes, Playing in Worm Poo

You eat right? Which means you make food waste, leftovers never to be eaten and peels and such. A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency estimated that Americans generate roughly 30 million tons of food waste each year, which is about 12 percent of the total waste stream. All but about 2 percent of that food waste ends up in landfills; by comparison, 62 percent of yard waste is composted. While that food is rotting in the landfill, it is producing methane gas, a leading contributor to global warming. "But," you say,"you can't expect me to eat my potato peels." What can I as a conscientious eater do?

Well, one of the most obvious answers is for us to buy more locally and in smaller quantities but that blog post is for another day. Another answer is to get some chickens, a great way to turn your food scraps into eggs. could get some worms. That's right worms. These little buggers chow down on kitchen scraps. One pound of worms will eat up to 4 lbs of food a week. They are easy to take care of and produce gold for you with a little amount of care.

"Gold!" you question me. "I don't believe you." Well, in my opinion they produce a resource more valuable than gold. You can use worm castings (a pc way of saying worm poo) as a super booster for your garden. It's wonderful to apply as a fertilizing mulch around the base of your plants. It is especially good for those nutrient hungry ones, such as tomatoes. Just make sure you don't put it right up against the plant stem. It can also be used to amend your garden soil and as a fertilizer in potting mix or to fertilize your household plants. One of my favorite ways to use worm castings is as a compost tea. Compost tea is easy to make and use. Simply add 1-2" of compost to your water can or rain barrel. Allow compost and water to "steep" for a day, mixing occasionally. Then water plants as you normally would. The resulting "tea" helps make nutrients already in the soil available to plants. And is great as a quick pick-me-up for your plants. A word of warning though, don't use this "tea" on really hot days, it could burn plants if it gets directly on their leaves. Use it early in the morning or on overcast days.

Now that I've convinced you, let's get started. First you need to acquire some worms. The absolute best worms for vermiculture is Red Wigglers (Eisema foetida). They are perfect for our worm composters for a variety of reasons. First of all, they are incredible composters. As mentioned before, they are the workhorses of the composting world, eating up to half their body weight a day. They also are surface feeders, getting their daily meals from the surface of your bin. They reproduce at a rate that would shame rabbits. Additionally, warm and cold don't bother them as much as many other kinds of worms. That being said, do not leave your compost bin in the direct heat of summer, the worms will cook. Not good. Also, don't leave you compost bin out in the freezing weather of winter, they will also freeze. Your kitchen is a great place to keep the bin (if noone minds), it makes it a convenient place to have it to add scraps to. The basement or garage are also excellent places to keep your composter.

It's easy to take care of your worms. Just make sure you provide a temperate place for them to live, change their bedding and feed them appropriate food and you should not have any problems with your worms. Worms can be fed a wide variety of things, vegetable peels, most kitchen scraps, fruit, breads and grains, tea bags, coffee grounds and filter, egg shells and even newspaper. There are some foods you should avoid, however. Never feed your worms any meat product, anything oily or greasy, anything dairy and avoid putting slick colored newspaper in with them. Crushed eggshells are a great addition to your bin periodically. It provides grit for the worms and helps them digest their food.

You need a bin for your worms to live in. It can be as elaborate or simple as you want. I'm going to give you plans to build a bin like have. I've been using this bin for over 5 years and it is as simple as it gets. First you need a plastic container, a lidded tub will work great. You don't want it to be too deep, remember they're surface feeders, and you don't want it to be clear, worms don't enjoy the light. You want a few very small holes in the bottom of your container for drainage, worms can become waterlogged. If you desire, you can put a piece of screening at the bottom to make sure the worms don't get out but I have never had a problem with this. Also, make sure that you have something underneath to catch this drainage. It makes great fertilizer. Now, shred up some paper - remember, nonglossy is best. You can also use cardboard, leaves, straw, dried grass or peat moss. Whatever you have on hand. Fill your container 2/3 the way up with the bedding. Every week or so, you will want to add more bedding. Your worms will actually eat it and turn it into compost also. Now, add your worms. You will also want to add a small amount of dirt and sand if you have it to get them started. Cover it with a lid, those little guys will try to escape if they are not getting enough food. All you have to do now is a little weekly maintenance and harvest your castings when you need it and you'll be a successful worm farmer.

Harvesting your castings can happen in a couple of ways. If you are opposed to digging around in the poo and are the patient type. You can use one of two ways. The first way is to only add food to one side of the bin, in about a week most all the worms will be on that side of the bin and you can just take out the compost from the other side and add some more bedding and be done with it. Or if you are not quite that patient, you can dump your bin out on a trashbag, spread it out a little and leave a light on. In about 24 hours, most all the worms will have migrated to the bottom of the pile. Take off the top of the pile to use as compost, put the rest that has the worms in it back in the bin, add more bedding and your done. Or for the hands on type, and my favorite way, is to just dump your bin out, grab a handful of castings and look for worms. A little secret, if there is still food in there you will find huge amounts of worms around and in this food. I would often pick up an apple core and there would be a hundred worms half buried in it. There will be no way for you to get all the worms completely out no matter which way you chose. If you are adding the compost into the garden all the better, they will work hard for you there also.

A couple of things to watch out for. If your worms start to die, make sure you've been feeding them enough, make sure your bedding isn't too dry or too soggy, make sure they aren't freezing or baking or that they don't need new bedding. If your bin starts to smell, this isn't normal. Make sure you aren't giving your worms too much food, that you aren't adding meat or dairy products, and that they have enough bedding. It is normal for small nematodes to grow in your bin. They are just helping your worms compost the food scraps. Flies or fruit flies are not normal. Make sure you are putting your food under a little bedding, that the lid stays on and that you are not over feeding your worms.

If you want more information Mary Applehof's book, Worms Ate My Garbage, is very useful. You can also google vermiculture or worm bins and pull up tons of information on the web.

Once you've become a successful worm farmer, share some of your worms with friends. Fill them in on the wonder of worm poo and why your garden looks so great.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Cast Iron Cookware, Still Great After All These Years

Hi folks, since we found some absolutely fabulous cast iron cookware that someone gave away, (someone had actually thrown them away just because they had a little rust on them), we thought we might talk about why we like cast iron so much and how to take care of it. The pieces we found were a dutch oven with a lid that also works as a round skillet, and a deep square skillet. They were in great shape, just a little rusty. So, these pieces just need a little attention, and then they're as good as new.

Cast iron is great to cook with, it's durable and heats evenly, which means a more even cooking surface. This means whatever you're cooking with it will cook more evenly, great for stir frying, frying or sauteing. It can also be put in the oven, perfect for corn bread. They are heavy and difficult to destroy. However, don't use metal utensils in your cast iron ware, wood is our preference.

So, now you've gotten your cast iron skillet or dutch oven and you are ready to use it. If you bought it new, you will have to clean it before using. With a new piece of cast iron cookware, this is the ONE AND ONLY TIME you use soapy water to clean the machine oil off, the manufacturer puts it on for shipping and storage. After the first cleaning with warm soapy water, you never use soap again on your cast iron ware. Rinse and dry the piece. It must then be "seasoned" before you cook with it. "Seasoning" just means coating it lightly with vegetable oil and heating it empty, in the oven. For pieces with rust, merely scrub off the rust with a non-scratch pad or brush, rinse and dry, and lightly coat it with vegetable oil with your fingers (my favorite method), or you can use a cooking oil spray. Any high temperature oil will do, like canola, safflower, peanut, etc. After coating the pieces, just put them in the oven, turn the oven on to preheat to 350 degrees F. By the time the oven is done preheating and reaches 350, you can just turn the oven back off and let the pieces cool in the oven. It does make the house smell a bit like frying oil.

When the pieces come out of the oven, they will have sort of a bronze color to them. The oil coating will be slightly sticky and any runny excess oil can just be wiped out with a rag. They are now ready to use. Anytime you cook with cast iron you should use a bit of oil or a cooking spray first. Over time with repeated uses, they will take on the flat black color most often associated with cast iron ware. That black coating is mostly carbon, which is sort of a natural non-stick surface. When you clean the pieces after use, just use hot water and a non-scratch pad or brush. (NO SOAP) Dry it well and give it a light oil and it's ready to go for next time. As long as you don't thermal shock cast iron (e.g. hot pan in cold water) it will last a lifetime. It's a healthy cooking surface that heats very evenly. So when you find a couple of pieces that someone threw away because they thought they were ruined, it's really treasure that you found.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Urban Chickens

A couple of years ago we decided that we'd practice having chickens to get ready for the "big move" to self sustainability. And with very little exceptions I've never regretted it. I love having chickens. They're interesting to watch, they turn my food scraps into eggs, they are not hard to take care of and did I mention they are a riot to watch and interact with. Most local cities will allow you to have chickens within city limits. Check with city code to see if they're allowed. This webpage may help you see if you can in your city. We didn't know much about raising chickens or choosing chickens when we got started. Luckily for us they are a very forgiving animal. We bought our first chickens from the local farm store. I'd been going in there for years and every spring they'd have chickens. Every year, I'd say "next year I'm getting chickens." Boy, I had no idea what i was starting. I brought home those ten chickens the first year and I was hooked. I have long since given up buying chickens at the local feed store, for several reasons. One of which is the chickens come as a straight run. This means there are as many roosters in the mix as hens. And in case you've forgotten, roosters do not lay eggs and in a lot of cases are not allowed within city limits. We ended up with over half our chickens being roosters that first year. This does not make for a happy yard. Now we get our chickens from a couple of different hatcheries. We are lucky to have one down by our property in rural Missouri, so we've bought chickens from them a couple of times. They are called Cackle Hatchery and also sell online. They have a wide assortment and you can order a lot of their chickens sexed. We've had good luck with their sexing. We've also bought from McMurray Hatchery and Ideal. All of these hatcheries, we've had good luck with. There are so many great choices in picking out chickens, you just have to decide what is important to you. Or you can be like us and choose lots of different kinds. We've loved all the different kinds of chickens we've gotten. Some we've gotten because they were good layers, some because they looked cool, and some because they were supposed to be hardy in our wintery climate. A couple of our favorite varieties have been the araucanas, they lay colored eggs - green and blue. They are also very friendly birds. We've also loved our silver wyandotte, we've had her for years. Another favorite of ours is our silky, she is our smallest chicken but is the mother hen of them all. Most of our chickens will lay their eggs and run back out of their coop, with no interest in the egg. The silky is the opposite, she is an extreme brooder. She will gather all the chickens eggs together and sit on them. Once, we let her do this for a couple of days and that little chicken was sitting on a huge pile of over 2 dozen eggs. It was quite a sight. The basic needs a chicken have are clean water, clean place with a roost to sleep, some dirt to take "baths" in, and fresh greens. Chickens will eat a yard clean, I can't get any grass to grow back where they are, so we supplement their scratch grains with kitchen scraps and greens from out of the garden in season. This is important to the flavor of their eggs and their health. We can tell the difference in the colors of the yolk and how their eggs taste when they are not getting enough greens. Chickens are scavengers and will eat most anything. We are vegetarians, so, we don't have meat to feed them, i think some people do though. It is also very important to make sure they always have access to clean water, especially in the summer. They can dehydrate very quickly. As far as living arrangements, we bought a cheap shed from the hardware store and added some roosts in it, so they can sleep off of the ground. Where I live it is important to have a secure place to put the chickens up at night. We have lost more than our share of chickens to fox, dogs and raccoons. Chickens are very smart animals, if you get them used to going in a coop at night it is very easy to make it a habit for them. We had one summer, where they weren't going up and we were having a hard time getting out to them before dark. By the time we would get out there they would be all ready roosting in the trees. Sometimes, very high up, 25 or 30 feet. We'd spend the next hour digging them out of the trees (not the ones 30 feet up). This was not a fun chore for us or the chickens. We started making sure we got out there earlier and had them in the coop before dark and now they just automatically go up once it gets dark. You can expect to get about 2 eggs from a chicken every three days, in season. In the winter, they do not lay near as many eggs. They are conserving their energy to survive the winter. There are ways to coax more eggs out of them in the winter, such as having a light on in their coop, but we figure it is a natural cycle for them and just try to save enough eggs to make it through the winter when they are not laying. We currently have a 11 chickens so we were getting over a dozen eggs every other day. I hope this was helpful information if you are interested in having urban chickens. I would love to hear your urban chicken adventures. Stay tuned, later in the week we'll have a guest appearance.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Using Your Public Library

Using Your Public Library

Okay, you have 1000 interests. You want to be as self sufficient as possible. You have a limited budget. Sound familiar? It does to me. That is why I'm about to give you the most sage advice that I ever will on this blog. Use your local public library. Be very nice to your friendly librarians and find out all the incredible resources that library has to offer. You may be very surprised to find out what you can find out there. It is probably the most effective budgeting device known to us Americans.

First, find your local library. In case you are a little rusty about who is near you, this link will help you out. Now you know what library to go to, let's talk about some things you can find there.

Libraries are working very hard to be relevant in this digital and some say post-written culture. So, you will find most libraries will have internet based computers for you to use. If you are on a tight budget this means you could read this blog from your local library, without needing that computer at home. On this computer, they will also have access to a wealth of information via databases. My local library has a couple hundred databases that it pays for and I get to have access to them all for free (well, let's just say i've prepaid.) On these databases, you can learn foreign languages, search encyclopedias, hunt for articles in all the large newspapers, search genealogy data, get homework help and I could go on and on. If your library is like mine, you can access most all of these databases in your pjs with a hot chocolate in front of you from home. Take a few minutes and find out what databases your library has access to and use this to add to your own knowledge database.

Your library will also have music cds, dvds (often for free or a very low price), audio books, magazine subscriptions and BOOKS. Please, don't forget the books. This is where you will find a lot of information about becoming self sufficient. Check these books out, peruse them. If you fall in love with them and just need to keep checking them out - then buy them. Have your local library staff show you how to search for books. Most libraries are pooling resources and often have reciprical lending agreements with other libraries. What this means for you is that almost any book you want your library can get for you, even if it is not on their shelves. At my library, they do this through WorldCat. There is a worldcat search feature on their homepage. I look for the book I want and request it through an interlibrary loan. This book may come all the way across the country and be waiting for me - little ole' me at my library's front desk. Then I check it out and bring it home. This is a super cool feature of lots of libraries that you should not underestimate. Your local library may not have the new cutting edge books on permaculture, vegan cooking, hydroponic gardening or running your car on veggie oil, but other libraries do. And you can still have access to them.

It is so important that we learn to share resources, information and tools. Libraries are a terrific way to do that. Check your local library out and with a little sweet talking with those that work there, you'll be using that library like the well-oiled machine that it is.

Stay tuned, as this blog progresses I'll be sharing with you some of my favorite books. Be sure to leave comments that tell me your favorite ways to use your local library and what your favorite books are.

Monday, January 12, 2009

I know it doesn't even seem possible. Temperatures are below freezing and a lot of the country is up to their backsides in snow. However, it is time to order your seed catalog. There are a lot of things to consider when ordering your catalog because you want to get the best, most reliable seeds possible. It's easy to pick up a couple of packets of seeds at your local hardware store but it you want a great selection and reliable quality, go all out and order from a seed company. Besides, you will learn a lot about gardening and the specific plants from these catalogs.

I think of a couple of things when I'm thinking about what kinds of seeds I'll want, which is how i decide where i want to get catalogs from. The first is what kinds of vegetables do me and my family eat. There is no reason to buy eggplant seed if you've never even eaten one - unless you feel adventurous this season. I always try a couple of different vegetables every year. So, make a list. What kinds of vegetables do you love? What kinds of vegetables just taste so much better straight from the garden than from the back of an 18-wheeler that's just driven across the country (or now-a-days even further.) This category will probably include most all veggies, but there are some we know for sure. There is nothing like fresh lettuce (and nothing easier to grow) and nothing like eating tomatoes straight off of the vine.

So, now you should have one list, what kinds of vegetables and herbs you would like to grow. Next, consider what is important to you. For me I really enjoy growing heirloom varieties of vegetables. I love that they have a history, I love that they are usually more tasty (because they haven't been bred to ripen quicker, or last on that truck ride across the country), and i like that they are not genetically modified. So, I look for seed companies that carry a large selection of heirloom seeds. It is also important to me to try to get organic seed as often as possible. I order a lot of seed from seed savers and their members - sometimes it is seed they have collected from their backyard. I know chemicals have not been used on the seeds even though they are not certified organic. So, if i can i buy organic seeds if not, buy from a company (or better yet a person) that you are familiar with and know their growing practices. There are a lot of regulations and organizations that have been formed to have a tight hold on the organic certification process. This can make it very cost prohibitive for the small producer. (If you are using your seeds to make sprouts, please, buy certified organic!)

Now, that you have an idea of what kinds of seeds you'd like. We need to find some companies that carry seeds that meet those qualifications. You can google seed catalogs or you can choose from some of my favorites. I'll give you the low down on some great seed companies and their catalogs. There are a couple of companies that don't print paper catalogs and you'll have to order from them online. I'll give you a link to each of these companies and let you know how to get their catalogs.

My new favorite catalog this year is from Baker Heirloom Seeds. This is a gorgeous catalog. They have gone all out this year. Baker is a great place to order seeds from. They carry an incredibly large selection of heirloom seeds. They carry vegetables, herbs and flowers, many are rare and you won't find them anywhere else. You can request a catalog from their website.

My second favorite place to order seeds from is Seed Savers Exchange. They also carry an enormous selection of heirloom seeds. As a matter of fact, they have made it their mission to try to save as many varieties as possible. A great organization, a great catalog. The catalog gives you a lot of information about each variety. They also have a lot of rare varieties, which i love to try. You never know when you'll have a new favorite. You can request a catalog from their website.

Next, I get lots of seeds from Bountiful Gardens. This is an off shoot of John Jeavons and Ecological Action (of the grow biointensive movement.) I love John Jeavon's books, they are incredibly useful if you are trying to grow enough food to live on in a small area with no inputs that come off of your "farm." The seeds he offers are perfect for this type of growing. One thing this catalog offers that I absolutely love is variety packs. You can get one packet of carrot seeds that will contain 10 or 20 different varieties of open pollinated seeds. This is a great option for those with limited space and limited budgets that still want a variety of seeds. I highly recommend getting a Bountiful Gardens catalog.

A great place that does not have a print catalog but specializes in tomato seeds is Tomato Fest, my mother in law gave me a gift certificate to there last year. I ordered a lot of seed from them and will again this year. Great variety, great seed. check them out.

A couple of other good places to get catalogs are

Seeds of Change - they have a good selection of seed and gardening supplies. all of their seed is certified organic.

Johnny's Selected Seeds - they are starting to have more organic seeds. Carry mostly your standard varieties.

Territorial Seed Company - also has a large selection, some of which are open pollinated, some are organic.

Get those seed catalogs order, in one of the next couple of posts, we'll talk about what to look for when picking out seeds

Saturday, January 10, 2009


This is my first blog - ever, anywhere. so, bear with me while i learn and stretch those rusty writing muscles, which were never particularly nimble to begin with. Why have I brushed away the cobwebs to start a blog? Why even a blog, when i'm not that enamored with technology and may not even have anything very relevant to speak of? Well, I'm kind of on a quest. I believe i may have started it a long time ago but wasn't even aware of it. Or perhaps, i'm finally making a commitment to start it today. My goal is to learn to do as many things as possible for myself. To become as self sufficient as possible. This includes earning a living not working for others, learning and practicing permaculture, organic and sustainable agriculture, alternative building, animal husbandry, sewing, cooking, canning, and i could go on ad naseum. all the things i will need to learn has not even dawned on me. Along the way, my goal is to make as much art as possible, drawing, painting, ceramics, making music, and functional art such as clothing. And to build as much community as possible. I do not claim to be any kind of an expert on any of the above mentioned topics, or even any topics that i will dream of once i go to bed tonight. However, i thought there may be someone out there in cyber world or the real world that may share some of the same interests. They may be following a similar quest and that i could use this blog to swap information. To learn out loud, so to speak. to take notes of my quest and to process some of my learning. Please, eaves drop in on the process, comment, question, post suggestions and ideas. Most of all, consider walking along with me. There can not be too much learning, there can not be too much art, there can not be too much caring about our community of people, animal and plant life. And it is probably time that we left the womb of wal-mart and learned to do some things for ourselves and in such a way that we feel good about our choices.

Stay tuned - I've gotten my seed catalogs, i'll share with you some of the catalogs i've gotten to order seeds for this spring (it's coming faster than you can imagine), and i'll tell you some great places you can look for seeds yourself.