Posts Tagged With: Boot camp

Composting Basics Part I

Boot camp is back in session.  And I have a confession to make.  I love compost.  I mean I really, really love it.  I love the whole process of it.  I find it completely fascinating.  Compost is so awesome.  Completely dreamy, in fact. I might be obsessed.

The run down… you should compost.  Here’s why:

Compost builds up your soil.  There is a reason it is called “black gold.”  It provides good organisms, holds water, gives nutrients, improves clay soils, improves sandy soils, kills pollutants, fertilizes.  It is awesome.  Using compost reduces the amount of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and soil modification needed to grow a great garden.

Compost gets rid of your waste.  Basically, most things that can’t be recycled can be composted.  If it was alive or came from something that was alive, you can compost it.  Food waste, paper, yard waste, hair, wood, natural-fiber cloth, cardboard, even meat (but you’ll want to do it right).  We’ll call all these things “organic waste” for the purpose of this post.  The only things that can’t really be composted are  plastics, disposable diapers, and other synthetic materials.  Although bones can be composted, they will take a longer time than most gardeners want to put in, or are more likely to get stolen from your pile by some critter.

Seriously, what is cooler than something that turns all of a household’s non-recyclable waste into something that isn’t waste at all?  Something that gives back, that makes the gardens better?  Can you see why I’m infatuated?

How does it work?  Well, here’s the quick and dirty version (tomorrow, I promise a bit more detail):

Compost turns trash into treasure by rotting.  Yep.  Rot.  Experts talk about the greens and the browns, but the bottom line is that a compost bin uses water, heat and air to decompose all those vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, egg shells, grass clippings, leaves, straw, chicken poop, etc.  What you need is a place to put it and a way to turn it to get air into it.

Large bins are great if you have a family, a large garden or a large amount of organic waste to compost.  We don’t have the biggest yard, but we have two pallet bins in the chicken area that we use for composting.  You can make your own, or buy a variety of bins that range in size from pretty moderate to very large. Some even turn themselves.

*Note: Amazon links connect to Northwest Edible’s affiliate links – Help a garden blogger out! 

Or, skip a bin all together and just have a designated pile.

You’ll want to place your compost bin(s)/pile somewhere that gets some sun during the day and where you can get water to it.  A great place is in your garden so that you won’t have to go far with your finished compost.  Close to the kitchen is nice too, so it’s easy to fill, but you really don’t want it right up next to your house.  Trust me.  Our first bin was next to the house and we had a mouse invasion in the fall.  Now our bins are out in the chicken area.  Which is not close to the garden or the kitchen, but it is convenient for cleaning out the coop.  (Yep, broke all the rules I just mentioned.  That’s the way we roll).  It should also be free-standing; not up against a wall or a fence.

If you have a very small area, say only a patio or balcony, you might want to consider vermicomposting.  That is composting with worms.  They are a specific kind of worm, red wigglers, and they can live in a small box (or a big one) and they can eat through your kitchen waste pretty darn quickly.  Their bins can be really small and stacked, and I’ve even seen some that are topped with planters (double duty!).  They don’t need to be turned and they don’t need much “brown” material, but you do need to maintain them (you want the worms to stay alive).  Plus then you have little wiggly pets.  There are many different towers that you can buy or you can DIY with a plastic storage bin or wood.  Check YouTube for a bunch of tutorials.

Worms make excellent compost tea, which is a superb fertilizer that, once diluted, you can pour into your garden beds to help your plants.  Think of it as natural Miracle-Gro.  You can have a worm bin indoors as well.

If the only place you have to compost is under your sink, or if you think you need a way to compost meat or dairy, you might want to consider a Bokashi.  I don’t have any hands on experience with one (we toss any extra dairy or meat scarps to the chickens… except chicken, of course), but they are pretty ingenious.  They are small and air tight, so there is no smell and they use probiotics (the good micro organisms) to decompose what you put in there.  They don’t hold a ton, but they are efficient and get you compost tea quickly.

Tomorrow, I’m going to cover what to put in your compost (you know, “greens” and “browns” and all that), plus the difference between cool and hot composting.

Since I do all of our composting outside, I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts on vermicompost and the Bokashi methods.  Tell me, tell me!

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Categories: Compost, Sustainability, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Boot Camp Bonus: A Well Stocked Pantry

Yesterday I mentioned keeping a reasonably well stocked pantry in order to allow for some flexibility in my meal planning.  I got to thinking about what a well stocked pantry looks like.  It will probably different for every household, and it varies for us as well, depending on season, tastes, moods, how well we stocked up last year, etc.

In general, this is what I came up with for our version of a well stocked pantry (in no particular order).

  1. Oats – I keep a half gallon to gallon size container of oats on hand at all times.  Sometimes I switch between steel cut oats and rolled oats, but I have found that rolled oats are more versatile.   These whole grains make oatmeal, of course, but they can be added to desserts (cookies, crisps), muffins, breads, and are the base for home made granola.  They are insanely less expensive than boxed cereals, and better for you too.
  2. Rice – I use both white and brown rice, and at times I’ve kept quinoa on hand instead.  Rice is a great belly filler, another whole grain, and it keeps.  Good with stir-fries, in soups and stews, as a side dish, the star of risotto, and Rick even eats it for breakfast with butter and cinnamon.
  3. Canned beans – the hero of emergency meals.  Dried beans are far cheaper, and we keep them on hand too, but canned beans can be used instantly with no soaking or hours of cooking.  We add them to up the protein on pasta dishes and soups, sprinkle them over salads, as easy finger-food lunches for the kids, we let them star in vegetarian meals.  Keeping beans on hand saves the day if I forget to defrost meat for dinner.
  4. Olive oil & balsamic vinegar – Together, they make an easy, delicious and cheap salad dressing.  Separately, olive oil can be used for nearly everything we cook.  I do keep other oils on hand too, but if I had to keep only one, olive oil would be it.  The balsamic can be used in other ways too.  A friend brought over a dessert once of mascarpone cheese spread on sugar cookies, topped with sliced strawberries and drizzled with balsamic reduction (heaven).  I use balsamic as a secret ingredient in certain soups and other dishes.
  5. Broth – you can’t really make risotto without it and it makes soups super fast.  It’s a decent substitute for white wine in a pinch.  It’s a fast way to up your flavor without much effort.
  6. Canned tomatoes – if I’m crunched for time or feeling lazy, you can bet I’m reaching for a jar or can of tomatoes.  They can become anything.  I use them for enchilada sauce, pasta sauce, pizza sauce, soup, stew, chilli, roasted with other veggies, you name it.  This is a true staple for us.
  7. Onions and/or garlic – the other day I told Rick, “We’re out of onions.  I can’t make anything without an onion!”  I know, strictly speaking, onions and garlic are perishable, probably not really “pantry” food, but stored well, they last a long time and I really feel like I can make anything taste good if I have an onion or garlic.  This makes my mom laugh.  When I was a kid, I “hated” onions, I even gave my mom a homemade citation for using too many – her punishment was to not be allowed to use them for a whole week.  She was a good sport and went along.  I pray my children don’t ever punish me this way.  You can make rice and beans delicious with a little onion and garlic.  If times are tough, and your cupboard is nearly bare, you better have an onion.
  8. Dried herbs/spices – I love me some spices.  I can’t understand how people cook with nothing but salt and pepper.  An average spice rack should at least include thyme, rosemary, oregano, parsley, dill, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, savory, and cumin powder.  Mine better have extra red pepper flakes and Chimayo chili powder too.  You don’t have broth?  Make some with your meat, an onion, a bay leaf and some thyme, parsley, and savory.  Chili?  You need that cumin and those ground chilies.  Rosemary will make your plain ol’ rice and chicken amazing.  A bit of dried herbs go a long way, and they can make the most basic of meals delicious.
  9. Pasta – Another go-to for us.  It’s versatile, cheap, it keeps forever and I can buy it in bulk.  Sometimes I feel like the number of pasta dishes is limitless.
  10. Soy Sauce & rice vinegar – If you get tired of tomato based dishes, the cure is soy sauce and white vinegar.  The combo makes the best fried rice, and you can use them to make many Asian sauces.  Soup, Thai, stir fry, peanut sauce, marinade, jerky,  the list goes on.  Practice using the pair and you can impress anyone.

Obviously this list doesn’t cover baking basics like flour, which I almost added to the list.  But I’m curious how your pantry matches up to mine.  Is it similar?  Very different?  Did I miss something or surprise you?  Does your region or culture affect your list?  Tell me what is on your list of pantry staples.

Categories: Food, Simple Living, Top 5, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Tips to Make Menu Planning Manageable

To tell the truth making up a menu can be easy for a week or two, but then it can sometimes become a chore.  When it gets daunting, it helps me to remember a few things to make it a bit more manageable.

1.  Take turns.  At least two nights a week, my husband does the cooking, and plans what we eat those days.

2.  Make a routine.  During the summer especially, we have homemade pizza every Friday.  I make large batches of pizza dough and freeze it in one pound balls.  We use it as a way to clean up any left over veggies.  That means we have weird sounding, but delicious tasting pizza.  Steak, onion, and bell pepper;  tomato, basil and chard; potato and rosemary; eggplant, thyme and Swiss cheese; etc.  This makes every Friday a given on the menu.  Combine with whatever my husband has planned, now I only have to think of four more meals.

3.  Be flexible.  Keeping my pantry reasonably well stocked means that if I really don’t feel like fixing what I had planned on the day I planned it, I can usually go another direction without impacting the rest of the week’s meals.  Also, if your neighbor invites you over, feel free to delay you menu by a day.  It’s ok to plan take out once in a while.  Give yourself a night off.  The plan is more like a guideline, really.

4.  Use those bulk purchases.  The elk needs to get used up.  So I make sure to plan one or two meals a week using elk meat.  This removes still more brain damage in coming up with a plan, because I only have so many meals I can make out of red meat.  In the winter, there are lots of stews, chilli, steak.  The summer, we use less, mainly grilling, always with a big salad, sometimes stir fried or fajitas.  When I had to get us through a hog, we had pork a couple times a week too.

5.  Cook once, eat twice.  Plan for left overs.  Your pork roast on Monday becomes Wednesday’s pulled pork sandwich.  Tuesday’s left over pasta becomes Thursday’s frittata.  Cook a little extra early in the week to make it easier on yourself later, when your willpower starts wavering.

What tips do you have for making and sticking to a menu plan.

Categories: Menu Planning, Thrift, Top 5 | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

UH Boot Camp: Eating Well without Breaking the Bank

Yesterday I talked about the basics of making a budget.  For today’s urban homestead boot camp, I wanted to give you my best tips for saving money on your food bill while still eating well. Some things, to really save money, do take some investment up front, but the pay off in the long run is well worth it.  Other things are simpler, they can be started right away.  But first let me share what I think eating well means.

By “eating well” what I mean is eating real food.  Food that doesn’t come out of a box, that was raised and prepared with care.  Top Ramen is not eating well.  To me, sustainability is important, as is cost.  Eating sustainably means different things to different people.  To some, it means eating all organic, even if your bananas came half way around the world.  To others, local is most important.  And I know what it’s like when you have really limited funds.  Sometimes whatever is cheapest starts to look appealing.  For me, the most sustainable means locally grown without chemicals and pesticides.  An organic certification is optional.

So, how to get those things while not breaking the bank?

Things that take some investment upfront:

A freezer.  This is a tool that can save your bacon.  And beans.  And everything else.  You can freeze most things.  If you find a really great deal on some chicken, it makes sense to buy a little extra and put what you’re not going to use right away into the deep freeze for another day.  Freezers are pretty inexpensive and run more efficiently than most refrigerators.  Check craigslist or freecycle.  You can get a great deal.  Even our chest freezer from the 80’s runs more efficiently than our fridge did.  We have two.  Both were given to us; hand me downs from relatives.

Joining a CSA.  Community Supported Agriculture, where you buy a “share” of a farm’s predicted crop before it is even planted.  You and the other CSA members front money for a farmer to plant and then, along with the farmer, share in the risks and rewards of the weather.  In my experience, this is an incredible investment.  The farm we’ve been with for the last five years has never had a bad year.  Of course you are betting on nature, a crop might be totally wrecked by hail.  But you are also sharing in the reward when things are good.  Some are bumper years for bell peppers or corn, while the beans didn’t make it.  But we always get WAY more than we paid for.  Local and organic.  Our CSA also sells optional shares of fruit, honey, eggs and meat.

Oh, and when you are getting way more than you can eat in a week, you can put the surplus in your freezer for the winter.  January is the time to call CSA farms.  Farms are filling memberships as I type this, so check around.  Some farmers will even work out a payment schedule with you if the fee is too much for you to pay all at once.

Hunting or buying meat in bulk.  Both of these methods do the same thing; receiving a whole animal at one time.  You better have a freezer first.  When we bought a hog a couple years ago we paid about $400 for the whole animal.  This worked out to about $1.33 a pound for bacon, hams, pork chops, shoulder roasts, pork loin, lard, everything.

Hunting requires a skill set, equipment, time and licenses.  It’s not complicated, but you will need to attend a hunter’s safety course and get access to land (and a gun) in the fall.  The cost is slightly harder to figure, but not counting the gun my husband already owns to hunt with, we spent about $360 on licenses and gasoline for various hunting trips.  We have an entire elk in the freezer to show for it.  Roughly $1.44 per pound of lean red meat, said and done.  Some years, it’s much less expensive, depending on success rates.  And some years, we’ve gotten nothing.

For either meat option, now is a good time to look into it.  Local farmers and ranchers are taking orders, and you need to buy hunting licenses in advance (April here in Colorado).

While I’m talking about buying in bulk, I’d also like to mention that once a year we drive to an orchard to pick peaches.  It’s a far drive, to the western slope, so we make it count.  We spend about $400 on 300 pounds of peaches, including gas.  We race home with the A/C blasting and then spend the next week slicing and preserving peaches.  The majority of them get frozen, though we jam and can some too.  But these peaches last us a whole year.  So investigate local U-Pick farms.  We do the same on a smaller scale for berries and cherries.

Things that everyone can do now:

Make a meal plan for the week.  I used to plan a month’s worth of meals at a time, but that can be daunting, and over time I’ve realized that weekly works better for us.

Plan meals that are in season.  This is easy with a CSA.  Apples are least expensive in the fall, strawberries are cheapest in the spring.  If you want asparagus in August, you’re going to pay a lot for it at the market (and it won’t taste all that great).   This puts us eating things that are in season the majority of the time.  In season means relatively inexpensive.  We pretty much don’t eat bananas.

Use up what you have.  Until you get into the habit, it’s easy to keep ignoring the beans in the back of the pantry or the sausage in the bottom of the freezer.  Get into the habit of planning meals the use what you’ve already purchased.  You’ll spend less at the grocery if you aren’t buying what you already have.

Plan to eat less meat.  Meat costs more than other forms of protein.  Use meat more like a side dish.  Try adding one more vegetarian meal to your menu per week than you normally make.  Try making chili with black beans or stir fry with eggs.  Over the last few years we went from eating meat at dinner every night to eating meat only three – four times a week.

From your meal plan, make a grocery list.  And stick to it. This keeps me from impulse buying.  Also, it cuts down on incidental/emergency trips to the store which end up costing a lot more over time.

If the store that I’m going to has a double ad day, I’ll go on that day, but I don’t usually plan my meals around the ads.  I just figure if I go on that day I double my chances of finding things on sale.

I don’t use coupons at all.  There are never any coupons for bulk rice or apples or pork loin.  I can’t recall seeing one for milk.  Coupons usually make me feel compelled to buy things that I would not normally put on my list.  They are always for things in boxes or bags, things with weird ingredients.  Things that are processed and full of chemicals…

Buy whole foods. Processed foods are expensive.  Potato chips cost more than potatoes.  Rice-a-Roni costs more than rice.  Pasta and milk is cheaper than a package of noodles with a powdered sauce.  Not to mention a billion times better for you.

Buy foods from the bulk bins.  When you buy a pound of rice or oatmeal in a box or bag, guess what.  You care paying for that box.  And for the marketing of that box.  It’s much less expensive to buy oats from the bulk bin.  There is no packaging to pay for.  No labels, no marketing, and no weird ingredients.  And if you buy or make your own reusable bags, there is no waste either.

There you have it.  Those are my big tips for saving money on food.  Between the meat in the freezer, the vegetables from the garden and the CSA, and eggs from the chickens, there are times I can spend $30 at the store for the week.  All I’m buying at that point is dairy and grains.  But it takes time to get to that point.  And I’ve already invested money up front.

What does your family do?

Categories: CSA, Food, Hunting, Menu Planning, Thrift, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

UH Budgeting Boot Camp: Building a (Food) Budget

Seeds, plants and soil all cost money, building a coop does too and those canning jars don’t come cheap.  But we urban homesteaders feel it’s worth it.  We are in it for the food.  So we have to find a way to make it work.  How do we eat well without breaking the bank?

This week we’re going to talk about budgeting, particularly budgeting for food and how to eat sustainably.  It’s not the funnest skill for me, but it is an essential one.  We could not do the things we do around our urban homestead without it.

When Rick and I started this journey, we had just had a baby and I decided to stay home with him, cutting our income in half.  We thought we’d be ok financially, but I had to get my appendix removed three weeks after H was born and medical bills ate through our savings.  Soon we were using a credit card to make ends meet.  And then one month we couldn’t pay off the balance.  And the debt racked up faster than we could have imagined.

Eventually, we cancelled the credit cards and started trying to get it under control.  But there were months where we were looking at choosing between gas and groceries.  Now, when I hear people talk about being “broke,” I think about those times.  The only way we made it through, all the while feeding ourselves, was budgeting.

Budget is a four letter word for many people (often those four letters are D-E-B-T).  But I have really come to understand that a workable budget is the only way to survive.  I’m not a natural budgeter.  I’m much more of an instant gratification person.  And people like me often have a hard time sticking to a budget.  I have a really hard time keeping the willpower up for an entire month (or few months), and tend to want to reward myself for being so good all month long by blowing my money on something silly.  I know I’m not alone.  It really helps me to trick my brain into doing some sort of project or challenge that is a budget in disguise.

One things that really helped me during that dark time of choosing between food and fuel was Crunchy Chicken’s Sustainable Food Budget Challenge in 2009.  The idea was to see if it was possible to eat sustainably on a food stamp budget.  I was successful at the challenge, but at the end of it I noted that,

I don’t know if this would actually be possible on food stamps because the majority of our savings came from food saved from the CSA last summer, the hog we bought whole last fall, things we saved our money up for so that we could have a year of sustainable eating on our tight budget. That and two years of practice at cutting the grocery bill each week a bit more, while still making fresh meals for my family.  Things like eating out, coffee shops, and convenience foods have not been in the budget for a long time.

That’s right I had already been at it for two years, and I had some secret weapons up my sleeve; a whole hog and a CSA membership.  So in talking about budgets, I’m also going to tout the benefits of joining a community supported agriculture farm.  I am not exaggerating when I say that this one thing saved us.  Seriously.

More on that in soon, but first, how do you make a budget?  There’s a lot of places online you can learn to do this.  Just find something that works for you without too much brain damage.

I am NOT an expert, this is just what we do.  I start by writing down on a piece of paper our income and all of our expenses.  My husband gets paid weekly, so I do the math and figure his income for the month.  Then I list out each bill we have.  I know financial experty people tell you to save money and pay yourself first.  That’s all good and fine, if you can do it;  if you can, you should, but for about five years, we couldn’t.  Anyway, I deduct the expenses from the income.  The rest of the money that is not going to a bill is what we have left to split between food, gas and whatever else you like to spend your money on.  Hopefully, you can save a bit too.

I try to be realistic about what we need to spend for each category.  Using a computer program for this really helps (like Quicken or Quick Books or whatever) that allows you to see how you’ve been spending in the past.  I might try to trim down certain things, like eating out, but I’ve learned that I need to leave us a little wiggle room.  A budget is not a diet.  You can’t go into it thinking about what you are depriving yourself from or you surely won’t stick to it.  Also, it is not permanent.  It can change month-to-month until you figure out what works for you and your family.  Lately, I’ve been using Erica’s Budget Fun Cards, because I like checking boxes.

The savings is key for us.  We don’t have much cushion built up yet as we’re fresh off of paying off those rotten credit cards and still are working on knocking out Rick’s student loans.  But we try to set aside a little every month to pay for some seemingly big-ticket items, which in reality save us lots of money.  Once we have a number for what we want to spend on food every month, we have a starting point.  I don’t follow all the experts that say your food should only be 5% of your budget.  Honestly, that is ridiculous.

Our food is easily our largest expenditure after our mortgage.  But we have ways of keeping the month-to-month food bill manageable.  Things like buying meat in bulk, the CSA membership and buying 300 pounds of peaches are financially tough to swallow all at once, but saves big time in the long run.  Those bulk items pay off in spades, particularly in lean financial times.

Tomorrow, I’m talking money savings in the food budget department.  In the mean time, do you budget?  Do you buy in bulk or have tips for saving on the food bill?  What questions do you have about eating well on a budget?

Categories: CSA, Food, Simple Living, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , | 6 Comments

What we are planting in 2012

A few of you were curious about what we are planting this year in the garden.  SO, here is the plan for 2012…

In the four main garden beds we are planting seeds of both grey and yellow zucchini, Mexican Sour Gherkins and Long Anglais cucumbers, pole beans (purple ones), Australian brown onions, golden beets, red Russian kale, and arugula.  I’m hoping the kolhrabi that we have been trying to overwinter are still going strong, so we can possibly get seeds from them this year.  We will buy started tomato plants as well; not sure what varieties until we see what they have at our garden center.

The boys will have some Cosmic Purple carrots in their hugelkultur as well as some cherry tomato plants and possibly a bean or pumpkin teepee for fun (stay tuned).

We have a couple of other planting areas around the yard, and in those areas we are going to put some lettuces, some lemon yellow Habanero peppers, and lots and lots of spinach.   Plus I’ve planned a couple of giant variety sunflowers to screen out some neighbors and later feed to the chickens.

In the neighbor’s yard, we’ll do potatoes again, and his corn.  Plus he’s made room for watermelons and the giant pumpkin.  We can’t wait!

Any locals have tips on herbs (basil, parsley, cilantro…)?  I’ve had mixed success with them, but want to add more, inter-spaced in the flower beds out front.

What are you planting this year?  Also, did I miss anything in last week’s veggie garden basics that you were hoping for?

Categories: Food, Garden, Hugelkultur | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Vegetable Gardening Basic Training Part II

Welcome to part two of your first week of Urban Homesteading Boot Camp.  Yesterday I talked about the basics of selecting and preparing a site for your vegetable garden.  Today, we’ll cover layout, crop rotation, and, the best parts: planting and maintaining.

If you are planting in pots, the scale on all of this will be much, much less.  ;)

Garden Layout
Once you have decided what to grow in your garden, you need to decide where in the garden to grow it.  One of the first things to consider is the height of the plants, at their maturity, that you intend to grow.  This is more important than companion planting because, as some friends of mine learned the hard way, while carrots do love tomatoes, carrots also love sunlight.  So first think about what grows high up and what stays low.  Tomatoes can get very tall, so can pole beans, corn, and cucumbers if you trellis them.  Summer squash can also shade out neighbors with their big leaves.  Most of the root crops  stay low, as well as the peppers and lettuces; even peas can be kept pretty compact. You will want to plant low growing things to the south of high growing things (here in North America, obviously).

You can see from my garden plan that I made in 2009, I did just that:  Tall tomatoes in the back along the north border, middle size squash next, and short onions, kohlrabi and beets at the bottom on the south edge.  It worked great.

But I bet if you read my post in October on crop rotation, you spotted the problem with the layout.  If not, here was my 2010 garden plan:

See the problem yet?  Tomatoes up top, squash and peppers in the middle, and onions and kohlrabi along the bottom.  I did this also in 2006 and 2007.  Yeah.  Some people are thicker than others.  It took me a while on this one.

Finally, finally, I wised up.  I had to turn my beds 90 degrees.  You can see this year’s plan is much better for crop rotation.

Crop Rotation
So yes, it took me years and years to find a way to rotate our crops.  But why is it so important?  Most of the veggies we like to grow in our gardens come from certain plant families.  There are about nine families for the main crops most people like to plant.

  1. Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplant
  2. Peas and beans
  3. Cucumber, squash and melons
  4. Spinach, beets and chard
  5. Cabbages, kale, kohlrabi, turnips and broccoli (the brassicas – they only “real” family name I know)
  6. Onions, leeks and garlic (oh wait, I know two, these are alliums)
  7. Sunflowers, lettuce and other leafy greens
  8. Carrots, celery, parsley, parsnips
  9. Corn, rye, oats, wheat

The varieties in each family need similar nutrients to grow, and they are susceptible to the same diseases and pests.  So if you plant your tomatoes in the same place year after year, you can expect them to deplete their soil and/or die from a disease.  If you rotate things though, the nutrients that the tomatoes take from the soil in 2012 will get replaced by another plant, say beans, the next year.  And if a tomato disease came knocking at the end of 2012, the 2013 beans might not get it, since they aren’t necessarily open to the same sicknesses.  Make sense?

Clearly, it is pretty important to switch things up.  Your original layout needs to accommodate this, and you have to think a few years ahead.  Here is what I’ve done with our 2012 garden.

First I oriented the beds so the tall stuff didn’t always have to go in the same place (North is at the top of the page).  Then, the coup de grâce – sticky-notes.  Yep. Instead of writing in my plants, I put each thing we want in the garden on its own sticky-note.  You can tell, I love tomatoes.  The little circled letter corresponds to a plant family.  Now I can arrange and rearrange, and rotate. 

Yes, I know, I have more veggies than room in my garden for them.  Decisions are hard around here.  That’s why I’ve enlisted the neighbor’s yard.  ;)

When playing with your layout and rotation, don’t forget about plant height.  In 2008, I tried rotating things in that old layout by switching the tomatoes to the bottom (the southern edge).  Guess what – nothing grew because the tall plants shaded out everything else.  Learn from my mistakes, grasshopper.

Here’s where I want to take a minute to mention square foot gardening.  Square foot gardening is a very good way to get a lot of plants into a small space.  It would probably be a great way to keep things rotating as well.  I am not very good at it, I’ll be honest.  I lack the self control.  ;)  But if you have a very small space, you should consider it.  It looks like a great way to pack a lot into a small area.

So, to the planting.

Planting
First off, I’m totally skipping the starting seeds indoors thing.  I’m sorry if this is a big disappointment.  I only began gardening when Rick and I moved to this house 8 years ago, and we have no good place at all to start seeds indoors.  I’m thinking of getting some lights this year, but so far all my seed starts have failed.

Because of this, we buy seeds to sow directly in the ground for most things, but we buy already started tomato and pepper plants from the garden center.  The growing season in Colorado is a bit short to start these outside if you want much of a harvest.

To plant your seeds, read your seed packets.  Planting depth is important.  From the tip of your finger to your first knuckle is about one inch; the depth you would want to plant peas.  I am somewhat flexible with plant spacing, however.  If my packet says to plant seeds every six inches in rows 18 inches apart, I just go with six inches in any direction.  I know, I’m a rule breaker.  But it seems to work just the same for us, and I want to conserve space as much as possible.

Some seed packets tell you to plant in hills.  Squash like hills.  Tomatoes do too.  So, for the first timers, this is what a row is (notice Henry, spacing rows with a yardstick – it’s ok to measure if it helps you):

And this is a hill:

I use my fingers or the side of my hand to make rows for most seeds, but I use a hoe to make a row for things that should be planted deeper than an inch.  I just drag one corner of  the hoe in a straightish line where I want the row to be.  The line is sort of a valley with the extra soil piled up along the sides.  Drop the seeds into the valley and use the soil next to the line to cover them.  Don’t use all the extra soil, especially if your seeds should be planted shallowly.  Some of that soil will be used to make the sides of your row so that it will hold water.  Tap the soil down well with your hands, making a long trench that will retain water to feed your seeds.

To make a hill, I use the back of a rake.  And by I, I mean Rick.  Not that it’s hard, it just seems to be Rick’s job.  Anyway.  Rick pulls the soil with the rake into a mound, and then we use our hands to sort of flatten the top, and move the dirt until it’s sort of a crater.  You plant inside the crater, not around the sides.  This is a nice bowl to hold water for your seeds or little baby plants.  We usually plant one tomato per hill and we plant three summer squash in a (larger) hill.

Then what?  You guessed it – water your seeds.  Water them well.  Give everything a good soaking.  Then wait a couple of minutes and soak everything again.  Don’t use hard jets of water – sprinkle or use a soaker or drip hose.  You don’t want to wash your seeds away.

Now is the time to set your tomato cages and trellises around your plants.  As the plants grow, thread them up through the cage, so they don’t break off any vines, or so the tomato doesn’t shoot off to one side.

Maintenance
After planting, there are three things left to do to keep your garden on track: watering, thinning, and weeding.

Your baby seedlings and newly planted seeds need to stay moist.  We like to use a drip system for our garden, which basically consists of a back-flow preventor at the spigot, and a bunch of tubing with little plastic drip heads on the ends where each plant is for the hills and lengths of pre-drilled drip-tube for the rows.  The heads release so much water per hour.  We love it because it conserves water and only puts water at the plants so it cuts down on weeds.  And, I just have to step out the door, turn on the spigot, and it waters everything for me.  I have three kids, people.

The drip system is not complicated, but explaining it thoroughly could be a post in it of its self.  (Perhaps in the near future?)

Anyway, that is one method for watering.  We have also watered by hand with the hose many a season, and last year our neighbor put his corn and potatoes on a timer connected to his sprinkler system.  Bottom line is during the summer you need to water.  Here in Colorado, we need to water everyday.  Technically, it’s an arid climate here.  If you live in the rainforest, gauge your water accordingly.

All that water will make your seeds sprout into seedlings.  And you will have to thin them.  That means, heartlessly grabbing those tender green shoots and ripping them from the ground (gently – don’t kill the ones you want to leave).  You have to give your plants room to grow.  If you leave every carrot seedling growing, you’ll get lots of tops and no carrots.  So leave one strong-looking seedling every few inches for your root crops.  And for heaven sakes, thin your zucchini.  It’s really, really hard the first time.  But just do it.  Now is the time to nut up or shut up.  ;)

And weeding.  You have to rip ‘em out too.  They will grow fast and steal your veggie’s water, sunlight and room.  Take ‘em down.  Show no mercy, troops.  Defend your hills!  And your trenches!  If you do a little everyday, the enemy won’t gain any footing in your garden.

Questions?

Categories: Garden, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , | 7 Comments

Vegetable Garden Basic Training Part I

Welcome to your first week of Urban Homestead Boot Camp.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be sharing the goods on what you need to get your own homestead up and running in 2012.  This is the quick and dirty version.  No holds barred, take no prisoners; these are the very basics.

This week, the vegetable garden.  Every homestead needs one.  Be it your whole back yard converted to raised beds or your balcony covered in pots, growing food is the cornerstone of any homestead. I’ve decided to divide this into two parts since we have a lot of ground to cover.  For the beginners out there, we’re going to keep it simple.  Part one covers site selection, soil prep, and deciding what to grow.

Site Selection:
You need a place that gets full sun.  For us here in North America that is somewhere that has Southern exposure.  Gone are the days of a backyard garden.  In the city, you take what you can get.  The side, the front, the roof, whatever.  It just can’t be in the shade of a tree or building.   At the Schell Urban Homestead, our gardens are in a side yard and along a strip of driveway.

One you’ve picked your spot, measure it up.  The size of your area is probably going to determine, to some extent, what you can grow.  It’ll be tough to grow corn if all you have is 32 square feet, unless that is all you want to grow.  It takes up a lot of room and is tall.  But if you are willing to buy your corn at  a farmers market instead, you can do a lot with a 4 x 8 bed.

Some considerations when selecting a site:

  • Will you grow in the dirt or buy soil for a raised bed or pots?
  • Can you get water easily to to area?
  • Is there anything nearby that will interfere with sun exposure?  Keep in mind that in summer, the sun is almost directly overhead.
  • What about site security?  Does the mailman usually walk there?  You might need a border or a mini fence.  If you are growing where the neighborhood kids can see, consider that you might lose a tomato or two (but that’s actually a good thing in my opinion).

Prepping the Site:
Once you’ve selected your garden site, you’re going to need to do some prep work before you can plant there. If you are planting in pots, you get off easy, labor wise, but will have to spend some money for the pots and the soil.  Check thrift store for pots if your funds are limited.  Or consider buckets.

So, what is at the site now?  Grass?  Other plants?  Rocks?  Or (please say it isn’t so) concrete?  If the site is concrete and you don’t want to bust it out, which we have done – it’s tough work, consider pots or very deep raised beds.  Keep in mind that concrete will hold heat in the summer though; you’ll need to water more frequently.

Otherwise, to plant in the ground or a raised bed, this is probably going to be the physically hardest part of getting your garden ready.  Start by clearing away any competing plants and rocks.  If you plan to plant in the ground, a soil test can be helpful, but is not be any means necessary unless you have concerns about lead or other toxins leaching into your soil (such as if you are in an industrial area).  If that is a concern, it may be simplest to build a raised bed and buy soil for it.

If the existing site has grass, that is easy enough to remove.  You have a couple of options, you can use a grub hoe or rototiller to remove or till under the grass.  Or you use a layering method of composting the grass into your garden space, like the method demonstrated in this video.

Mark the edges of your garden space.  If you want to spend a little or are concerned about aesthetics, you can buy timbers, railroad ties, fencing or many other materials to build your edging and borders to your heart’s content.  To do it on the cheap, use rocks, boards, brick, string and stakes, whatever you have.  Or check craigslist.  Basically – anyone can garden.  This doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg, though it can, if you want.  But really, you just need to know where you are planting stuff.

Your beds should be about 4 feet wide, but not wider.  Longer is fine.  Four feet is about the farthest you can comfortably reach across; if you keep it within these limits, you can avoid stepping on your planting soil to keep it from compacting.

If you are doing raised beds, you are probably going to have to buy soil.  You’ll want soil for gardening, not fill dirt.  Fill dirt is hard, dry, grayish brown and has no organic matter in it – you’ll be hard pressed to get anything to grow in it.  Soil dark brown or black, moist, soft, and is rich in organic matter with lots of nutrients to feed your plants.  If you do the layering method, you’ll be using built-in compost, but you may want to add some soil to your layers as well.  If you are planting in the ground where only sod has been growing, you’ll definitely need to amend the soil.

You can certainly buy soil and compost at a garden center.  But you might also consider these sources: local farmers and ranchers for decomposed manure, tree trimming companies for mulch or wood chips, or check with your local Whole Foods around earth day for free finished compost.  If you are starting in the fall, you can get the ground prepped pretty well for the spring by digging into the area and layering dead leaves, grass clippings and dirt to decompose over the winter.

Deciding what to grow:
Keeping in mind how much room you have and how many people you are feeding, think about what you like to eat.  What are your gardening goals?  Do you want to get the kids excited?  Plant things that grow quickly (beans, sunflowers, radishes) or that they will be excited to eat (my boys love carrots).  Love cooking?  Plant lots of herbs.  Do you want to avoid mealy grocery store tomatoes?  Then you’ll want to make room for your star heirloom plants.  Want to avoid the grocery store all together?  Better convert the whole yard or enlist a neighbor.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Plant what you like, but don’t be afraid to try something new.  If you know you hate broccoli, don’t plant any.  But try to remember that homegrown veggies taste about a million times better than what you can get at the grocery store.  My sister was forty before she learned that she did like tomatoes, as long as they came from the garden.  If you want to try everything, get a seed catalog.
  • How many people are you feeding?  Don’t plant four hills of summer squash for two people.  And vice-versa.
  • How much room do you have.  Corn and potatoes are notorious space hogs.  If you have limited space (most of us in the city do)  really consider what you want to grow vs. what you can get at a market.

Check out Erica’s post on How to Plan Your Harvest Based on What You Eat.

Next we’ll talk about layout and crop rotation, the planting, and garden maintenance.  Now drop and give me fifty…

Categories: Garden, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , | 9 Comments

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