Tag Archives: gardening

DIY terra cotta watering system

This state has no shortage of water.  We can waste it as we please, without worrying about drought warnings, crop failures, or growing tired of countless images of cracked, parched earth on the TV screen.  This doesn’t mean we should.  Water is one of those things that you quickly learn to appreciate if you don’t have enough of it.  I know I hate wasting water after spending all those years in the San Joaquin Valley, where droughts are pretty much the norm.

Sometimes, I think the world would change almost instantly if those without water shortages were forced to live with drought for a few months. Just enough to realize that water is a limited natural resource, just like oil.  Unlike oil, it’s a resource we can’t survive without.

So, what does this have to do with the photos I’ve posted today? Well, I thought I’d share a sort of primitive drip irrigation method I stumbled across recently, which makes use of buried terra cotta vessels called ollas.  There’s an excellent post here on how this method works.  It’s designed for dry climates, but we decided to install them this summer to regulate our water use a little more, and to make life easier when we went out of town.  Essentially, we’re taking advantage of the permeable properties of unglazed terra cotta to distribute water to your garden slowly and efficiently, minimizing water loss from evaporation.  And yes, this is a new experiment this year — I’ll be reporting back on how well all of this works.  For now, here’s a little tutorial on how I made them, so you can have a shot at this yourself:

1. Find unglazed terra cotta pots and saucers (or just use 2 pots of the same size — I’ll get to that in a bit).  We chose 6″ versions from Home Depot, which cost $1.50 each.  You will also need sandpaper and a waterproof sealant.  The 100% silicon sealant for doors and windows (which you can find in the paint section of Home Depot or any major hardware store) works quite well.

2. Sand the lips of the pots and saucers.  The pots and saucers in the background of the shot above are shown to illustrate how we’re going to glue the olla together; sanding will help the pot and saucer edges match up.  Make sure to clean off the surfaces you sand with a bit of water and let sit for an hour or two to dry before you continue.

3. Line the lip of the pot with silicon sealant (lots of it).  You want to make sure there are no gaps in between the pot and the saucer — otherwise you’ll have a water leak, which will defeat the whole purpose of this exercise.  Let this dry overnight, and check again for any gaps.  You might even want to test these for leaks before you put them in the ground.

If you’re using two pots instead of a pot and saucer to make your ollas, you’ll have to seal up one of the drainage holes as well.  I made one of these as a test, and just stuffed the whole with plastic wrap and then covered everything in silicon sealant.  This leaked.  More silicon fixed the problem, but you’ll definitely want to test this style of olla for leaks, because it’s difficult to visually confirm that you have a good seal on this sort of opening.

4. Bury the ollas in the garden so the saucer part and most of the pot is underground. You’ll basically bury these deep enough so just the open drainage hole is sticking up out of the ground.  This is so you can fill the ollas up periodically.  The first picture on this post should give you a good idea of how to position your olla.  Then, just fill them up, and cover the whole with a rock or something, so you don’t create a nice little mosquito nest in your garden. (As an aside, check out our pea shoots!  We installed the olla this week, and had planted these a while ago. I can’t wait until they start flowering…)

Simple enough, right?  As you might guess, the size and thickness of your olla will determine how the water is distributed, so you may need bigger pots, etc, but for a small vegetable garden like ours (a 10″x4″ plot), I think these should be adequate. If you have planters, you can buy small versions of this (kind of like this) (or make some with little pots, if you can find them?).  We tried a version of these plant nannys last year that used plastic 2 liter bottles as the water reservoir, and had trouble getting a good seal between the bottle and the terra cotta input in the garden bed, but they may be worth trying if you have a container garden.

I suppose now we’ll see how long I can put off watering the garden with these in place.  Though with all the rain we’ve had lately, I don’t think we’ll have anything to worry about any time soon.

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Seedlings!

I’m being a lazy blogger at the moment. But look! We have seedlings!

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More reasons to start a garden

Food porn opportunities are everywhere

Food porn opportunities are everywhere

Check out the gorgeous beans, tomatoes, and squash. Oh, the squash … We made some tonight, and it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Not grainy, like you get sometimes with acorn or kabocha squash that’s been sitting in your grocery store for something like an eternity, but smooth and supple, with a sweetness that makes dessert entirely unnecessary. Oh, and the flowering thai basil just makes me excited. But yah, that’s enough fawning over produce for one night.  I’ve got places to be. Tomorrow morning, in fact. I’m off to California, to visit a friend, say hello to some family, and go to a conference. And I have serious food plans. A tasting menu at Melisse in LA, lunch at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, and more excursions to the Cheese Board in Berkeley, because why wouldn’t I go if the conference is in Oakland? I want more bread …. Oh, and sourdough is calling my name.

squash warts

squash warts

But that’s tomorrow. For now, I want to leave you with one bizarre and sort of cool observation: those funny bumps you see sometimes on squash? That’s where it rests on the ground. It makes its own pillow!  And two, you can make an awesome meal from a random assortment of veggies, a few spices, tortillas, and cheese.  If the veggies are good, you really don’t even need the cheese.

Funky delicious potato

Funky delicious potato

So, I want to give you some ideas for an easy vegetarian meal. This isn’t really a recipe — just the best easy meal you could have on a Friday night.  You can use any veggies that take your fancy, as long as they’ll roast well.

My meal

My meal

We started with the garden produce we had on hand — a squash, bush beans, and a few peppers. We added in one very funky looking (but delicious) farmer’s market potato, and some cauliflower, button mushrooms, a bit of garlic (unpeeled), and rainbow carrots from the store.  We cut the squash into quarters, after scooping out the seeds, cut all the remaining veggies into similarly sized chunks, and pre-heated the oven to 425 degrees F.  After tossing everything except the potatoes in olive oil, salt, pepper, a tablespoon of freshly ground coriander seed, and a smaller portion of ground cumin (maybe < 1 t.), we placed everything in baking tins and threw it in the oven. For the potatoes, we tossed them in salt, pepper, olive oil, and spanish paprika. When everything was fork tender (maybe 1 hour later — this is a 1 dish go-about-your-business sort of dinner), we heated up a bit of cheddar cheese on some store-bought tortillas (habanero lime, from Trader Joe’s), and made our own fajitas.

The boys dinner

The boy's dinner

We both had the squash on the side, because it was easier. I didn’t feel like peeling it. But you could cut it up and roast it, too, or fork bits of it into your tortilla. You could use butternut squash, or acorn squash as a substitute, and it’d work perfectly.

This was a great first vegetarian night. We both got exactly what we wanted in a meal, no meat required. Really, even the cheese wasn’t that necessary — the veggies were tasty enough.  And I am definitely going to be excited about setting up a garden again next spring. Bring on the seed catalogs!

I’m not done yet …

James suggested I tell you what we grew this year, so here’s a list, with a few comments:

  • Pink brandywines – awesome heirloom tomatoes, and much cheaper to grow than to buy. They’re a bit finicky if you live in a rainy environment, but how indulgent is brandywine tomato sauce? You will be making a lot of it from the tomatoes bugs started tasting first.
  • Sungold tomatoes – these are orange cherry tomatoes. They’re a hybrid, a heavy producer, and are DELICIOUS.  Slow roast them and savor them in everything.
  • Yellow pear tomatoes – these are cute but not as tasty as sungolds, and definitely not as disease resistant. We won’t be growing these again next year.
  • Yellow and purple bush beans, haricots verts. The yellow and purple bush beans are my favorite. They seem to achieve a nicer texture when cooked, and have a nice flavor. The haricots verts really didn’t produce much at all.
  • Swiss chard – Awesome. They’re gorgeous, and they keep throwing up stalks when you cut some off for dinner. They weren’t terribly prolific in our garden, but we had enough to feed us with greens all summer.
  • Sweet nantes carrots – Also awesome. These are small, and really need to be grown in potting soil, because CT has rocks everywhere. They’re sweet and flavorful, and have a cute wrinkly witch finger look about them.
  • Arugula – Yum, but eat it before it gets warm and starts flowering. It gets bitter once it gets leggy.
  • Thai and genovese basil. Both varieties did really well as companion plants for the tomatoes, and gave us some tasty meals. The thai basil is gorgeous — it has lovely purple flowers, and a slightly exotic taste (gee, you think?). It’s also hardier than the typical genovese, but is a bit too strong for pesto.
  • A fingerling potato from the Union Square market – Complete failure. It seemed like it was going to work, but it died off, and then there was nothing left in the soil!
  • Sage, marjoram, oregano, cilantro, rosemary. All good herbs to have. We kept these in pots, since they can be brought inside when it starts to get cold.
  • Pea shoots. You can eat these, and they’re easy. They also like cold weather. They’re so cute — they have curly tendrils!
  • Onions, shallots. These hated our rocky soil. I did get the onions to grow a bit, and pickled them when they were still pretty small. Yum.
  • Kale – these are just tiny shoots right now, because we just planted them. They look happy, and are a cold weather crop, so I can’t wait to see how they do.
  • Peppers — I bought a 5 variety mix, and I think we had three different types pop up. I have no idea what kind — some kind of bell pepper, some longer, low-heat pepper, and I think some jalapeños. Yum.

Ok, that’s all I can remember so far. My flight leaves early, so I’m off to sleep. I’ll be back before Halloween, with an awesome lime cookie recipe, and some reports on Zuni Cafe and Melisse. See you then!

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Filed under carrots, cheese, gardening, garlic, local, main, potatoes, roasted vegetables, San Francisco, squash, stories, travel, vegetarian

How does your garden grow?

Garden bounty

Garden bounty - Pink Brandywines, basil, marjoram, pepper, swiss chard, carrots, yellow pears, and sungold tomatoes.

It’s late (for me) on a Saturday, after a long day of detector moving and fretting about broken (asbestos?) tiles and other silliness in the lab. I’ve been stewing over Michael Pollan’s latest piece, directed to our future president. A lot of it isn’t new. We’ve heard his thoughts on how broken the American food system is, and how we might try to change this — at least on an individual level.  But one idea in particular stuck with me:

Since enhancing the prestige of farming as an occupation is critical to developing the sun-based regional agriculture we need, the White House should appoint, in addition to a White House chef, a White House farmer. This new post would be charged with implementing what could turn out to be your most symbolically resonant step in building a new American food culture. And that is this: tear out five prime south-facing acres of the White House lawn and plant in their place an organic fruit and vegetable garden.

Wouldn’t that be bloody fantastic? Actually, more accurately, wouldn’t it be absolutely amazing to watch this fad take over the nation?  I find vegetable gardens, herb patches, any bit of edible beauty, infinitely more fascinating than the same green patch of grass copied and pasted over and over across a suburban landscape. When James and I walk through our neighborhood, we cheer on neighbors growing tomatoes on the tiny strip of land lining the street, or discuss improvements they could make in their gardening technique. Those are the places we remember — the people we want to meet. Everywhere else is just another house.

Our garden from above

Our garden from above. The massive plant encircling the plot is a kabocha squash that sprouted out of our compost!

Granted, we understand that not everyone can do this.  Access to sunny, south-facing land with decent soil is really a key part of this potential transformation. But in the process of planting and eating from our own garden, we’ve started to realize two things: 1) Gardening is not nearly as difficult as we thought it might be, and 2) Being able to go out in the back yard and pick dinner is a privilege that we don’t want to do without.

Ok, I should elaborate a bit. We had successes and failures this year. This is our first year of planting seeds in the soil, in starting this whole endeavor of seed choosing and starting and all of that, so we expected this. And it’s been worth every bit of frustration, especially since we’ve probably learned more from each failure than each success.  Really, it hasn’t taken that much. Once we built up our soil (with compost, soil, and our own hands), and we realized that we had to share our harvest with whatever might come our way, we did just fine. Though I still hold a grudge against those strawberry-eating birds…

But I digress a bit. My point is, if you have land, try and use it. Suppose this crazy idea works: the garden in your front yard actually produces something edible. Chances are, you might find some satisfaction in watching something planted by your very own hands emerge from the soil and provide you with sustenance.  If it doesn’t, well, you’ve learned from that. You’ve given it a shot. And maybe you’ll be motivated to try again — perhaps in a slightly different setting. Maybe, like us, you’ll become addicted to the lifestyle, and take that into consideration in future house searches, lifestyle choices, hobbies … Jobs. James keeps talking about starting an heirloom tomato farm on the side, in Australia. Who knows?  It might just be crazy enough to work.

That said, it’s a daunting hobby to start. There are startup costs, for example. You will have to put in some cash to get everything started, for seed, for soil preparation, and for the occasional things that make your life a bit easier, and you will have to spend some time setting up your plot in the first place.  I figured I’d tell you a few things we learned this year, that might help you get started a bit more quickly.

  1. Set up a compost bin and USE IT. Your garden needs three things: excellent soil, sunlight, and water. Anything else is a bonus. When you first set up your garden, that compost (properly maintained or not) will help you build the soil quality you need to get started. And it’s really not that hard. You need a plastic bin with holes in it (or any container with holes in it) and a bit of space in your backyard. Or, if you have an apartment, you can go the vermiculture route. Here are a few resources to get you started.  Remember, a big trash bin with large holes poked in it (or even some chicken wire strung around wooden posts) is enough to start with.
  2. Diversify. If you love tomatoes, plant three different varieties, and see how each does in your plot. We know, for instance, that choosing one type of bean (haricots verts), was not such a good idea … They didn’t thrive in our soil. When we planted three types (purple and yellow bush beans, and more haricots verts), we found the bush beans thrived where the haricots verts could not. As a result, we had an awesome, multicolored thai stew tonight, featuring the beans we finally managed to grow.  And all of this is without pesticides or anything of the sort… I guess the local bugs liked the haricots verts a little too much…
  3. Plant more than you think you can eat. You will be sharing with the birds and bugs, if you don’t plan to use pesticides. Trust me, they’re not worth it.
  4. Get over supermarket-perfect food. If a bug has had a nibble, chances are you can still use the rest of the produce. Take it as a sign that you’ve produced something delicious.
  5. If you live in an apartment, ask your landlord if you can have some garden space. If not, check out community gardens, or start a collection of edible plants in pots. Herbs, salad greens, and peppers all do pretty well in pots (especially if you have sufficiently large ones).  If you look for compact varieties in the seed catalogs, you should be able to find some good stuff to choose from. Just make sure you put the pots somewhere with a lot of sunlight. A roof can even be a good choice!
  6. Plan your garden early. Look up what zone you live in, which will tell you when you should start seeds, etc. There’s a great book — The New Organic Grower — that covers all this material. It’s aimed more at farmers in colder regions, but a lot of the techniques apply to home gardens.
  7. Talk to local gardeners. Chances are, they can tell you more about what will thrive in your neighborhood than anyone else.

That’s all I have for now. If you have questions, let me know … I’ll give them a shot.  Oh yah, and I’ll get back to the food blogging soon. 😛

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Such sweet things

Our first strawberry

Our garden’s reveling in the summer sun, throwing up signs of contentment in little shoots and buds. Sprouts of questionable heritage yielded spindly little seedlings, which eventually transformed into our little patch of controlled chaos in the backyard. Along with it, creatures emerged — little slugs and aphids, butterflies and ladybugs. Signs that soon (well, now, actually), we’d be competing for the very produce we made possible.

Tomatoes!

I’ve been reading Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, which makes the transition to the “wilderness” of the national parks we just visited back to civilization an interesting one. It’s a comfortable book, meandering through the seasons — and his garden, in each — with a thoughtful ease. And while it’s preachy at times, I think his point about America’s view of nature is dead on. Yes, we invented the concept of national preservation areas, where wilderness could be preserved for all to see. And yes, as the ranger in Prairie Creek State Park pointed out, we have cleared virtually every single old growth forest outside of those preservation areas since we decided to settle here. Pollan’s explanation of this is that we have an “all or nothing” view of nature, and how we manage it;

Once a landscape is no longer ‘virgin’ it is typically written off as fallen, lost to nature, irredeemable. We hand it over to the jurisdiction of that other sacrosanct American ethic: laissez-faire economics.

Yes — big developers. Because who wouldn’t want more condos? It’s already ruined, right? This is despite the fact that, as Pollan points out, man has had a profound effect on nature as we see it. We’re part of it, and we influence it, in our introduction of foreign species, our management policies, and our understanding of our role in its history. Most of the time, we’ve had a more profound effect than we know. His point? We have, in essence, become “gardeners” of our landscape, responsible for its care and general health.

We’ve done a good job, in some cases (the State and National Park systems, an example of which is shown above, are a case in point). But in a lot of instances, I think this all-or-nothing concept (which seems to pervade our thinking, really — politically, environmentally, economically, and socially) is dangerous. It gives us license to write off our responsibility, to ignore our role in the planet’s future. Yes, it’s easier to manage; the lines are black and white, easily placed into the law books for all to see. But just as industrial ag is easier on a large scale, it’s not necessarily better.

I guess that’s why we started this garden. And why I’ll keep it up. I didn’t think I’d like it… I thought it’d be just another chore. I mean, this is me — I barely water the house plants; I used to kill them before James came along and started watching over them all. But I find myself going out to visit it every morning, to keep tabs on the soil condition, the new buds, and the creatures I find myself learning more about, in order to defend our plants’ tender leaves. It’s all the more interesting when you can’t just spray a few chemicals about to take care of whatever your problems are. So far, everything is doing pretty well. We’ve had to share our strawberries with the birds, and had some hungry leaf miners eat through the first leaves of chard. Other than that? We have strong, healthy tomato plants, and some amazing squash and cucumber coming along. Our carrots seem happy, and the potato we planted from the Union Square greenmarket is finally pushing a few buds up out of the soil. And we have more lettuce than we can eat — a few plants are going to seed, and I’m just going to let them, just to see what happens. Oh — and I can’t wait for the tomatoes.

So, with that, I’ll leave you with a recipe. Well — this isn’t really a recipe. I just threw a few veggies, some pasta, and a sauce together and called it lunch. But it’s really tasty (with sort of a satay flavor), and makes use of the garlic scapes that seem to be the only new and interesting thing at the Wooster Square farmer’s market at the moment. It’ll be perfect with our yellow pears, carrots, and spring onions later in the season. I only hope I’m still in New Haven when things start to get really exciting.

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Seedlings!

Seedlings

The peppers are still a bit chilly, despite our occasional application of heat, and the chard has a very low germination rate, but oh, look at all the seedlings! If they all survive transplanting, we’ll have way too many tomato plants for our 4’x10′ backyard plot, and enough string beans, zucchini, and cucumbers to supply the neighborhood. But hey, I didn’t expect them to come up in the first place, and am therefore jumping up and down like a crazy person every time I see one come up for air.

Anyway, just thought I’d share my excitement, and let you know that I’ve got plans for this weekend’s posts in the works. I’ll be reviving my bread baking habit, which I somehow lost track of a couple of weeks ago. I hope to give you a useful comparison of different flour types for your own baking reference. Oh, and one of the posts will involve cocoa nibs, because I just got some in the mail, and can’t wait to put them to use.

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Anticipation

butterfliesThe garden is dug, thanks to two pairs of now-blistered, aching hands. The seeds we started last week are beginning to poke gently through the surface of the soil. Me? I’m getting so excited, after seeing all the pretty produce at the monthly farmer’s market today. (As an aside, I want to have laying hens when I finally settle down somewhere — fresh eggs are bloody amazing!)

If all goes well, we’ll be able to go out back and pick dinner straight from the soil. Three varieties of tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, rainbow chard, bell and hot peppers, herbs, mesclun mix, squash (for the squash blossoms!), haricots verts, and a few varieties of flowers … Yum. Provided, of course, that this house didn’t happen to replace some heavy industrial plant of some sort. New Haven, I love ya, but I’m not entirely sure I trust your soil.

On a somewhat unrelated note, check this out. It’s kind of fascinating, and makes a good point.

The celery root dish I promised is coming along swimmingly, but you’ll have to wait a bit… My hands are officially finished working for the night.

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