Posts Tagged With: Urban Gardening

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?

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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

The Homestead Resolutions for 2012

I hope you all have enjoyed the holidays so far.  Our family has agreed that this was ones of the best Christmases we’ve had in a long time.  Health-wise, we are in a holding pattern and I’ll keep the blog updated if anything changes on that front.  In the mean time…

The other night, my Hard-Working Hubster looked at me and said, we need to set some goals for the new year.  Yeeah… I’m not so into New Years resolutions, and I sort of figured he was hinting at setting financial goals, which are my least favorite, so I was not really excited about what I figured he was about to say.  But, it turns out that’s not what he meant at all.  He was referring a bit to my 101 in 1001 list and some other personal goals, as well as to some things we’d like to do together.

Something that I’ve been working on in 2011 and really want to continue to work on in 2012 is building community.  I loved that last year our next-door neighbor enlisted our help to put in a garden and then shared his harvest with us.  He’s up for round two this year and I want to keep the momentum going on things like that.  I’d really like to strengthen the community between our neighbors on our block.  I also want to increase community between other friends that live nearby but are further out than our immediate neighborhood.

One thing I really want is to increase our self-sufficiency on the homestead.  I want to grow more food and process our own chickens for meat.  But by “self-sufficiency” I don’t mean by ourselves.  I mean, “not relying on the grocery store.”  And, I really want to make a fun special place for the kids in the garden… something they can look forward to, play in or around, and take care of.

So with those things in mind, here are my top five goals for the Schell Urban Homestead for 2012.

  1. Grow a giant pumpkin.  The neighbor has already volunteered a spot in his yard for this.  We’re scouring seed catalogs for the biggest one we can find.  It’ll be a pet project, but out in his front yard for the whole neighborhood to see and monitor.  And the kids can really get in on this one (I’m hoping).  Maybe in the fall, when it’s time to harvest we can do something cool with the results!  
  2. Grow enough in our own neighborhood gardens to feed ourselves for the summer.  I’d like it to be our own garden in our own yard, but I’ve realized this just isn’t realistic.  We eat a lot of veggies and have a lot of people to feed and not much garden space.  So instead of setting our sights on the impossible, I’m hoping to make it possible between our place, the next-door neighbors and the neighbors across the street.  I think they are all open to this.
  3. Process chickens.  We wanted to do this last year – order meat birds or a straight run of chicks and then process them for the table.  It didn’t work out in 2011, but I’m hoping we can work it out for 2012.  This will include culling any hens that are eating eggs and getting egg production numbers to where they should be.  Yay homegrown protein!
  4. Harvest Honey.  Our bees are still here, doing well, and we’re hoping to get a good harvest this coming year.  We even have a neighborhood contact to help us with the first go-round. 
  5. Start a monthly potluck circle involving neighbors and homegrown or locally raised foods.  I really, really want to do this.  I’ve mentioned it to a few friends here and there, but gotten no real commitments.  I might just have to jump in for it to take off.  ??

What about you?  Any gardening goals for the new year?  Is community a part of the goals you are making?  How do you plan to get others involved?

Categories: Beekeeping, Chickens, Community, Food, Garden, Top 5, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , | 11 Comments

Garden Layout and Crop Rotation

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was rearranging the garden layout again.  For those that were following along in the spring, you know that this year was the first year finally decided to make our garden beds “permanent” and we put mulch in between them.  That of course meant that I would inevitably change my mind this fall.  But it is a change for good reason.

The permanent design was three 4 foot by 20 foot long beds that ran east to west along side the south side of the house.  The layout was good, something we had been doing for the last few years, and it seemed to be working fairly well.  But there was a big flaw in this design.  For a few years now, I’ve known something in the design was amiss, but it wasn’t until this year that I was able to pinpoint what was wrong.  This year was the year of the lousy tomato bed.

Old “permanent” layout (with the neighbor’s beds shown too).

I was so disappointed.  I hand-picked 13 varieties of heirloom tomatoes for the northern most 4′ x 20′ bed.  But we only got a small handful of fruit.  Our worst tomato harvest ever.  And besides the low production, the plants started dying off prematurely at the west end of the bed.  Over the summer, the dying-off moved east.  What I suspected would one day happen finally did… we left our plants in the same area for too many years in a row.

Yep that’s right.  Despite all we knew, we didn’t rotate our tomato plantings.  Because of the layout, and because the toms are always the tallest plants in the garden, we’ve been planting the tomatoes in the same place for years now, the northern most of the three beds.  We amend the soil every fall and spring, especially in that area since we weren’t rotating, but it caught up with us any way.  We have been rotating the other crops in the other beds, but the toms have just stayed.  There was only one year when we planted them somewhere else, and they shaded out the stuff behind them.  As our neighbors joked with us, “Carrots love tomatoes.  But carrots love sunlight too.”

I’ve puzzled over this for a few seasons now, but could never figure out just what to do with the tomatoes.  Then, all at once this fall, it dawned on me that we’ve laid the beds out all wrong.  If I simply switched them to four 4 foot by 15 foot beds that ran north to south, I would still get the same square footage, but I’d be far better enabled to rotate my crops.  All the tomatoes could still go into one bed together, but could be rotated without shading out any other crops.  Head-palm!  How did it take me so long to realize this?  I don’t know, but I am excited.

New, hopefully permanent, layout.  Perhaps I can convince the neighbor to switch too?

Also this way, I can easily designate one of the four beds to be the spring/fall bed so that I won’t plant my summer crops late again like I did this year.  And, since I’m taking the time to build new “permanent” beds again, I’m going to edge them this time.  One reason is so that I can kind of keep the mulch from the paths out.  But also, and this is the bigger reason really, is so that I can better keep little feet out of the beds.  I think the edges will be beneficial for H and especially E to know where they can and can’t walk.  Also, anyone visiting (like with the chicken coop tour) will hopefully know it’s a garden and won’t tread on my baby bok choy.

My edging is not fancy.  I used what was on hand.  One bed is edged with random rocks from the yard and flower beds.  One is edged in brick that was removed to make the neighbor’s veggie garden.  Another is edged in left-over timbers that he donated to our cause.  And the fourth is edged in… well, a mish-mash of materials.  One day, I might make them prettier, but for now, I think they will do the job.  Plus I was in a hurry to get the beds made before our first snow fall, which came in yesterday!

By the way – if you want to make a garden plan like I’ve shown in the above pictures, I totally ripped off Erica’s method.  Lazy garden planners unite!

Categories: Garden | Tags: , | 5 Comments

Winding Down for the Season

We’re playing catch up here as the harvest season comes to a close.  This is my favorite time of year, but it is one that works us the hardest.  As the weather cools off we find ourselves wanting to move inside.  We want to settle down with a cuppa and a warm blanket or cozy up to a nice bowl of hot soup.  Unfortunately, all that coziness will have to wait just a few more weeks.  Winter is the true sleepy season.  Fall is the season of work.

We have most of the harvest put away finally.  Sunflowers and corn are hanging to dry, onions and potatoes are stored, canning is finished, summer produce is put up in its various forms.  We have garlic to plant this week.  I am actually doing a little garden redesign as we are pulling plants when the freezes hit and kills them off one by one.  The tomatoes are still, unbelievably, hanging on.

I am hoping to get some of our kohlrabi to over-winter so I can get seed from it next fall.  The plants are from seed from Slovakia that was smuggled through the mail to my in-laws.  The variety is very large – 8 pounds or more without any woodiness.  Our plants are bulbing up nicely, and they might just be one of the few big successes this season, but the seed is hard to come by.

An Independence Days update is in order, I think.  I last did one in August.

Plant something – Planted a few hardy mums.  Garlic will hit the dirt this week – nothing else is on the docket though.

Harvest something – eggs, tomatoes, peppers, kale, chard, kohlrabi, over 60 gallons (maybe even 80) of compost.

Preserve something – tomatoes and corn frozen, a couple of ducks in the freezer (thanks to Rick!!), the above mentioned canning, drying, dehydrating and such.

Waste Not – compost and recycling, scraps to chickens, etc.  Reused old t-shirts for a Halloween costume.  Working on other sewing projects from the scrap box – including some napkins and even two quilts!  Been mending things, not throwing them out.

Want Not – My friend Annie gave us some cloth diapers, and I used an old flannel baby blanket to make some extra wipes.  Got some great hand-me-downs from some friends for the baby girl.

Build Community Food Systems – Participated in both the Denver Botanic Gardens and the Denver Urban Homesteading chicken coop tours.  Baby sat for some friends in exchange for a couple of pullets (we got the great end of that deal)!

Eat the Food – yes.  :)

Although my summer garden was a huge flop this year, I am happy that I put down some bok choy seeds and some late season peas this summer.  I might get one more harvest before we put the garden to bed completely.  I actually planted some other things too, but the second round of kale, spinach and beets never came up and I didn’t get any replacements in the ground in time.  I feared for the bok choy after the chicken coop tour – it got somewhat trampled since a few people didn’t seem to realize they were standing in my garden on my baby brassicas.  But it has survived, and even if it doesn’t get huge, I might get some baby heads out of it yet.

Still, I find myself drawn indoors.  Completing sewing projects (mostly mending) that I’ve put off for months.  Starting other projects.  Getting my craft on.  A few moments of inspiration have led to some things getting done in the handiwork department.  Halloween is coming and costumes need making.

We had a family dinner last week.  I’ve been spending more time with my sister lately and I am enjoying this time with her.  We decorated sugar skulls for the Mexican Day of the Dead.  The holiday begins on November 1st, which is Henry’s birthday, and we are big Halloween fans around here, so we did our Dia de los Muertos early this year.  (More on this later, I promise).

Life these days is transitioning from the mad rush of summer to the slower pace of fall.  Rick’s big-game hunting will mark the last of the harvest here, and that is coming in the next few weeks.  In the mean time, we are quieting down.  The canning pot is back in it’s spot in the basement.  H is focusing more on indoor play and learning.  It’s funny how we naturally move in these rhythms.  From outside in the sun and mud to inside quiet games at the table.

Categories: Food, Garden, Independence Days, Simple Living, Urban Homesteading | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Tomatoes Three Ways

Last week I shared my simple salsa recipe as a way to use up some of that end of summer tomato glut.  Well, we’re still deep in the red around here, as I went up to the CSA this weekend and picked another 50+ pounds.  Here are the ways we are putting away the toms for use over the winter.

We mainly picked Roma tomatoes.  But Rick wanted a few sweet slicers to save.  Since slicing tomatoes don’t hold up as well to other preservation methods, and since it’s the easiest method to do, I put up those first…

Freezing
This is the simplest thing.  If you have the space, you might even be tempted to use this as your only tomato preservation method (we did for the last two years).  First, wash and dry the tomatoes.  Next, label your gallon size freezer bags.  Finally, place as many tomatoes in the bag as it will hold, zip it up, and put it in the freezer.  Done.

The tomatoes should not stick together, so you can take them out one or two or three at a time and set them in a bowl on your counter to defrost.  As they warm up, the skins will just slip off.  They will make great sauce or soup, and be as sweet as the summer time.  They will be soft, so I usually dice them when they are still half-frozen and toss them straight into my pan to finish defrosting as they cook.  Yum.

Canning
This is the main method we are using this year.  Most of those Romas are getting diced and put into jars.  There are lots and lots of posts out there talking about canned tomatoes and how the process works, so I’m not going to retype that here.  Instead, here is a link to a great tutorial.  The only thing I do differently is I chop those suckers up so I don’t have to do it on the cooking end when I open the cans.  -Note that I’m experimenting right now with whether or not it’s worth it to dice them, or if it just as good crushing the tomatoes.  I’ll let you know. –   And please, please ignore anyone who tells you to seed your tomatoes.  WHY?  Seriously.  If you don’t like tomato seeds, you probably don’t like tomatoes, so why are you even bothering.  These are the same people who always peel their potatoes.  To me, this is a total waste of time and energy.  But whatever.  Maybe I’m just lazy.  ;)

No matter the recipe you use, make sure to adjust processing time for altitude if you live here in Denver.  Last week I put up just over ten quarts of canned tomatoes (some diced and some crushed).  Looking to get another 15-20 quarts out of these.

Drying
Mmmmm… sun-dried tomatoes.  But without the sun.  I totally use the dehydrator.  It’s faster and I have two little boys in the yard, not to mention the chickens.  All of them, tomato hounds and dirt-flingers to boot.  Dehydrator is much safer – I might actually get dirt-free, uneaten tomatoes this way.

I picked through my boxes of Romas to find the small and the weird.  These tomatoes tend to be labor intensive to peel, which is awful for canning, but makes them perfect candidates for drying.  You don’t peel your dried tomatoes, and you can just cut out the really weird spots.

So wash them, slice them, arrange them, season them and you are good to go.

Some of the bigger weirdos had to be sliced long-ways into thirds to fit in my dehydrator trays.  I sprinkle mine with salt and thyme.  I don’t seed these tomatoes either.  That might make the drying time faster, or possibly make the trays easier to clean afterwards, but I don’t care.  I just want to get the tomatoes off the counter and into the pantry as quickly as possible.

My dehydrator will take 12 hours on 135° to dry them all out.  For those that will tell me to use my oven, sorry, that’s a no go.  I run my dehydrator outside so I don’t have to heat up my kitchen.  We have no a/c around here and I can actually fit more into the dehydrator anyway.  If you don’t have a dehydrator though, that is a viable option.

There you have it.  What are your favorite ways to save summer’s favorite fruit for the dark days of winter?

Categories: Canning and Food Preservation, Food, Recipes | Tags: , , , , , | 10 Comments

Fall at the Homestead

The first day of fall was last week, and we are entering one of the busiest times of the year around here.  Of course it’s harvest time – which means much of our work moves from the garden to the kitchen.  You’ve seen all my posts on jam lately, but I’ve been canning too.  A little over ten quarts of tomatoes so far, and we’re going Sunday to our CSA farm to help pick more toms and to pick and roast green chiles as well.  The tomatoes will also be canned and the chiles peeled and frozen.

I’m glad we had the CSA to fall back on this year as my tomatoes were so sad.  I was actually a bit worried.  It sure is nice to see the pantry shaping up after all.

Lots of Christmas gifts here too.

This coming weekend is the second annual chicken coop tour.  Locals can purchase tickets here or here.  We participated last year as well, and we are excited to show off again this year.  The coop had a couple of improvements this spring and summer and I really wanted everything in place for the tour. Rick bought me two galvanized garbage cans – one for the chicken food and one for finished compost, but when I started harvesting the compost, I had enough to fill both, plus half a wheel-barrow-full that I pawned off on the neighbor (it was a hard sell, trust me).  The chicken food is still in the garage for now, and there are almost two bales of straw under a tarp out there.

The hens seem excited to have straw in the coop for the first time.  We’ve always used dead leaves or pine shavings in their coop, but the “fall” part of the season has yet to happen here and we wanted to coop cleaned up for the tour.  We were hoping for some wood chips to spread over the ground before the tour too, but it looks like we’ll have to go with out.  Despite that, the chicken area looks nice.

The extra straw, not for the coop, will be used to mulch the garlic that we ordered and saved for seed.  I ordered two varieties this year and saved ten bulbs from a third.  We hope to plant around 125 cloves after the first frost hits.  That should yield us enough garlic for the year next year, including some to save for seed in 2012.

A couple of weekends ago, Rick and H put up my clothesline for me.  I was so excited to get the line that Rick’s mom had promised me.  But once we got it home, we actually couldn’t manage to get it into working order.  After fighting with it for a couple of weeks, we ended up buying a new one, and I love it!  I’ve used it everyday, but I’ve realized I need more clothes pins.  The line holds a lot, and C’s diapers (and inserts and wipes) take up all the pins I have.

  

We harvested our concord grapes – one whole bunch!  There would have been two bunches, but I accidentally knocked off the second bunch early on in the summer  when I was trying to get the vine on the trellis.  Not too bad for it being the vine’s first real season – we just planted the cutting last spring.  We hope to use this vine to make a few more cuttings when the pergola is done.

Speaking of the pergola, Rick’s uncle brought us down our first pieces from the mountains.  The posts are here!  We will be setting them on poured concrete footers this fall and we’ll begin laying the patio in the spring.  This was the goal of the tree removal project.  I had hoped to have it done all in one summer, but it really was a huge undertaking to manage on our own.  Not to mention having a baby this summer too.  (There’s that old excuse again!).  ;)

There is a huge amount of beetle-kill pine in our forests here right now (a heart-breaking 4 million acres in Colorado and Wyoming), so we plan to build the whole pergola out of salvaged logs.  Once it’s constructed, we will plant and train grape vines over it.  I am very excited about it, but it’s been slow going.

Fall is also the time when we start filling the freezer back up with meat.  We actually got a good look at the forests this year as we did some prep work for hunting season.  Rick sighted in his rifles at the range up on Highway 40, and we did a little grouse hunting and some fishing.  We were skunked on the grouse, but Henry did catch his first fish!  He let it go so it could grow up a bit.  Nothing was added to the freezer yet, but the trip was great fun anyway, and we’ve ready for big game in a couple of weeks.

So that’s what we’ve been up to lately – I’m hoping the tour participants will give us grace on the yard still being half done.  Oh well, they’re coming to see the coop, right?  ;)

Categories: Canning and Food Preservation, Chickens, DIY, Garden | Tags: , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Five Things I Learned in the Garden This Year

Last week, The Crunchy Chicken blogged about her Top 5 Biggest Food Gardening Mistakes.  Usually I just comment on the blog, but I thought my comments from this year warranted a post of it’s own, instead of taking up a page on Deanna’s blog.

This year was the first year that I was quite successful with getting my early spring crops in the ground in a timely manner.  This led to great lettuce and spinach and peas!  Hooray!  I am a garden champion!  Look at me!  And then the lettuce lingered and instead of calling spring gardening done, I let the early crops limp along delaying my main summer planting.  And, as a result I learned some valuable lessons…

1.  Don’t plan on planting summer crops in the same place as your spring crops.  I actually thought this would work.  But the spring crops will inevitably take too long and if you don’t plant your zucchini until July, expect to be the crazy woman who asks her neighbors for zucchini (who actually ASKS for zucchini?).  My neighbors were shocked when I came a knockin’.  Really.  Instead, next year, plan to plant fall crops right behind the spring crops.  Keep the summer garden area sacred… a few extra early peas are not worth my beets and tomatoes!

2.  Don’t water by hand.  Normally, we run a drip system in the garden.  It saves water and it saves on weeding.  This year, we kind of rearranged the garden beds and Rick needed to make a new drip configuration to match.  This spring was really rainy so making the system was delayed.  By the time it got hot, we were in baby-prep mode and it never happened.  We watered by hand.  This means, sometimes we watered and sometimes I forgot, and we had an awful lot of weeds.  We still have an awful lot of weeds.  Tomatoes dried out and then were soaked.  What, are we amateurs here?  Get a drip system.  They save water.  they save on weeding.  They save your plants.

3.  Don’t plant your tomatoes in the same place every year.  Again with the amateur mistakes.  I KNOW these things.  I really do.  But for whatever reason, I just didn’t pay attention.  The 13 varieties of heirloom tomatoes I carefully planted (on time!) have produced exactly squat this year, and they’ve been dying of some mystery disease starting on the West side of the garden and moving East.  Yi.  I know better.  So does Rick.  But we did it anyway.  Boo hoo.

4.  Plant more garlic.  This one actually came from a success!  We planted garlic last fall for the first time.  Garlic is like a miracle!  One clove of garlic becomes this gorgeous full head by late spring.  Amazing.  Delicious!  Victory!  Plant more!  And along these lines, get your neighbor gardening too.  Our neighbor’s garden was wonderful this year.  He enjoyed it, we enjoyed it, and we worked together on it.  now he’s already plotting and planning for next year.  I see a giant pumpkin in my future yet!

5.  Cut yourself some slack.  This is gardening, not nuclear fission or some other super crazy hard sciencey thing.  It’s supposed to be fun.  And it is, no matter what.  So what if we didn’t have any zucchini this year – every one always has extras of those lying around.   Boo hoo that my tomato plants bit the dust.  Instead I was able to find a local farm that will sell me a perfect box of organic Romas that I didn’t have to pick myself.  And they were really perfect.  Oh yeah, and I had a baby in July!  Seriously – it’s ok to rely on the CSA produce some years.  The great thing about gardening is that you get to try again next season.  These mistakes are not permanent!

How about you?  How did your gardens do this year?  What have you learned?

Categories: Garden, Top 5 | Tags: , , | 8 Comments

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