Monday, September 30, 2013

Beginner Gardening Mistakes and Lessons

This year had a lot of firsts for me, especially in the garden. In the past I've had tiny container gardens or did lazy-man's guerrilla gardening on a small scale. This year was my first year to go full scale in the garden and dig up a huge chunk of my backyard to grow veggies. I grew tomatoes (4 varieties), peppers (3 varieties), cucumbers, peas, runner beans, radishes (8 varieties), carrots (two varieties), basil, lettuce (10+ varieties), eggplant, beets and pak choi. Phew. Just listing that is tiring.

I learned a lot this year and am very excited for next year's garden (I'm planning on doubling my garden space in the backyard and putting in some edibles in the landscaping in the front yard).

Here are a few of the beginner's mistakes and lessons I've learned to hopefully help other newbie gardeners have a great start.

* Pick varieties based on flavor over yield. One of the tomato varieties I grew produced fantastic yields, but tasted flat. If I wanted flat tasting tomatoes, I'd continue to buy them. I grow tomatoes because homegrown tastes better. These tomato plants made up 1/4 of my tomato plants, so I now have a lot of kinda-bland dehydrated tomatoes that I guess I'll just smuggle into chili over winter. I can't throw them away because I worked so hard to grow them, but I'm really disappointed in them. Grow the varieties that taste awesome and that the grocer never carries.

* Tomatoes and beans go well together. I planted my scarlet runner beans next to the tomatoes in one bed. They kept wanting to climb up the tomato plants instead of up their trellis and I kept gently moving them over to the trellis. When I didn't check on the garden for a couple days, they swirled all around the tomato plants. I left them this time, and I'm glad they did. The pretty little red flowers looked lovely against the dark green tomato leaves. The beans got a free trellis, but the tomatoes really benefited. The mortgage lifter tomatoes I grew got to be about 10-12 feet tall and were falling all over. However, the tomatoes that had runner beans growing up them stayed off the ground and stood tall. Next year I'm planning on intentionally mixing my tomatoes and beans together. I'm thinking of planting purple podded beans so they will be easy to find and add more color to the garden.

* Go for free gardening supplies when you can. All winter long, I looked out for items thrown to the curb that could be repurposed in my garden. I found a baby crib and an old bed. I took apart the crib and put it sideways into the ground and used it as a trellis for my peas. I planted the headboard into the ground and used it as a trellis for my runner beans. When the beans got too be too tall, I stuck some tree branches from the brush pile into the ground behind them and they grew up those just fine (one plant grew into the tree on the side of the yard). Next year I'm going to use branches to trellis all the beans and peas and use the bed and crib sides for cucumbers.

* Have a plan for succession planting. When the first of the lettuce, carrots, beets and radishes came out of the garden, I planted some more crops. However, I didn't have a good plan in place, and so parts of the garden were empty for a few weeks. Over winter I want to make a good solid garden plan so I can avoid those empty times. Radishes are perfect for filling in gaps since they grow so quickly, and I can never have enough radishes.

* Don't panic when things don't go perfectly. In late summer I planted more radishes, but half of them quickly sent up flower stalks. I was disappointed but let them grow. Now I'm harvesting lots of delicious, peppery seed pods. I'm getting several from each crop, so I'm really not losing anything. They are perfect in salads and stir-fries. Bonus: Trucker doesn't particularly like radishes, but it turns out he loves these seed pods. Next year I'll plant radishes throughout the growing season and plan on getting a harvest of seed pods during the heat of summer.

* Be ready for preserving because once the harvest comes in, it comes in strong. I underestimated the amount of produce my garden would dump on me all at once, so now my dehydrators have to run around the clock to get it all put up. Wouldn't you know that the main harvest would start mere days after I bought 2 bushels of apples to dehydrate?

* Plan for success as well as failure. I have a bit of self-esteem issues (don't we all), so I expected quite a bit of failure on my part in the garden. I planned to make up for my shortcomings. I decided to grow tomatoes from seed, but expected that I would kill most of the seedlings before they could get out into the garden, so I planted a lot. I guess I did something right. Next thing you know, I have 200+ tomato seedlings, 100+ pepper seedlings and 50 eggplant seedlings taking over the laundry room. I refused to throw them into the compost heap, but didn't have the space for all that. I gave 1/4 to my parents for their garden, then took more into work to give out to coworkers and customers, really anyone who I could pressure into taking just one seedling. This time I'm going to be a bit more reasonable in the number I plant. And if I fail and kill them all? Well, I'll just buy my seedlings for the year.

* Talk with anyone and everyone about gardening. I was amazed to find out just how many people in my life have green thumbs of various hues. I got so many great tips from them.

The best thing of all about gardening is: "next year..." I love that gardening is a never ending source of learning. There's always something new to learn, a new variety to grow, a new recipe to try.

What has the garden taught you this year?
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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Building a Winter Wardrobe on the Cheap

With summer ending, it's time to start thinking about getting ready for winter. If you have growing children to clothe, have changed sizes, or have moved to a colder climate, you'll need to build a winter wardrobe to stay warm and healthy. Rather than rush out to the mall as soon as the winter clothes hit the rack and spend a paycheck or two, make a plan and shop around to build a winter wardrobe for less.

Evaluate your clothing. Will last year's coat work? Can you pass down clothing from older children to younger children? Make a list of everything you'll need before you go out shopping.

Generally, you'll need a warm coat, some thick shirts (sweaters or flannels), thick socks, warm boots or shoes, a scarf, a hat and at least one pair or gloves/mittens. If you live in frigid areas or spend lots of time exposed to the elements, you'll need extremely warm gloves and a pair of long-johns. Tights/leggings can make looser fitting pants or even skirts appropriate for winter wear.

I would invest the most in a good pair of winter boots. While you can layer clothes under a thinner coat, there's not much you can do about an inferior pair of boots. Get a good, warm pair, especially if you/your children spend much time outside in the winter. Frostbitten toes are not worth the savings on buying cheap boots. If you see a great pair of boots on clearance in late winter/early spring, stockpile them for the next winter. A couple of years ago, I found a $100 pair of boots for Trucker for $19.99 and he still wears them.

If you are buying a new coat, consider buying a coat with a removable lining. My dad has a coat that is a medium weight coat with a jacket that zips together for a warm winter coat for frigid days. On warmer winter days he can wear only the medium weight coat and he can wear the jacket alone in autumn and early spring. It helps a lot during these weird winters where the temperature can go from 10 to 60 within a week.

Layering helps a lot. Where I live there are some frigid days, but generally speaking it's cold but not unbearable. I wear a long sleeved t-shirt with a short sleeved shirt over it on most days. On really cold days I'll also wear a flannel over that. This keeps me from needing to buy an expensive heavy-duty winter coat that I'd really only need a few days a year, and I can wear the coat for more months of the year. When I lived up North and lived without a car (aka spent hours waiting in below-freezing temperatures for a bus), my winter coat wasn't the warmest, but it was slightly loose so on the worst days, I'd wear 3-4 flannel shirts under it, with a thin scarf wrapped around my neck under the coat and a thicker one over the coat. By layering your clothes, you can wear items for more months of the year, so you need fewer items.

Call the thrift stores in your area and ask them about sales. All of the thrift stores in my area have at least one day a month that everything is half off. Go early on those days and be prepared for crowds. Go straight to the winter clothes as they will be picked over quickly. Most thrift stores have a tag sale, e.g. everything with a red tag is 50% off. One thrift store in my area has a $.50 sale each Monday on a particular tag color. Sometimes smaller thrift stores will have bag sales, say everything you can fit in a paper grocery bag for $5. Go then and cram in everything you can. Start by cramming in a coat, then work your way to cheaper items (flannel shirts to thick socks). Roll items to fit the most in one bag.

Thrift stores usually have a respectable selection of winter items. In late fall there are lots of winter coats to chose from. You can also find various styles of winter hats and more scarves than you can believe, from the dollar store junk to name brand to crocheted by a cute old lady scarves. Look for leggings and thick socks too, just make sure you wash them well before wearing.

If you need business or business casual wear, check mid- to upper-level consignment shops for winter apparel appropriate for the office. Consignment shops are especially good sources of nice looking winter coats, especially if your local thrift shops only have ratty coats. If you like the shop (and their prices), but don't see a coat you like, leave your number and size with the owner and ask for a phone call if something comes in.

End of season yard sales are an option for buying winter clothes at a bargain, especially sweaters. People are desperate to sell items so they don't have to store them overwinter, but shoppers are not thinking about needing sweaters when the temperature is over 80. Look for coats, sweaters, hats, gloves and flannels. If you find a sweater in a color that you like, but hate the style/size, check it over to make sure it is not pilled or felted. You can unravel that sweater to make scarves, hats, mittens or even another sweater. Here's a great article on unraveling sweaters.

If you are crafty, look for wool yarn at thrift stores and yard sales. There's still plenty of time to make scarves for the whole family. You can also make hats, mittens, arm warmers, leg warmers, socks, etc. Generally, it costs about the same to make a scarf from thrift-store yarn as to buy a thrift-store scarf, but you get more control of the end product. However, if you would be crafting anyway, you may as well make something you can use and avoid needing to purchase an item.

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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Use it Up: Veggie Powder

Many things are tossed into the garbage can when they still have lots of good life left in them. Use It Up is a section on how to use this "trash" to make new, useful items for your home or to re-purpose items to avoid a purchase.

My garden is producing massive quantities of veggies right now, and I'm adding them to every meal and also preserving as much as possible. With this harvest, I'm faced with another problem: waste. I harvest several radishes for a nice little snack, and I'm left with a gallon-sized container of radish greens. When cutting up celery for stir-fry, I'm left with lots of celery leaves. If you can tomatoes, you'll have loads of tomato skins. Whatever edible veggie-parts you're left with, it seems a shame to throw them away (or into the compost bin) when you worked so hard to grow them (or spent so much to buy them). A great way to use them up is to make veggie powder.

Veggie powder is a mix of dehydrated veggies, pulverized into a powder, used to add flavor to dishes. You can add it to eggs, casseroles, breads or soups. You can us it in place of seasoning packets when making rice, or sprinkle a pinch on top of a baked potato. You can add them to salads or to salad dressing. This winter, I plan to dump large quantities into the soups and chilis I make every couple of days to add more flavor and nutrition in a time when I'm craving produce.

Here are some ideas of veggies to add to your powder: tomatoes or skins, carrot leaves or peelings, beet leaves and stems, radishes that are too spicy to eat or the leaves or stems, celery leaves, pea or bean pods left from shelling, any green leafy veggie that you have too much of, any herbs in surplus, pepper skins, broccoli/cauliflower stems, and any other veggies that you just have way too much of (or find a fantastic clearance rack bargain on).

Dehydrate leaves separately from more dense items that will take longer to dehydrate. Leaves only take a few hours in my dehydrator, while many veggies take 8 hours or longer. Cut denser veggies into small pieces or shred them to expose as much surface area as possible to the warm, dry air. This will also make it easier to pulverize.

Once you have your leaves and veggies dehydrated, toss them into a food processor or blender and pulse until you've got a nice, fine powder. Pour the mixture into a flour sifter to sift out large pieces. Reprocess the large pieces. Mix the powders well and you're done! You now have veggie powder to add to all sorts of savory dishes and reduced the amount of green matter you tossed into the garbage bin!

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