Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Raised Bed Garden Overview

One of the best parts about Spring is planning and planting a garden. Home gardens can be all shapes and sizes from something that requires a small tractor to manage to a few containers interspersed around the yard. In that we live in a house that isn't ours on land we don't own I opted for a couple of raised beds in the side yard. One is 5'x10' and the other is a 5'x5' square and they are both 6" deep. I filled these with a really rich mixture of chicken manure and dirt from Andrea's folks' farm. It is about 50% dirt 30% chicken manure and 20% chicken bones.

The Beds

There are a few advantages to the raised bed setup. First, you don't have to worry about tilling the bed. Since you don't really ever step in it and pack it down the soil remains fairly loose and easy to work. Since the beds are contained it also prohibits a significant amount of weed and grass intrusion, not completely mind you, but much. I'm not one who makes a big deal about raised beds versus a traditional in-ground garden. If we lived on our own land I'd probably have some of both so I'm not going to make an issue out of it.

One fascinating method that I have modified to my own usage is the "Square Foot Garden" which was pioneered by Mel Bartholomew. I've read both the first edition of the book and the updated version and they are both fantastic. Bartholomew has done his homework and put together a great resource for the home gardener. You can find out more about SFG here. Below you'll see a picture of how I have most of my beds divided up according to the SFG plan.


If you're at all familiar with SFG you'll look at that and think it's all wrong. What I've done is divide a 3'x5' section of raised bed into fifteen 1 square foot sections using some wire (I tried string and it broke down and came apart). Each square foot will have a prescribed number of plants in it according to what the book recommends. For instance, the three middle sections each have 1 broccoli plant in them and the four corners have/will have 1 cabbage plant in them.

One neat distinctive of Bartholomew's method is the emphasis on vertical gardening when possible. Obviously we are used to going vertical with things like beans and cucumbers but he even grows squash and melons vertically. Now, there is a particular way the book recommends creating your vertical growing trellises but because we like to be frugal and make due with what we can salvage I, once again, modified the plan.



As you  can see from my "tomato net" I used some old T posts that were lying around on the farm. The two vertical pieces are simply driven into the soil of the raised bed and the horizontal bar is lashed on with some wire. It is kind of difficult to see in the top picture but I then wove wire together to create a net that the tomato plants can climb.

Here you can see the three sections with "catwalks" between them and the second bed in the background.
The Plan

This year I have spent more time planning so that - hopefully - it will be easier to plant successive crops in the same spaces. Again, this is a recommendation from Bartholomew. Right now, for instance, I have all of my cool weather, early Spring plants in the ground. These include:

- Broccoli
- Kale
- Cabbage
- Spinach
- Carrots
- Lettuce (in the salad table)

I originally planted some collards but the seeds were three years old and none of them came up so we may wait until fall for the collard crop.

There will almost certainly be some overlap in the garden as a whole (not individual squares) but in a few weeks, after the danger of frost has passed, I'll get these in there as well:

- Tomatoes
- Bell peppers
- Cayenne peppers
- Ancho peppers
- Okra
- Cucumbers
- Squash
- Pole beans
- Pintos (late summer)
- Various flowers
- Various herbs
- Zucchini
- Swiss chard

I'll keep you posted on how things shape up throughout the growing season. Right now the broccoli and cabbage are looking good so I'd like to think that the lessons I've learned over the past two years will make for a superior harvest this year.

Daddy's garden helper

Friday, March 18, 2016

Bananas for Solar Oven Banana-Nut Bread

There is something extraordinarily satisfying about building something out of scraps that are laying around the garage and then cooking something tasty in it. That is exactly what I've done and it has been a long, drawn out process but finally it paid off.

I don't really remember when I started my solar oven (see "long"..."drawn out" above) but it has been close to a year if not more. It all began with a cardboard box solar over which was...unsatisfactory. Now, that is not to say that your carboard box solar over is unsat. I'm only speaking for mine. Deciding that something more was required I set about creating one using an old piece of glass from a screen door as my starting point. A year, several newspapers, some tin foil and a can of spray paint later - we have an oven.

Enough about the oven. Let's talk food. We had some overripe bananas in the kitchen so I figured I'd go with an easy banana-nut bread recipe. That way if it went south, which it very well could have, I wouldn't have wasted much time, effort or ingredients. The recipe I used was from sunoven.com and you can find it here.

http://sunoven.com/sun-cooking-usa/how-to-use/recipes/


I don't know if this had any significant effect on the results but I used a muffin pan instead of a regular loaf pan (some knucklehead used it on the grill and messed it up). What I do know is that these muffins were really good and they were baked using the power of the sun! I mean how cool is that?
Ready to bake! This was the second batch. Hence the empty spot.
The recommendation in the recipe is for 1 hour and 15 minutes. I kind of forgot about them and let them go for closer to an hour and a half to an hour and 45 minutes. However,  the finished product was truly delicious. My oven operates at about 250 degrees this time of year (mid-March). Someday I might add some more reflectors and stuff but today is not that day. Anyhow, the muffins came out nice and hot with steam pouring out of them when I broken the first one open.


If you've never tried a solar oven or are skeptical about whether or not they work, let this be your proof. I had my doubts but God's giant heating element in the sky came through and not a single mW was used to cook these muffins. If you haven't tried cooking with the sun give it a shot. It's fun and the results are tasty!

God bless,

Christian

Friday, March 11, 2016

Homemade Sauerkraut

Sauerkraut - just the mention of it will make children quiver in fear, at least that's what my sister and I did when it started stinking up the house when Mamaw and Susan put on a big pot of it. I mean we would run to my room, only because it was bigger and probably cooler (just sayin'), and stuff towels and dirty clothes under the door to seal off the room. My how times have changed.

Turns out sauerkraut is packed full of, not just tangy goodness, but also tons of helpful probiotics. Now I've enjoyed kraut on reuben sandwiches for years but you can put Thousand Island dressing on old sneakers and I'll wolf them down so that isn't giving kraut a fair shake. However, once I heard about the aforementioned host of probiotics I thought I'd give the old sour cabbage another shot - a shot on a brat - a shot all by itself.

Here's the great thing about homemade sauerkraut - it is SUPER simple! I can't think of many other things that have fewer ingredients than traditional sauerkraut. "How many?" you say. I'm glad you asked. Two. That's right, two ingredients. Cabbage and salt. That's really it. Now, you can add any number of other things to your kraut but the bare minimum is salt and cabbage. So let me put this recipe in a mathematical equation...

Shredded cabbage + a little bit of salt + time = delicious, tangy, crispy, healthy sauerkraut.

When I first embarked on the journey of homebrewed (remember it's fermented)  sauerkraut I was letting it do it's thing in an old salsa jar. You may laugh but that actually produced some really good kraut and it's not a huge batch. Honestly, half of a small head of cabbage could be packed into a quart sized salsa jar. It required brutalizing the cabbage after letting it sit for about 30 minutes with the salt and squeezing all the juice out but it fit. In fact, here is a link to the original source of my kraut adventures.

The salsa jar worked for a time but come Christmas of 2015 something far better was under the tree with my name on it - my very own stone crock. Now, I was ready to make some real sauerkraut. So here's my tried and true method.

Ingredients

- 1 to 1.5 heads of cabbage
- 3 TBL of salt (I prefer kosher or sea salt)

Step 1: Shred cabbage
We are blessed to have a shredding attachment for our stand mixer that makes this easy and fast. You do it however works the best just shred the bugger.

Step 2: Fill crock
I like to add about 1/3 of the cabbage followed by 1 TBL of salt and repeat 2 times.

Step 3: Press cabbage
I'm not sure if this is strictly necessary but I do it. When the cabbage is all in the crock I press it down with my fist so that the juices begin to seep out. I like a shallow layer of juice already on top when I go to step 4.

Step 4: Cap it off and cover it
For my purposes I use a small plate from our cupboard that fits perfectly inside the crock. So I place that right side up on the cabbage and put a quart jar full of water on top of it to hold it down. Then I lay a clean dish towel over everything.

Step 5: Wait
Here you have the hardest part of making homemade kraut. I set mine in the basement and let it make itself wonderful for at least 10 days. To me that is just about the absolute minimum time to let nature take it's course with the kraut. Evidently there is some science about this that I don't fully understand and I have left kraut for 4 weeks when I was using the salsa jar method. It was good too.

Step 6: Enjoy
After the prescribed time I take the crock, empty the contents into quart jars and place them in the fridge. Of course you'll want to sample some before it all gets put away. Once in the fridge the fermentation process will cease.

Warnings!
1. You will never want that nasty store bought kraut again. It just isn't the same and should have an entirely different name.
2. I cannot recommend freezing sauerkraut. I tried this with one batch and it just wasn't good when thawed. It was watery and just...just not good chow.
3. You may experience some fuzzy growth on your kraut during the fermentation process, this is not abnormal but go ahead and skim it off.

That's really about it. Whether you think you like sauerkraut or not you should give this a try. It is easy, cheap, healthy and downright delicious. It is also a valuable skill and another way to preserve an abundant harvest. So, I hope you'll give it a shot. Let me know what you think.

Christian